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Why We Need To Pay Attention To Tharoor's Push for Presidential-Type City Governments

15/08/2016 12:12 PM IST | Updated 17/08/2016 8:15 AM IST
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India's cities are a mess because local governments are totally inept and unaccountable. The 74th Amendment's attempt more than 20 years ago to establish urban local bodies as institutions of self-government has failed. But now there is hope. Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, has introduced a Bill in Parliament to fix these ailments.

Tharoor's Bill, introduced in Lok Sabha without fanfare this month, goes to the heart of the matter. It seeks to empower local municipal bodies. It provides them autonomy, makes them self-sufficient, compels state governments to give them powers, and restructures their constitution. The cherry on the cake is a directly elected head of the municipal body. "A directly elected Mayor," the Bill declares in its Objectives, "will be fully empowered with political, functional, and budgetary autonomy and would serve to fix both ownership and accountability for running the town or city."

The Bill aims to reduce fragmentation of leadership at local levels, improve decentralization, and enhance responsibility.

The Bill aims to reduce fragmentation of leadership at local levels, improve decentralization, and enhance responsibility. These are worthy aims if we want our cities to deliver good governance. Fragmentation of leadership of our cities is a serious problem. We have CMs, MLAs, MPs, DCs, municipal commissioners, councillors and mayors, all engaged in overlapping responsibilities. There is no clarity about who is accountable for what. Similarly, decentralization is a desperate need. A distant leader or government cannot possibly deliver quality or access. Responsibility in government is also a need of the hour, as we see every day with our cities choking with pollution, traffic jams, flooded streets and an overall poor quality of life.

Many of the Bill's features are similar to those prevalent for city governments under the US presidential system. A directly elected mayor is the best known such feature. But Tharoor's mayor also has other similarities: a fixed term; no vote in municipality meetings; and most significantly, the power to veto municipality decisions. However, in one important respect the proposed scheme is different from the presidential system. The mayor is given a council made up of other elected members of the municipality. This is a departure from a typical presidential system, and from the principle of separation of executive and legislative officials. Also missing is the presidential concept of midterm elections. Under Tharoor's plan, both the mayor and the municipality are elected for parallel terms.

This Bill will probably provide cities with good leaders, and check their arbitrariness, but how does Tharoor plan to bring municipalities real powers? His solution is to make it mandatory for states to devolve all powers assigned to local governments in the Constitution's Twelfth Schedule. In the clause asking states to give powers to municipalities, his Bill changes "may" to "shall" -- similar to what was done recently in passing the GST Bill. In addition, the Bill gives municipalities the authority to raise funds. As Tharoor says, "In order to truly empower city leadership, there must be corresponding functional, functionary and financial devolution."

Tharoor has introduced a far reaching, practicable and visionary Bill, but it likely won't fly.

There is more. The proposed Bill takes decentralization to a new limit. In order to make city governments effective, it lowers the population barrier from three lakhs per ward committee to one lakh. And it stipulates the formation of area sabhas -- which would consist of up to five polling booths -- with their own directly elected officials.

Tharoor has introduced a far-reaching, practicable and visionary Bill, but it likely won't fly. The Bill faces three major hurdles. First, the states won't allow it to pass because it encroaches on their turf. For what MLA or chief minister would allow a mayor to become more important? This is precisely why the 74th Amendment failed. Under the current system MPs and MLAs are being enticed with government funds to undertake executive projects in their constituencies (SAGY, MPLADS and so on). This stacks them all against Tharoor's proposal.

The Bill's second hurdle is pure politics. The proposal is unlikely to get support from either the BJP or Congress, for it is a threat to all major parties. A directly elected mayor may emerge from a small party or as an independent. This is exactly what happened in Shimla. The BJP and Congress controlled the council while the mayor came from CPI(M), in a direct election. As a result, neither mainstream party wanted the mayor to succeed. The state ended direct elections after just one term.

Tharoor's final problem is India's highly partisan system of lawmaking. Private member Bills have no chance of passing, especially those from an opposition party. Only 14 private member Bills have passed in history, and none since 1970.

How many more of our children have to die due to unruly traffic, potholes in roads, respiratory ailments and falling buildings, before we act?

But I am delighted that Tharoor has shown leadership and brought this Bill forward. In full disclosure, I have been after him since the launch of my book Why India Needs the Presidential System to help move India in the direction of adopting that system. For months I was pushing him to bring a Bill for a full conversion, not just for local governments. It was due, in part, to the hurdles that I have outlined above that Tharoor's Bill faces. Adopting the presidential system piecemeal is more difficult. However, in June Tharoor declared via a tweet that this Bill would be the first step.

With this effort, India's Parliament has now had two formal proposals to bring about some form of the presidential system. Well-respected leaders from both major parties have made attempts. In 2013, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a BJP General Secretary, asked Rajya Sabha to pass a resolution for "direct elections for chief executive at the Centre and States," and "separation of Executive from Legislature."

Needless to say, I highly commend Tharoor's Bill. We all know India's cities are not working. How many more of our children have to die due to unruly traffic, potholes in roads, respiratory ailments and falling buildings, before we act?

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