Does the merger of the three Delhi municipalities really deepen the spirit of decentralization?

On April 19, the Union government pushed an act through Parliament to merge the three Delhi local governments into a single Delhi municipality. The debate sparked by this decision reminds us that despite the presence of local authorities, the spirit of decentralization is lacking in India.

Public debates on the new Municipal Corporation of Delhi controversy have focused on two issues. First, was the merger a good decision? Which arrangement is better to deal with Delhi’s garbage crisis or financial problems: three local governments or one – or for that matter, two or four?

Home Minister Amit Shah justified the merger by saying the single company would operate more efficiently. A serious response must identify the objectives of local governments (a contested issue) and carefully assess the arrangements made in Delhi. But in general, policymakers have not explored what kind of local governance arrangements would suit India’s major cities and metropolitan areas.

Most cities have unique local governments due to historical legacy, not scrutiny. A review of the governance needs of big cities should find a place high on the public agenda, instead of impromptu and one-sided decisions to replace the government architecture.

The second question in public debates is: who has the power to decide on the modalities of local governance? Local government is listed as a state in the Constitution, which means that the state legislature has legislative jurisdiction. However, Delhi is an exception as its state legislature operates with reduced powers, which itself is a matter of controversy.

The Union government argues that it has the power to reconstitute the local governments of Delhi while the state government argues otherwise. Opponents note that the arrangement with three local governments itself came from the Delhi state legislature in 2011, not the national parliament.

The second question raises a deep problem of decentralization, a radical feature of governance that was formally enshrined in the Constitution via an amendment 30 years ago. The question is how the spirit of decentralization affects decisions about local governance arrangements.

Whether the power to create local government rests with the national parliament or the state legislature, both are interested parties since decentralization will subsequently affect their own powers and responsibilities. Indeed, realpolitik suggests that substantial decentralization is unlikely to be voluntary.

For the benefit of the ruling party

In the current controversy, opponents accuse the national government of centralization which benefits the ruling party. Proponents of the move accuse the Delhi state government of resisting the merger of local governments for its own political benefit. Without suggesting a false equivalence, we note that both accusations are probably partly true.

Decentralization suffers when implemented centrally, whether by national or state government. Neither government is particularly concerned about the opinions of local governments and citizens of Delhi. (We disregard politicized support for the merger, as local governments in Delhi are currently owned by the same centralized party that controls the national government.)

This leads us to ask how the spirit of decentralization should shape decisions about local governance arrangements, the subject of our book Govern locally. The constitutional amendments for decentralization make the mind very clear. The 74th Amendment views urban local governments as “vibrant democratic units of self-government” with “such power and authority as is necessary to enable them to carry out the responsibilities assigned to them.”

The letter and the spirit of the Constitution have three implications. First, states should have independent bodies to organize democratic local government elections and share public finances. Such bodies have been established by state legislatures across India as provided by the constitutional amendment. Second, local governments should have the autonomy to organize their own affairs – naturally, within constitutional parameters also applicable to state and national governments.

Third, since local governments would now have governance responsibilities previously assumed by state governments, the latter would have to transfer the corresponding facilities, personnel and tacit knowledge, thereby creating capacity within local governments for the new responsibilities. . In fact, the local governments were not autonomous from the state governments and the corresponding facilities and personnel were not transferred.

Moreover, not even the Union government that introduced the constitutional amendment subsequently possessed it, let alone promoted its intent. It has initiated and funded mega urban development programs (such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the Smart City Mission) giving direction to state governments to strengthen state agencies (“parastatals”) rather than state governments. local.

Election gains

The recent Delhi controversy mostly ignores the spirit of decentralization. Naturally, the tugs of short-term electoral calculations have shaped the debate over the merger of Delhi’s local governments. But there seems to be little else in the debate, and certainly no attention to the creation of “dynamic democratic units of autonomy”, whether the city has one or three local governments. .

Even in Kerala, despite its reputation for decentralization, state law gives the state government the power to determine how local governments operate. Such top-down control erodes people’s participation in local governance and also erodes decentralized service delivery. While even big cities like Delhi are unable to run their affairs on their own, the problems are far greater in the smaller towns that make up most of the urban spaces. (According to the 2011 census, out of 4,041 urban local governments, only about 1% have more than one million inhabitants.)

Today, when there is a clear hierarchy of importance between levels of government and local government receives the least respect, we end with the encouraging example of Bharat Singh from Kota in Rajasthan. In 2015, he became a panch of the Kundanpur panchayat after serving in the state legislature and cabinet. Bharat Singh said he could do things in the panchayat that he could not do as a minister. This is a call to place greater value on local government.

When we, the citizens ourselves, turn to the power-soaked perspective of national and state governments where local autonomy matters little, then we are not questioning the problematic terms of governance debates. Whether Delhi has one government or three, the arguments of proponents and opponents rest on the tired field of power aggrandizement and nothing else. The spirit of decentralization demands a different set of questions – about capacity and autonomy for self-governance, swa-raj.

Suraj Jacob teaches development and policy at Azim Premji University. Babu Jacob retired as Chief Secretary to the Government of Kerala after a career in public service. Their recent book is titled Governance Locally: Institutions, Policies and Implementation in Indian Cities (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

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