Last week, the Tamil Nadu government extended the term of special officers managing local bodies by six more months, the fourth such extension. Hundreds of local bodies have been running without elected members for 18 months, while 18 Assembly seats have been vacant for nine months, with both matters stuck in litigation.
Why are the local body and Assembly seats vacant?
Local body elections scheduled in October 2016 were stalled by the Madras High Court after the Opposition challenged the way the poll process was being carried out. Although the court ordered that polls be conducted a few months later, the government then sought more time citing delimitation procedures, and the fact that another case was pending in the Supreme Court.
The 18 Assembly seats have been vacant since September 2017 after the Speaker disqualified these MLAs, rebels of the ruling party, after they had written to the Governor seeking the removal of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. The 18 MLAs moved the high court, a two-judge Bench of which delivered a split verdict on June 14. A third judge, Justice S Vimala, was appointed but the 18 MLAs questioned the appointment, following which the Supreme Court replaced her with Justice M Sathyanarayanan last week.
Are the MLAs willing to fight on for as long as it takes?
One of them, Thangatamilselvan, has decided to withdraw his case in the high court. His decision is in protest against further delay in the judgment. Thangatamilselvan said he would rather face an election than go for a long legal battle abandoning the constituency and its people. Thangatamilselvan, incidentally, had made critical remarks against Madras Chief Justice Indira Banerjee, who had led the original two-judge Bench that delivered a split verdict. The state advocate general has issued a showcause notice to the MLA.
What was the ground for stalling the local body polls?
Initially, the Opposition led by the DMK had challenged the polls citing law and order problems, irregularities, inadequate ST reservation, and a hurried announcement. Although it stalled the polls, the HC dismissed the Opposition argument that reservation should be based on Census 2011 rather than on 1991. As it turned out, the state government did launch a delimitation process based on Census 2011, but by then the DMK had moved the Supreme Court. Although the DMK has since tried to withdraw its case, it remains stuck amid appeals filed by the State Election Commission. Now, the state government and the DMK are blaming each other for the delay.
What happens when a constituency or a ward is without an MLA or a councillor?
The system could still run on autopilot. An example is Puducherry, where local body polls have not been held for seven years and special officers are still delivering services. In May, the Supreme Court directed the Puducherry government to complete the delimitation process in four weeks and hold the panchayat and municipal elections. Seven weeks later, highly placed sources in the government said they will move the SC again seeking more time as the delimitation process is still on.
“Without an elected government, a state could run with the help of special officers or police or the Army, but that defeats the very meaning of democracy,” said K Chandru, a retired judge of the Madras HC. “Unfortunately, if a government wants to delay an election, they can delay it for as many days or months or years… In Tamil Nadu, the government and the Opposition were party to the current scenario, and knowingly or unknowingly the court also played a role, and pending cases are being cited as a reason for this crisis now.”
Have there been problems in governance?
Local Administration Minister S P Velumani said special officers are doing their job well and several projects have been completed since 2016. He denied reports of delays in execution of projects, and cited examples in the Chennai Corporation.
Local media has been reporting long delays in civic works, blockage of underground sewerage, a drinking water shortage and a mosquito menace. The special officers have faced some controversy too. In Chennai, the council of the corporation special officers ratified a proposal to levy a user fee for garbage collection, which is being calculated on the basis of property tax.
This has become an issue with residents of municipalities that have newly been added to the Greater Chennai Corporation. Before the annexation, these residents of the suburbs were paying more property tax than Chennai city residents. Their property tax, however, has not been revised following the annexation. As a result, residents of the suburbs will be paying more for garbage collection than city residents, although the city generates more garbage than the suburbs. In Coimbatore, the corporation decided to privatise the city’s 24×7 water supply scheme to a French Company, Suez Projects. This has led to protests against the corporation, run by special officers.