Too many moving parts

There is reluctance among state governments to pass on powers and responsibilities to mayors.

Published: February 17, 2014 2:12:23 am


Rotational reservations in city governments must be scrapped

In A panel discussion following the launch of Isher J Ahluwalia’s Postcards of Change in the capital last week, Sanjaya Baru raised an important question for all those working for better Indian urbanisation outcomes. He wondered why there was no urban politics similar to central or state politics. Why don’t people talk about excellent mayors from India, and why do state governments and chief ministers ensure that city governments are inconsequential? Could this be perhaps a manifestation of the tussle between khaas and aam netas? The answer is simple: Rotational reservation has killed urban politics at birth.

For MPs and MLAs, there is an incentive to seek re-election by doing good work. Hence, we see virtuous competition among state chief ministers, and good contributions from some outstanding union ministers. Moreover, there is stability, since reserved constituencies are frozen till 2026.

But at the city government level, elections for the mayor and councillors see rotation every time. Hence, even if a very successful woman SC mayor has done a good job, she’s almost certainly ineligible to contest again. Rotation is going to ensure that in the next election, her seat is now reserved for a ST or other categories. This leads to little incentive to do good work. Rotation occurs sequentially between SC, ST, Backward Classes and unreserved categories, and within these, the one-third reservation for women too is subject to rotation. This rotation in reservation is provided by Article 243T, a part of the original 74th amendment to the Constitution in 1993. Most states have formulated rules for such rotation. Indeed, some prescribe an annual rotation of mayors!

The consequences are evident. Poor city governance has hurt the urban poor the most, especially Dalits and minorities. One-term-only mayors and councillors have little accountability or stake in improving their cities. Despite much talk little action has been taken to improve city governance. There is extreme reluctance among state governments to pass on powers and responsibilities to mayors and councillors.

That said, Indian cities have seen sporadic successes, as documented in Isher Judge Ahluwalia’s excellent book. However, as Montek Ahluwalia once said, such successes are similar to Potemkin villages, driven by well-intentioned individuals, whereas the system as a whole is not geared towards better outcomes.

Indian discourse on urbanisation is usually on how India’s urban population is going to increase hugely (which it will); how we need to create new cities (yes, but over 90 per cent urban population will still be in existing cities); how technical fixes (transport, water and sanitation) can make cities better (yes, but who would champion and drive such fixes?); how our municipal governments are past their sell-by date (indeed they are); and how we need to junk existing municipal law and bring in structures that are more geared to the next 20 years (quite right). Scrapping rotation in reservation is one such change. Alas, the model municipal law circulated by the Union urban development ministry in 2003 is completely silent on rotational reservations.

If we have city governments that deliver good civic services, the non-rich would be the biggest beneficiaries. The rich are moving into their gated communities, it is the not so well-off who suffer the adversities of dysfunctional city governments. The new Union government in June 2014 could transform urban India by scrapping Article 243T altogether, or at least making the reservations in city governments on the same footing as reservations in MP/MLA constituencies.

Shailesh Pathak is president, corporate strategy, Srei Infrastructure Finance Ltd, Delhi & Mumbai

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