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December 18, 2008

Development Strategy|Governance & Politics

Leaders for Our Cities

By Nitin Desai


The terrorist attack in Mumbai exposed the gross inadequacies of governance at many levels.  At the local level the most conspicuous failure was the absence of a leader coordinating the operation, informing and reassuring the public and badgering the State and Central governments for timely help and support.  We had to make do with a couple of incompetents from the State government who failed to clear the confusion or assuage the anger which swept through the city


This happened because there is no elected official in charge of Mumbai or any of our great cities, with the exception of Delhi.  The mayor is usually a non-entity (test: name the mayor of Mumbai without googling) and the civil servant in charge of the city administration is a middle level official in the IAS hierarchy.  He and the police chief are answerable to the State administration and not to the local political authority.


This is absurd.  A mega city like Mumbai with a GDP that exceeds that of most countries cannot be run as an additional charge for State Government ministers and secretaries.  It needs its own political authority particularly in a situation of crisis like a terrorist attack or a massive flood. (Think Rudi Giuliani and 9/11 in New York).


The eight or ten mega-cities must have a government that is relatively independent of the State governments because they are national in their demographics and their economic linkages.  They need not be constituted as separate States or U.T.s.  But they should have a Mayor who has full control over not just municipal services but also local taxation and finance, law and order and economic development.


There is a case for going all the way and electing the Mayor of these mega cities directly. A parliamentary system accommodates and even encourages the arithmetic of caste and creed, which may be acceptable or even necessary at the State or National level.  In the mega city where linguistic and religious diversity is far greater a directly elected Mayor may be able to transcend these divisions because at the local level voters are swayed much more by performance in the delivery of public services.  Sheila Dixit’s hat trick in Delhi is a case in point.


Our mega-cities draw in people from all parts of the country, often from minority or depressed groups, who have sought to escape from poverty or persecution.  These newcomers to the maximum cities show a typical immigrant mentality - a willingness to accept squalor, as even that may be better than what was left behind, and living in communal ghettos for reassurance and social protection. But the immigrant mentality also includes frugality and high savings, and ambitions which drive a demand for education


The leadership that we seek for our mega-cities must connect with this broader urban base.  A successful mayor must look beyond the middle class constituency that is mainly concerned with law and order and municipal services to this broader constituency whose hopes are focused on their economic future. 


This is another reason for proposing a directly elected mayor as the preferred option.  Tinkering with the present system by making the Municipal Commissioner and the Police Commissioner answerable to an elected municipal council, rather than to some superior in the State administration, may deliver on law and order and municipal services.  But these appointed officials are unlikely to have the entrepreneurial zeal that enhances the economic prospects for the crowd of ambitious immigrants.


Will electoral arithmetic lead to an anti-immigrant fascist being elected mayor in any of the mega cities? Not very likely. The demographics of the mega cities, which do not have any overwhelming identity-based majority, will create a compulsion to respect immigrant sensibilities. One must not under estimate locals vs. outsiders tensions and the Shiv Sena’s electoral strength in Mumbai, for example, comes from that. But even in the constituency based municipal system, electoral compulsions forced the Shiv Sena to water down its anti-outsider rhetoric. This compulsion would have been greater in a city wide direct election.  I am convinced that none of the Thackerays can win the mayorship in Mumbai in a direct election and it is precisely this lack of majority support, which leads to their goonda tactics. 


In principle the establishment of a directly elected mayor for the mega-cities does not require a constitutional amendment.  The 74th amendment to the constitution sought to strengthen urban governance but failed to bite the bullet by leaving the crucial modalities of mayoral choice to the States.  That is where the rub lies. 


A directly elected mega-city mayor would be a formidable counter weight to the State Chief Minister.  A mayor, judged competent by electoral success and the mass media, will put pressure to perform on the State level politician in his or her bailiwick and will be seen as a threat by the State Chief Minister. Moreover why would State level politicians surrender their control on lucrative land deals, infrastructure contracts and the powers of patronage that come with the control over police forces?  Worse still, provincial politicians have little interest in better management of the mega cities with a national footprint.  In fact their electoral compulsions often lead them to see cities like Mumbai or Bengaluru as a threat to development in the rest of the State.


The political momentum for directly elected mayors has to come from the citizens of the mega-cities.  Their electoral weight may be modest.  But they have a formidable economic weight and their political voice is greatly amplified by the media whose most influential electronic component is predominantly metropolitan in its sensibilities.  A citizen’s movement for urban governance reform is the only way that the idea of a fully empowered mayor for mega-cities will move.  It should be supported by national level politicians because it will impose on the federal system a grid of mega-city administrations that will be national in their orientation.  An added bonus will be the fast track it will provide for eight or ten competent politicians to rise quickly to national prominence.


This change in urban governance will not come easily.  But we must demand it not just for coping better with the next crisis but for rescuing our mega cities from gradual collapse.

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