Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine
Should mayors be directly elected?
Each time an Indian city is hit by a major urban crisis, we hear exasperated
queries about why our cities are so dysfunctional. While there are multiple
reasons for India’s urban woes, one of the underlying problems is the absence of
powerful and politically accountable leadership in the city. Our cities have a
weak and fragmented institutional architecture in which multiple agencies with
different bosses pull the strings of city administration. Understandably, the
most touted urban governance reform is that of having a directly elected Mayor.
Recent reports indicate that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen on this reform
and has asked the Urban Development Ministry to consider ways of introducing it.
Mayoral reform has now made its way into Parliament with Shashi Tharoor
introducing a private member’s bill to amend the Constitution for strengthening
local governments. While the chances of any private member’s bill, least of all
a Constitution Amendment, becoming law is extremely low, it plays an important
role in shaping parliamentary and public discourse. The bill aims to establish
strong leadership for cities by providing for a directly elected and empowered
Mayor. It also touches the right notes on other key urban governance reforms
such as mandating the constitution of area sabhas and ward committees and
strengthening the devolution of functions to local governments. However, it is
the attempt to mandate directly elected Mayors for all municipalities that
raises some questions.
An empowered Mayor
The passage of the 74th Constitution Amendment in 1992 resulted in Urban Local
Bodies (ULBs) — Nagar Panchayats, Municipal Councils and Municipal Corporations
— becoming a constitutionally recognised “institution of self-government”.
However, it did not prescribe the manner of election, tenure or powers of the
Mayors/Chairpersons of ULBs. Mr. Tharoor’s bill seeks to alter this. It mandates
the direct election of the Mayor, fixes the Mayor’s term to be coterminous with
that of the municipality, and makes the Mayor the executive head of the
Vesting the executive powers of the municipality with the Mayor would be a very
positive move. Most Indian cities still follow the Commissionerate system of
municipal administration, a British legacy, in which the State
government-appointed Commissioner is the executive head of the city while the
Mayor has a largely ceremonial role. This is an anomaly. In a democracy,
executive power should vest with a person or a body that is democratically
accountable. However, this does not necessitate the Mayor to be directly
elected. After all, we do not directly elect the Prime Minster or the Chief
Minister. Still they enjoy wide powers and are democratically accountable.
Mayors do not enjoy similar powers not because they are not directly elected,
but because State governments exercise enormous control over ULBs — politically,
administratively and financially.
For responsive urban governance, we need a powerful political executive in the
city with more autonomy, whether directly or indirectly elected. An empowered
executive at the city can also be achieved through an indirectly elected
“Mayor-in-Council” system in which, much like the cabinet system in Parliament,
the Mayor has to maintain the support of the majority of the council. There is
little evidence to suggest that directly elected mayors are better. In fact,
States like Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh which introduced directly elected
Mayors reversed the decision due to the difficulties posed by such a system.
A fundamental issue with a directly elected Mayor is that instead of enabling
efficiency, it might actually result in gridlock in administration, especially
when the Mayor and the majority of elected members of the city council are from
different political parties. Notably, Mr. Tharoor’s bill gives the Mayor veto
powers over some of the council’s resolutions and also lets the Mayor nominate
members of the Mayor-in-Council and vest it with powers. Essentially, it
centralises power in the hands of the Mayor and his nominees and creates a
political executive which neither enjoys the support of the elected council nor
needs its acquiescence for taking decisions.
Devolution is the key
A more fundamental question to consider is this: even if a directly elected
mayoral system is a relatively good reform, should it be made mandatory for all
municipalities under the Constitution? India is one of the few countries where
the powers of the local government are laid out in the federal Constitution.
However, local government is still under List II of the Seventh Schedule of the
Constitution. Hence only the State is empowered to make laws on this subject. In
such a federal system, constitutional provisions should only lay down the broad
institutional framework for local governments. But since States are often
reluctant to devolve functions to local government, it makes sense to mandate
such devolution in the Constitution. However, the Constitution may not be the
ideal instrument for prescribing the manner in which the head of a local
government is elected.
More cities should perhaps institute a directly elected mayor. But making it the
only way through which Mayors can be elected limits the options of cities and
States. Perhaps Mr. Tharoor should first make efforts to have it introduced in
Thiruvananthapuram, his constituency, before attempting to institute it in ULBs
across India. An empowered political executive for the city can be achieved in
multiple ways, including a directly elected mayor. When the U.K. sought to
reform local governments, a directly elected mayor was only one of the three
options given to the local governments. India’s stagnating urban governance
system needs major reform, but it shouldn’t be driven by using a sledgehammer.
Creating an empowered and accountable political executive for cities is
important, but a directly elected mayor should be a political option, not a
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