Not just for citizens of nation’s capital city, but for countrymen at large, the constant skirmishes and running feuds between the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and the Chief Minister have signified a theatre of the absurd. Hardly a day passes without the citizenry having to watch in dismay the unseemly duels, no holds-barred exchanges between the top AAP leadership and BJP politicos.
Adding a bizarre element to the familiar shenanigans, what has now come about by way of an ordinance promulgated by the Central government, following the 11 May judgement by Supreme Court that restored control over services to the NCT government, has brought into focus the irrelevance of the fracas that has gone on for years.
While the NCT government has termed the ordinance “unconstitutional”, and challenging “the majesty of the Supreme Court”, the Central government, citing “errors” in the judgement, maintains in its review plea that the apex court’s ruling is contrary to the ninejudge bench decision in December 1996 in the NDMC vs state of Punjab case.
The verdict had concluded that despite the insertion of Article 239AA (special provisions with respect to Delhi), the NCT is not elevated to the status of a state. In its May 11 judgement the apex court ruled that except for three entries in the state list ~ public order, police and land, Delhi government had legislative and executive power over all other subjects, including services.
The Centre’s refrain questions the Supreme Court’s premise of equating the NCT of Delhi, a Union Territory, to a state, and investing it with legislative and executive authority similar to that of a fullfledged state. The Centre asserts that the sole source of legislative power over a UT is that of Parliament.
True it is that acrimony that has surfaced over last few years of the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government in Delhi was seldom, if ever, observed in the case of his predecessors, including the 15-year stewardship of Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. By way of a facile explanation, some ascribe the fracas to overbearing, intolerant Central government leadership as much as an irascible AAP supremo, his vaulting ambition and petulance.
It’s not so simple. It’s more a fault of the system. Given the status, trappings, and halo around an anointed chief minister of a state, that too with a 67/70 majority in Assembly, it’s natural that the incumbent would hanker for power and influence. Recall how with their avowed unconventional politics, AAP made an astonishing debut, generated a wave of optimism to cleanse the country’s debauched politics.
The systemic fault-line lies in the aura of statehood bestowed on Delhi. It has been argued for long that most capital cities across the world have as a rule empowered ‘municipal’ heads like a mayor, while the respective federal government controls its administration. Delhi, the capital city, would require a national perspective in administering its instruments of governance, which can be ensured only by the central authority.
Strangely the irrefutable empirical evidence of statehood for the capital city being untenable and impractical is ignored by political masters. Both Congress and BJP have been guilty of promising full statehood for Delhi in their election manifestos, reversing the stand when in power at the Centre. Ponder the chequered record of Delhi’s governance.
Announced at the Coronation Durbar on 12 December 1911 as British India’s new capital, a 1912 notification brought the tehsil of Delhi and the Mehrauli thana to be administered as a separate province under a Chief Commissioner. The Government of Part ‘C’ States Act, 1951 provided for the capital city to be administered by the President through a Chief Commissioner/Lt Governor, with a Legislative Assembly and Council of Ministers. The Legislature had no power to make laws in respect of public order, police, formation and functions of the municipal corporation and other local authorities.
Then came the States Reorganisation Commission in 1953, which concluded that the dual control of Delhi resulted in “marked deterioration of administrative standards”, leading to the enactment of the Constitution (Seventh) Amendment Act, 1956, that abolished Delhi’s Legislative Assembly and Council of Ministers, instead, making Delhi a Union Territory under direct administration of the President.
As for local autonomy and democratic representation, the Commission suggested a municipal corporation for Delhi (which came into existence on 7 April 1958, in terms of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957). A rising crescendo for ‘popular’ government from power and perkshungry netas resulted in the Delhi Administration Act,1966, providing for a Metropolitan Council of 56 elected and five nominated members, with a 4- member executive council, one of them designated as Chief Executive Councilor.
The Metropolitan Council had no legislative powers; an overlap of functions and conflict of jurisdiction between the MCD and other agencies rendered them dysfunctional. There followed the Balakrishnan Committee on Reorganisation of Delhi, which, in its December 1989 report, suggested Delhi to be a Union Territory with a Legislative Assembly and a Council of Ministers.
It recommended the MCD to be broken into several municipal corporations, while electricity, water, sewage would be transferred to two new Boards, and fire prevention, health and arterial roads to Delhi Administration, leaving national highways in Delhi and roads in New Delhi to be managed by the central government, and all other city roads by respective MCDs. Its recommendations regarding the MCD were not accepted.
Parliament passed the Constitution (69th Amendment) Act, 1991 and Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991, providing for a 70-member directly elected Legislative Assembly and a Council of Ministers.
The NCT Act let most of the executive powers remain with the President, so also powers over services. Implementing the verdict by the Supreme Court in the case of Government of NCT Delhi vs Union of India, 2018, regarding powers and responsibilities of elected government and Lt Governor, Parliament passed the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Amendment Act 2021, which came into force on 27 April 2021. With a plethora of elected and other agencies, overload of Delhi’s governance structure has been a huge drag. In addition to 272 councillors in the erstwhile three Municipalities, 70 MLAs in the NCT government and seven MPs, there is the New Delhi Municipal Council for the cloistered Lutyens’ zone, and Cantonment Board, not to talk of the Union government controlling its land and policing.
Multiplicity of institutions, often with overlapping jurisdictions and sometimes contradictory goals, make for sub-optimal output and outcome, a lot of waste. The two key figures in a civic body are the Mayor and the Commissioner, the Mayor providing requisite political leadership, the Commissioner functioning as executive head like the city managers of American cities, who are professionals and specialists in city management answerable to the elected Council. While a
Mayor in an Indian city municipality is seldom empowered, the Commissioner is constrained by different committees with heterogeneous character operating as sub-centres of decision-making without coordination.
Local bodies in public perception are cesspools of corruption; councillors and executives in a cosy relationship to share the pie. As revealed by the Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems 2017 report, public perception endures ~ of cities in dire need of duly empowered municipalities as institutions for delivery in areas such as sanitation, health, education, mobility, and housing, matters of real concern for the citizenry.
A compact, less diffused, cohesive and cooperative, and much pruned structure will usher in a promising paradigm of urban management, worthy of being replicated across the country.
The Central Government needs to help evolve an optimal role model of governance for the nation’s capital, pragmatic and realistic, and conducive to people’s basic civic needs being adequately addressed.
(The writer is former CMD of CONCOR, and now Distinguished Fellow at Asian Institute of Transport Development)