- Cities are at the forefront of the fight against climate change, and the local bodies play a vital role in the on-ground action.
- Municipalities are critical, because councillors serve as the ‘first-mile’ elected representatives of citizens at the neighbourhood level and deal with services related to water, sanitation, solid waste management and mobility.
- Timely elections for the urban local bodies are yet to be taken seriously in many states. Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports highlight delay in municipal elections.
- The views in this commentary are those of the authors.
As the Karnataka assembly elections captured the nation’s attention, another equally important democratic process was taking place silently in Uttar Pradesh’s 760 municipalities. The state held its municipal council elections between May 4 and 11, after a delay of five months.
This was a result of the Uttar Pradesh Backward Classes Commission fast-tracking its submissions on reservations in Municipality elections as the Supreme Court had stepped in, which otherwise would have postponed the elections by another three to four months.
The important question that is being determined by several court cases across different states is this — whether or not the delays in municipal elections in India will end for good. Will we have Nagar Sabhas in our cities without a time-lapse as we do with our Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas?
The judgement of the Supreme Court of India (SC) in 2022 for the Suresh Mahajan vs. the State of Madhya Pradesh case, may have ushered in a new era of stability and predictability for municipalities in India.
Today, it is inconceivable for elections to the Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha to be inordinately delayed. State governments, however, have continued to delay elections to local governments with impunity. According to Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s reports on the implementation of the 74th constitutional amendment, across the states of Karnataka, Haryana, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Tripura, and Chhattisgarh a total of 1,416 municipalities did not have elected councils.
Tamil Nadu eventually held municipal elections in February 2022, after a delay of five years, while Odisha held municipal elections in March 2022 after a delay of three years. Madhya Pradesh conducted municipal elections in July 2022 after the Suresh Mahajan Judgement forced the hand of the State. The situation is the same in village panchayats. In fact, in many states, elections to municipalities and panchayats are held around the same time.
In the ‘Suresh Mahajan’ judgement, the SC has unequivocally stated that under no conditions are elections to municipalities be delayed. It says that the State Government and the State Election Commission (SEC) are obliged to ensure that the newly elected body is installed in all municipalities before the expiry of the five-year term of the outgoing council. Even in cases of council dissolution by the state government under relevant municipal acts, the administrator cannot be allowed to continue beyond six months.
The judgement also rejects the two excuses often used by state governments to delay elections to municipalities, i.e., ward delimitations and, more recently, Other Backward Class (OBC) reservations. The SC has emphasised that if there is a need to undertake ward delimitation, it ought to be commenced well in advance to ensure elections are held within the prescribed time-frame.
Therefore, SECs in the absence of new ward boundaries, are expected to conduct elections based on the previously established ward boundaries. In the case of OBC reservations, too, the SC has directed that elections be completed on time to accommodate the process of fulfilling the necessary conditions (forming a commission for determining reservations, providing local-level population data, etc.)
The Suresh Mahajan judgement appears to have triggered prompt action from state governments like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Haryana. Municipal elections have concluded in Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, with Karnataka and Maharashtra responding to the judgement with some delay. This particular judgement is not the first on the subject. It came on the back of important SC judgements such as Kishan Singh Tomar (an ex-standing committee chairperson) in 2006, Vikas Kishanrao Gawali in March 2021, and Rahul Ramesh Wagh in May 2022.
The need for elected leaders at the first-mile
Municipalities are critical since councillors serve as ‘first-mile’ elected citizens’ representatives at the neighbourhood level. India has 87,000+ councillors across its 4,700+ cities, representing an average of over 4,300 citizens in each ward (ward populations could even go as high as 50,000). The councillor serves as the bridge between citizens and governments at the first mile of a citizen’s life, on their street and in their neighbourhood. Of these 87,000+ councillors, at least 46% are women, as against 9% in Vidhan Sabhas and 14% in the Lok Sabha.
The 21st-century human development priorities of environmental sustainability, primary healthcare, gender equality and jobs and livelihoods are global in scale but require definitive local action. Localisation of these agendas by empowering local governments and communities has not yet featured as a priority for state governments in India.
The Fifteenth Finance Commission allocated Rs. 76,000 crores to local governments (of which Rs. 26,000 crores are for municipalities) towards primary healthcare and recommended close engagement with elected councillors and communities in planning for the same, citing the Kerala model. During the pandemic, councillors in Kerala set up community kitchens, tele-called households for tracing and testing, and engaged with healthcare workers.
Councillors play an equally important role in building sustainable and climate-friendly cities by directing municipal budgets, monitoring implementation, and having deep community engagement. Municipal budgets and state capacities can be directed to building infrastructure for public transportation, walkability, and cycling. Conducting regular and frequent ward committee meetings will help monitor implementation and develop plans for the restoration of lakes and public spaces, sustainable waste management, and emergency response during heat waves, floods, and cyclones by synergising efforts from parastatals and municipal bodies. Deep community engagement at a household level can help adopt climate-friendly practices like water conservation and waste segregation at source.
India will also host the Urban 20 Mayors’ Summit in July 2023 in Ahmedabad, where elected leaders of 20 global cities will present their joint recommendations on encouraging environmentally-responsible behaviours, ensuring water security, and accelerating climate finance to the Government of India.
State governments must use this as an opportunity to give local leaders a chance to act locally on climate change. In his address at the All-India Mayor’s Conference in 2021, the Prime Minister highlighted the important role mayors can play in ensuring the cleanliness of cities, preventing water scarcity, and supporting local livelihoods. His emphasis on Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE), now a priority under India’s G20 leadership, is also about localising action on global agendas.
Councillors can discharge their role as first-mile elected representatives only if they are in office in the first place. We need timely elections for our Nagar Sabhas, like our Vidhan Sabhas and the Lok Sabha. The newly elected government in Karnataka should prioritise the election of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike within the first 100 days and restore the democratic process within the city. That could be a lasting legacy of recent SC judgements as we stand at the threshold of 30 years of the 74th constitutional amendment.
Srikanth Viswanathan is the CEO of Janaagraha and Kesava Balaji, is an Associate, Urban Policy, Janaagraha.
Banner Image: Voters registering their names before casting their votes at a polling booth in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Photo by Public.Resource.Org/Flickr.