In about a month, Delhi will hold its municipal elections. These elections will test if Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party remains as popular as it was when it swept to power in the state with a historic mandate two years ago. The upcoming polls will also bear out if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal is strong enough to help the BJP, which currently controls Delhi’s municipalities, overcome the anti-incumbency mood among voters. Not to be left behind, the Congress also has plans for these elections — it is enlisting newly-elected Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh as a star campaigner, the man who defeated AAP.
Delhi, for sure, is all set for a high-decibel campaign that could go either way: It could be a repeat of what we saw in Uttar Pradesh, where real issues took the backseat and ugly spats and personal attacks, often with caste and communal overtones, took centre stage; or it could turn into a great debate, to raise the issues affecting local body governance and seek solutions, not just in the context of Delhi but for the fast urbanising landscape of the nation too.
One fears the first scenario is what that will likely unravel as the campaign heats up in the coming days, but one also hopes that our leaders will see reason not to let that happen. This is because:
In India, urbanisation is rapidly on the rise. By 2030, 40% of its populations will be living in cities and towns. If we were to take the people living in urban agglomerates, that number would be well past the halfway mark.
To say that the pace of development in our cities has lagged the pace of their population growth would be an understatement. There is no single city or town in the country, which scores a perfect 10/10 on commonly used parameters for assessing urban amenities.
More than half of India’s urban households have no access to drainage facilities; only about a third have solid waste management; only 10% of the urban population has access to a sewer network; three-fourths of urban residents use private vehicles to commute and one out of six people live in slums, according to a survey of Indian cities by Janaagraha, a Bengaluru-based advocacy group. The numbers are not much different when it comes to schools and healthcare facilities, which are critical to what Modi would call the dream of a “new India”.
Underscoring these deficiencies is a flawed structure of governance, which, in turn, has resulted in urban local bodies lacking capacities and resources to provide what residents need for a decent living. Even though constitutional amendments were made in the 1980s to empower local bodies and the intent of building a robust third layer of governance was reinforced through recommendations of successive finance commissions and federal policies, most states have either resisted or moved slowly in devolving power and resources to local bodies.
There is no uniformity across India in how the responsibility and resources of providing urban amenities and services are shared between the state government and the local bodies. In many cases, there are overlaps and multiple authorities that not only affect the quality of services but also cause citizens a lot of hardship. Most local bodies depend on resources that flow from the central or the state government. Few of them have done enough to find new avenues to raise financial resources on their own. Transparency and accountability on part of the local bodies is a major concern and affect a local body’s ability to raise its own revenue.
For long, policy makers and planners have ignored the issue of local body governance. Political parties never paid much attention because the urban vote didn’t matter much in deciding who gets to rule the country or a state. Recent local body elections in Mumbai and Odisha have showed that may no longer be the case. The upcoming polls in Delhi will reinforce that.
Rajesh Mahapatra is chief content officer, Hindustan Times. He tweets @RajeshMahapatra