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Why Delhi must vote in the municipal elections

By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Nov 23, 2022 12:27 PM IST

From registering births, deaths, and marriages to clearing garbage; from overseeing primary education to providing health care services; from maintaining colony roads to managing crematoriums, MCD touches 20 million lives, several times, every day.

In India’s bustling capital, in, inarguably, the country’s most important Union Territory (with an elected government to boot), the lives of roughly 20 million residents are not as impacted by either the central government or the UT’s elected government as they are by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

With MCD elections around the corner (December 4), it is important that the 14.6 million people eligible to vote in them recognise this. (PTI Photo) PREMIUM
With MCD elections around the corner (December 4), it is important that the 14.6 million people eligible to vote in them recognise this. (PTI Photo)

From registering births, deaths, and marriages to clearing garbage; from overseeing primary education to providing health care services; from maintaining colony roads to managing crematoriums, MCD touches 20 million lives, several times, every day. With an annual budget of 15,200 crore and around 150,000 employees, MCD is usually the first port of call for everything. How Delhi’s residents feel about the city-state is usually a result of the quality of their interactions with MCD, not the government of the UT or the Centre. And how they experience Delhi is usually a function of the body’s efficiency in managing public services and spaces.

With MCD elections around the corner (December 4), it is important that the 14.6 million people eligible to vote in them recognise this. For, voting patterns indicate that Delhites have been comparatively indifferent towards the civic elections . Delhi saw a turnout of 60.6% in the 2019 national elections; and 62.82% in the 2020 assembly elections. In 2014 and 2015, the corresponding numbers were 65.07% and 67.47% respectively. In comparison, the last two civic polls in 2017 and 2012 witnessed 53- 54% voter turnout, with parts of South Delhi seeing the lowest electoral participation.

The unified MCD came into existence by subsuming three erstwhile corporations of Delhi on May 22 this year and the powerful civic body now covers a service area of 1,397.3 square kilometres — covering around 94.22% of the city’s geographical expanse and 96% of its population. MCD has both a legislative wing (the house of councillors that drafts the contours of municipal regulations and its policies) and an executive wing (the largest department in the city, which oversees the housekeeping of the national capital). On December 4, voters will pick 250 representatives for a revamped unified MCD.

What MCD does

With 35 key departments and a workforce of almost 150,000, MCD holds the answer to most of the problems facing the city’s residents.

Potholes in colony roads? Check.

Drainage issues? Check.

Park maintenance? Check.

Garbage collection? Check.

Encroachment? Check.

Prevention of diseases? Check.

Managing building permits and permissions? Check.

Managing stray animals? Check.

MCD’s policies also impact the host of taxes and levies the city’s residents pay directly or indirectly (such as property taxes or transfer taxes). They also decide who gets health and trade licences, which factory can operate where, and whether, and where, street vendors are allowed.

As a senior official from the law department of the civic body explained: “Chapter three of the DMC or Delhi Municipal Corporation Act divides the functions of the municipal body into 21 obligatory and other discretionary functions. The obligatory functions include sanitation, municipal waste collection, birth-death registration, regulation of trade, enforcement of building by-laws, and maintenance of parks and drains while some of the discretionary work includes establishment and maintenance of gymnasia, community halls, libraries and relief work targeting disadvantaged communities.”

Deep Chand Mathur, former director (P&I) who was with MCD from 1980 to 2011, said that MCD is the main housekeeper of the Capital, impacting the lives of everyone across a diverse terrain of urban, rural, resettlement and unauthorised boroughs. “Besides the removal of 11,000 tonnes of garbage daily, the corporation runs five major hospitals, an entire set of primary health centres and primary schools providing education to 800,000 children, most of whom come from economically disadvantaged groups. It manages parks, drains and roads (less than 60ft wide) around our homes.”

Data from MCD indicates the scale of its operations. Its primary schools have 874,472 students and health care facilities run by MCD saw 12 million patient-visits over the last year. Its hospitals conducted 3.5 million tests and admitted over 80,000 patients.

In 2012, the Sheila Dikshit government divided the then unified MCD into three smaller units, North, South and East MCD — a move aimed at creating smaller governance units for better administration. However, the idea did not work as expected and the trifurcation has now been reversed.

KS Mehra, the last commissioner of unified MCD, said that good municipal management needs people who take interest in the modern problems faced by a growing metropolitan city. “People should be actively participating in civic elections if they are interested in good urban governance. Every issue that we face is interlinked with the challenges faced by the city and it makes it all the more important to send the best people to the house of councillors.”

The apathy of the South

South Delhi neighbourhoods have been witnessing relatively low voter turnout. In the 2017 MCD polls, areas under the East body saw a 56.08% turnout, while for the North and South Delhi corporations, the numbers were 54.08% and 51.59%, respectively. Similarly, in the 2012 polls, North and East registered 53.37% and 55.56% turnouts, in comparison to 52.14% in South Delhi.

Dr Debolina Kundu, professor at the National Institute of Urban Affairs said the lower turnout in south Delhi is also linked to the relatively higher proportion of middle- and high-income households in these areas. “People here feel that they are relatively less impacted by the MCD elections. These areas have more empowered residents welfare associations (RWAs), which act as the conduit between the administration and the citizens. RWA members have better access to officials. This also indicates an elite capture of local governance.”

She added that civic polls are more important in the case of small towns where the councillor connects the common citizen with the administration.

There’s also the issue of turf.

Large metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai require robust local governance, but witness significant interference from other levels of the government, said Srikanth Viswanathan, chief executive officer of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. “While the assembly and parliamentary elections are also important, civic polls are much more relevant to the life of individual citizens in terms of direct impact to their day today lives. Larger cities that have higher budgets usually see a larger extent of interference by the state governments, while the urban governance of these metropolitan cities requires even stronger local governance structure.”

Viswanathan said that voter turnout in these elections is important for how the city is governed and added that the time has come for adopting ways to make it easier for people to vote in civic polls. “We should think about leveraging technology and seriously exploring if online voting can be used for civic elections”.

Citizen groups claim that the poor performance of the local body and lack of a participatory mechanism has led to this “withdrawal from the side of resident groups.” Atul Goyal, who heads United RWAs Joint Action (URJA), an umbrella body of RWAs, said the general feeling that has crept into the minds of the people is that nothing will change. “This perception has been created by the political leadership. The voter turnouts are much lower in higher income neighbourhoods while unplanned colonies (usually home to low-income households) see very heavy turnouts. People from middle- and high-income areas pay taxes and spend more money to get services in their vicinity. Apathy towards taxpayers is also a reason behind this disaffection.”

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