Guest Column: Chandigarh needs metropolitan council for governance

Chandigarh must allow an organic development of democratic institutions and practices from the grassroots level upwards and not summarily impose decisions from the top
For the first 30 years as a Union Territory, Chandigarh only elected a member of the Lok Sabha. The municipal corporation, ever since its first elections in 1996, has only presented a modicum of local self-governance with no real say in the affairs of the UT. (HT FILE)
For the first 30 years as a Union Territory, Chandigarh only elected a member of the Lok Sabha. The municipal corporation, ever since its first elections in 1996, has only presented a modicum of local self-governance with no real say in the affairs of the UT. (HT FILE)
Updated on Aug 12, 2021 02:42 AM IST
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ByPawan Kumar Bansal

With complex political developments casting a shadow over the final process of reorganisation of the erstwhile state of Punjab, Chandigarh was declared a Union Territory and capital of both Punjab and Haryana, initially for five years. Years ago, a status quoist pragmatism, lent a de-facto permanence to this status. Now, this status is practically irreversible.

However, the city remains deprived of an empowered democratic set-up, which is essential to truly realise former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of Chandigarh as a symbol of modern, resurgent India.

For the first 30 years as a Union Territory, Chandigarh only elected a member of the Lok Sabha. The municipal corporation, ever since its first elections in 1996, has only presented a modicum of local self-governance with no real say in the affairs of the UT.

The member of Parliament, essentially a legislator, has no constitutional authority regarding the UT’s affairs. It is only informally that he or she can exert influence to get things done, particularly lobby with the finance minister and others, to get much-needed funds for the city.

Empowered elected body only answer

In essence, Chandigarh is a bureaucratically run administrative set-up. Though men of calibre, experience and attainment have run its affairs, yet civil servants cannot be a veritable substitute for democratically elected people’s representatives with necessary powers of governance and decision-making. They come for a fixed term of three years, on what are considered to be prize postings to a UT, smaller than a district in a state, but has 14 IAS and seven IPS officers; a perfect example of Parkinson’s Law at work. Few of them would have an inclination to identify themselves with the aspirations of the people to have a hands-on approach to the UT’s myriad problems. Liberty taken with the Estate Rules is an appropriate example.

The elected municipal corporation completes 25 years of existence this December; the panchayats and zila parishad have ceased to exist after the merger of all villages in the municipal area, but in the absence of transfer of vital functions, funds and functionaries, as stipulated by the Constitution, it remains handicapped, rather crippled in its working, far from being a vibrant tool of democracy.

There is no district planning committee in Chandigarh. An unelected UT officer has the power to direct the MC to do his bidding, including imposition of new levies. Resultantly, property tax has seen a sharp increase, water rates have been increased manifold and on the top of it is a whopping 30% sanitation cess. Yet, there is no processing of solid waste and the ever-rising dumping ground with its perennial stink has become a health hazard. Also, roads remain in a state of disrepair. All this is because the UT does not have an empowered elected body for its governance.

Administrator’s advisory council a PR exercise

The administrator’s advisory council, a body nominated to advise the Punjab governor in his role as the UT administrator, on matters relating to the city, has not served the purpose of being a truly people’s representative institution. The meetings, though few and far between, are more of a public relations exercise by the administration to apprise the chosen few of its work and obtain a stamp of approval.

It was not always so. Prior to the practice of appointing the Punjab governor as UT administrator that started in the early ’80s, the administrator used to be a senior AGMUT-cadre IAS officer, and paradoxically, the then local advisory committee, exercised greater supervision over the functioning of the administration. Every member could send in questions for the regular meetings and the departments concerned were obliged to submit detailed replies thereto for the committee’s scrutiny. The agenda was then not prescribed by the administrator for an inane meeting. The committee had a visible say in the governance of Chandigarh.

Recommendations ignored amid reservations

Then, there is supposed to be the home minister’s advisory committee for Chandigarh. It last met in 2017!

Twice, the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs headed, at one time or the other by Pranab Mukherjee, Sushma Swaraj and M Venkaiah Naidu, now Vice-President of India, made significant recommendations related to the governance of Chandigarh. Nothing happened. Even a directive to the adviser to the administrator and other officers to hold a monthly meeting with the local MP on development works of the city, was given a quiet burial after the first meeting, on the reservations expressed by the governor-cum-administrator about the directive’s constitutional validity.

This is the status of the UT, Chandigarh. It is revenue surplus, yet it doesn’t get adequate funds from the Consolidated Fund of India to which go all its revenues. It has an MP but he is just one of the 545, unless he exerts personal influence with the Union ministers for a few more rupees for its development works. It has a glorified elected body called the municipal corporation, but in the eyes of the bureaucracy, it is only a local body and the administration is not answerable to the people.

Assembly not a viable proposition for city

To put in place a responsible elected institution for the governance of Chandigarh, a demand of a legislative assembly is occasionally raised in different quarters. Not undermining the spirit behind this demand, it is my considered opinion that a legislative assembly like that in Puducherry or the National Capital Territory of Delhi is not a viable proposition for Chandigarh. The next best alternative is a metropolitan council at the UT level with a chief executive councillor and executive councillors vested with executive functions and powers of different departments. Only functions such as law and order could remain with the administrator, who would continue to be the head of the administration like a governor or a lieutenant governor.

Democracy is not just about holding elections every five years or so. It must establish systems of good governance through larger participation of the people in day-to-day matters concerning the people. Ward committees and resident welfare associations are those public bodies which can beneficially contribute to the development of the city as a model of urban governance. Chandigarh must allow an organic development of democratic institutions and practices from the grassroots level upwards and not summarily impose decisions from the top, howsoever well intentioned those be.

The writer is a former Congress MP and a former Union minister .Views expressed are personal

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Wednesday, December 08, 2021