Chandigarh needs a metropolitan council for governance
With complex political developments casting a shadow over the final reorganization process of the former state of Punjab, Chandigarh was declared a Union Territory and Capital of Punjab and Haryana, initially for five years. Years ago, a pragmatism of the status quoist lent a de facto permanence to this status. However, this status is practically irreversible.
However, the city remains deprived of a strengthened democratic configuration, which is essential to truly realize the vision of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of Chandigarh as a symbol of modern and resurgent India.
For the first 30 years as a Union Territory, Chandigarh elected only one member of Lok Sabha. The municipal corporation, since its first elections in 1996, has presented only a minimum of local autonomy without any right to oversee the affairs of the UT.
The MP, essentially a legislator, has no constitutional authority over UT affairs. Only informally can he or she exert influence to get things done, especially with the finance minister and others, to get the funds the city needs so badly.
Only the empowered elected body responds
In essence, Chandigarh is an administrative organization run in a bureaucratic manner. Although men of caliber, experience and success have run its affairs, officials cannot, however, be a real substitute for democratically elected representatives of the people with the necessary powers of governance and decision-making. They come for a fixed term of three years, on what are considered award assignments 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 tend to identify with the aspirations of the people to have a practical approach to the myriad problems of UT. The freedom taken with the rules of succession is a suitable example.
The elected municipal corporation completes 25 years of existence in December; the panchayats and zila parishad ceased to exist after the merger of all the villages of the municipal territory, but in the absence of transfer of vital functions, funds and officials, as stipulated in the Constitution, he remains disabled, rather disabled in its functioning, far from being a dynamic tool of democracy.
There is no district planning committee in Chandigarh. An unelected UT officer has the power to order the MC to make his offer, including the imposition of new levies. As a result, the property tax has increased sharply, water tariffs have been increased several times and in addition there is a huge sanitation tax of 30%. Yet there is no solid waste treatment and the ever-increasing landfill with its perennial stench has become a health hazard. In addition, the roads remain in poor condition. All this because the UT does not have an elected body empowered for its governance.
Directors advisory board public relations exercise
The Administrator’s Advisory Board, a body appointed to advise the Governor of Punjab in his role as administrator of the UT, on matters relating to the city, did not serve the purpose of being a real institution representative of the people. The meetings, while rare, are more of a public relations exercise by the administration to brief the elected few on its work and gain a seal of approval.
It hasn’t always been that way. Prior to the practice of appointing the governor of Punjab as an administrator of the UT which began in the early 1980s, the administrator was a senior officer of the AGMUT under IAS, and paradoxically, the committee The local advisory council of the time exercised greater oversight over the functioning of the administration. Each member could ask questions for regular meetings and the departments concerned were required to submit detailed answers for the Committee’s consideration. The agenda was then not prescribed by the administrator for an inept meeting. The committee had a say in the governance of Chandigarh.
Recommendations ignored in the middle of reservations
Then there is supposed to be the Interior Minister’s Advisory Committee for Chandigarh. He last met in 2017!
On two occasions, the Standing Parliamentary Committee on Home Affairs, headed at one point or another by Pranab Mukherjee, Sushma Swaraj and Mr. Venkaiah Naidu, now Vice-President of India, has made important recommendations regarding the governance of Chandigarh. Nothing happened. Even a directive to the administrator’s adviser and other officers to hold a monthly meeting with the local deputy on the town’s development work, was quietly buried after the first meeting, on reservations expressed by the governor- administrator on the constitutional validity of the directive.
This is the status of UT, Chandigarh. This is a surplus of income, but he does not get sufficient funds from the Consolidated Fund of India to which all of his income goes. He has a deputy but he is only one of the 545, unless he exercises personal influence with Union ministers for a few extra rupees for his development work. 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 accountable to the people.
Assembly is not a viable proposition for the city
To set up an elected institution responsible for the governance of Chandigarh, a request for a legislative assembly is sometimes raised in different circles. Without questioning the spirit behind this demand, I am of the opinion that a legislative assembly like that of Pondicherry or the National Capital Territory of Delhi is not a viable proposition for Chandigarh. The next best alternative is a metropolitan council at UT level with a director general and executive advisers vested with executive functions and powers of the various departments. Only functions such as law and order could remain with the administrator, who would continue to be the head of the administration as a governor or lieutenant governor.
Democracy is not just about holding elections every five years or so. It must establish systems of good governance through greater participation of the people in the day-to-day affairs of the people. Neighborhood committees and residents’ aid associations are public bodies that can make a beneficial contribution 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 base upwards and not summarily impose decisions from above, however well-intentioned they may be.
The author is a former congressman and a former Union minister.Opinions expressed are personal