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Federations Magazine Article
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Cities and villages in India push for greater powers

FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
umbai , India ’s lar gest urban and financial centr E
with a population of more than 14 million,
ground to a halt during the rainy season on July
26, 2005. In the city formerly known as Bombay,
unprecedented flooding surged through several
of its most densely populated districts. Even
Mumbai International Airport was forced to shut down for the
next two days.
Mumbai is not alone in having to cope with such problems.
Indian cities have experienced exponential growth, and today
there are more than 60 cities with populations greater than one
million people. Such rapid expansion has meant growth of
unplanned neighbourhoods with a high concentration of the
poor. Shelter is the major problem of the urban poor and most
municipal corporations are trying to address this issue, especially
as the majority of residents are younger than 18. Council
members complain of a lack of adequate financing and a corrupt
bureaucracy in a number of cities. When councillors try to
take action in some areas, they find themselves in conflict with
the state or central governments, which share certain powers in
municipal areas under the Indian constitution.
The floods in Mumbai, which left 600 dead and millions of
rupees worth of property destroyed, came from the Mithi River
that empties into the Arabian Sea. The floods were triggered by
massive construction projects on both sides of the river, that
shrank its flood plain and forced rain water to flow onto city
With India’s federal system, to prevent or even reduce the
damage from future floods, the Mumbai administration first
needed to win support from the state of Maharashtra. In many
cases, the central government in New Delhi also gets involved
in municipal affairs. Municipalities receive funding directly and
indirectly from both the state and central government. To carry
out a plan to reduce flooding, Mumbai needed infrastructure
projects that were beyond the city’s resources. To fund the plan,
Mumbai asked for financing from two federal ministries: the
Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Urban
Floods continued to inundate the city in 2006 and 2007.
Mumbai Mayor Shubha Raul has had to persuade all city council
members to agree to several long-term measures to halt the
flooding of the river.
One way to do this, Raul said, is to remove major obstructions
that are blocking the natural flow of the river.
Slum-dwellers on both sides of the river are being dissuaded
from dumping sewage and garbage into the water, she said.
One easy first step is to make the city plastic-free.
“I have launched a huge drive to stop the use of plastic bags
in the city,” Raul said. “The Mithi River is (full of) plastic waste. I
am also keen to upgrade the slum rehabilitation program so
that we can make Mumbai slum-free by 2020.”
This, she concedes, is easier said than done, considering that
more than 6 million Mumbai residents live in slums. “We are
working towards this objective … we can certainly accomplish
our objectives if we have the requisite political will,” Raul said.
The Maharashtra state government has created a slum rehabilitation
program for Mumbai with a target of providing new
housing for every slum dweller in the city. The plan offers private
companies the rights to develop part of the land in return
for building new housing units for slum dwellers.
Cities and villages in India
push for greater powers
The ideal of village
democracy is one thing:
implementing it is another
Rashme Sehgal is a journalist based in Delhi who specializes in
investigative reporting. During the past two decades, she has written
for the Times of India and The Independent.
A medical self-help group in Kanipur was inspired
by the recent election of a significant number of
women to the village council.
SPECIAL SECTION : Cities an d thei r agen das
REUTERS/Parth San yal
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
Political support does not come easily. In this case, there are
different political parties or coalitions in power in the municipal,
state and central governments. As well, municipal
corporations operate directly under the jurisdiction of state
governments, which have the power to overrule decisions.
Mumbai and Delhi, each with 14 million residents, have state
governments that are run by different political parties from
those of the city councils. In addition, there are 19 towns in the
National Capital Territory of Delhi plus suburbs which extend
into the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradhesh. The city councils
of many of these municipalities are also controlled by different
political parties.
The mayors of both these key metropolitan areas are women.
The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution
required that one-third of the seats on city and village councils
be reserved for women elected
to the councils – a revolutionary
step. The two amendments also
devolved greater powers to the
local bodies.
Defanging the mayor
However, in Delhi, Mayor Aarti
Mehra accuses the state government
of hav ing s t e adi l y
encroached upon the powers of
the municipality. “They want to
leave us a toothless body. The
74th amendment ensures that
municipal corporations be
vested with absolute power, but
that does not happen (in reality),”
Mehra said.
“The Delhi state administration
has very mischievously
taken away some of our key portfolios,”
she added, in describing
how the maintenance of key
roads has been placed under the
Federal Ministry of Urban
Heading the Municipal
Corporation of Delhi is similar to
administering a small nation
that extends over 1,453 square
kilometres and has 150,000
employees working for it, with
an annual budget of 35,000 million
rupees (about US$880
million). The municipal corporation
is responsible for the repair
and maintenance of roads, the supply of water, sanitation and
sewage disposal services, as well as the rural outskirts of the city.
Ms. Mehra’s council is the largest of three within the National
Capital Territory, the other two being the New Delhi Municipal
Council and the Delhi Cantonment Board.
The job of mayor should make Mehra a powerful woman,
but she has her problems. The other municipalities are under
the control of the federal government and are administered
either by federal bureaucrats (in the New Delhi Municipal
Corporation) or army officers (in the Delhi Cantonment
The development of roads and highways is crucial for Delhi,
which is an industrial and commercial hub surrounded by satellite
towns like Gurgaon and Faridabad, located in
neighbouring Haryana state, and Noida and Ghaziabad, which
belong to the state of Uttar Pradesh. People commute daily
between Delhi and these satellite towns which provide both
employment and housing. Traffic management becomes a critical
issue with roads frequently choked during peak hours. In
the greater Delhi region, mayors often feel as if they are walking
a tightrope between their own municipality and the federal
Rotating mayors
In many municipal councils, the
practice of rotating the mayor’s
chair each year often leaves little
time for individual mayors to
implement new programs.
A city of more than 200,000
can have its own municipality. In
most cities in India, after the
election of city council members,
the councillors gather to elect
one of their number as mayor
during their first meeting. Every
municipality enjoys a five-year
term for its councillors, but in
some municipalities the mayoral
duties are rotated each year.
In Delhi, it was decided to elect a
female mayor for one year, a candidate
from the “untouchables”
category for the next year and
then for the remaining three
years to elect two different candidates
f rom the general
category, either male or female.
“One year is just too short a
period to initiate any kind of
meaningful reform. During the
first eight months of my mayorship,
I initiated payment of
housing taxes online to stop
needless paperwork. I have also
taken steps to make the city
greener. But by next March, I will
have to step down,” said Mehra.
In India, municipalities are
responsible for maintaining roads, collecting local property
taxes, maintaining parks, collecting garbage, and managing
water supply and sewage disposal. They share responsibility
with the state and central governments in the areas of health,
education and welfare.
The largest part of municipal revenues comes from property
taxes. This is not sufficient to pay for all city services and staff, so
the cities also receive transfer payments from the central and
Monsoon rains in Mubai flooded homes, submerged rail lines
and forced hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets in
June 2005.
SPECIAL SECTION : Cities an d thei r agen das
REUTERS/Punit Paran jpe
FEBRU ARY | MARCH 2008 Federations
state governments. These two orders of government both contribute
to paying for education, health and welfare facilities in
municipalities. The central government, with matching funds
from the states, recently launched the huge Nehru Urban
Renewal Program to provide funds for infrastructure development
in cities.
Seats reserved for women
The situation is equally difficult for municipalities at the village
level. When one-third of all village council seats were reserved
for women a decade ago, more than one million women were
elected to village councils, called panchayats. Separate quotas
were also established at that time for socially marginalized
groups, including those castes and tribes that are granted special
status under the Indian Constitution.
India’s panchayats go back centuries, if not millennia. The
culture of these councils is quite different from that of large cities.
The central government in New Delhi even has a “Minister
of Panchayati Raj,” who is concerned solely with village affairs.
In the village of Chuttumail Doks on the India-Pakistan border,
the government primary school was not operating and the
dropout rate for children studying up to grade seven was so high
that the school-age population was down to 17. A 40-member
Village Education Committee made up of panchayat members
and parents decided to take matters into their own hands. Every
villager was asked to pay 10 rupees per month to build up a
small fund to be used to hire additional teachers and purchase
computers for the school. The result was a dramatic rise in
school enrolment, which rose to 85 children. Neighbouring districts
now want similar education committees to be set up in
their villages.
Digging wells
Political parties dominate both village panchayat and municipal
corporation elections. Candidates are selected according to
their political affiliations, with huge amounts of money spent
on these elections. Yet despite the diversion of politics, there
were significant non-partisan efforts, in many cases spearheaded
by the women, transforming the landscape of their
villages by digging wells and installing hand pumps, building
roads and public toilets, and also facilitating the building of
schools and community centres.
Mayors and city council members are demanding greater
autonomy. At present, they complain that they are facing
increasing pressure from not being able to carry out projects
that would help their cities. Panchayat experts believe that,
except for Kerala, most state governments have not devolved
power to the panchayats, the majority of whom are now working
only in poverty alleviation programs, and not in other key
areas that should have been given to them following the passage
of the Panchayati Raj Amendment.
India’s experiments with grassroots democracy and local self
governance are coming of age. Slowly but surely, ordinary citizens
in big cities and small villages are learning to wield political
power, and use it effectively and responsibly to improve their
own lives as well as the lives of those in the communities around
Bra zil – [From pa ge 14]
within the state, or out of it. Diadema, the “ugly duckling” of the
industrial south side, perhaps had less to lose, but it also had
less to fight with. At the same time, starting in the mid-1990s,
mayors faced severe budgetary constraints under a public-sector
squeeze imposed by the federal government to end
hyperinflation that had plagued Brazil since the mid-1980s.
“Cities faced new challenges, partly because of the new reality
of the Brazilian economy, but also because of the new world
economic order,” the mayor said. “We had to start fighting for
economic development within the context of globalization that
was more and more hostile, more and more competitive.” That
meant working more efficiently, reducing costs and creating
attractive conditions for new investment.
Escaping urban decay
Using a special team of policy advisers, Filippi – mayor in 1993-
96 and again in 2001-08 – has managed to escape the
low-revenue, low-investment trap, boosting tax revenue and
spending the new funds in ways that attract further investment.
Industrial output rose seven per cent in 2006 and another four
per cent in 2007, after falling for eight straight years. The municipal
budget is up 70 per cent in real terms from 2001, to a
projected 2008 level of about US$270 million. His key measures
• Urban violence: In 1999, the municipality had the highest
murder rate of the São Paulo metro region, at 109 per
100,000 population. The murder rate fell 59 per cent, thanks
to a 2002 decree forcing all bars to close at 11 p.m. – a measure
that sparked widespread interest in other cities.
• Urban development: Diadema built three large flood control
reservoirs to catch water from heavy rains. This allowed
development of low-lying areas, one of which attracted a
major industrial investor who is now the city’s largest single
• Urban renewal: New sidewalks, public lighting, street repair,
litter bins, park benches and flower beds help create a more
pleasant environment, which in turn becomes a safer environment,
including for investors. “We make small
revolutions – three years ago, one neighbourhood had 40
small commercial establishments, now it has 250. That’s a
lot of investment in small business, shops and services, and
consequently a bigger tax base. This is a direct consequence
of urban renewal,” the mayor said.
• Creative incentives: Diadema shunned simple tax breaks,
but offered reduced land taxes for investors who increased
payments of other taxes.
• Social spending: Infant mortality declined to 12.9 per 1,000
births in 2006 from 85 in 1983 – improving from double the
state average to slightly better than average.
“The best investment any mayor can make is in social programs,”
Filippi said. In Diadema, innovation by municipal
leaders has made real improvements. For rural municipalities
like Altamira to make comparable gains, a stronger role for local
municipalities in joint planning with the state and federal governments
could allow such local innovations to begin.
SPECIAL SECTION : Cities an d thei r agen das