Low tiers of democracy

 

IT is a fact little noticed by biographers that Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah was elected a member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation on March 10, 1904. His candidacy was supported by his mentor, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Sir Ibrahim Rahimtoola and a colleague at the Bar, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad.

 

He was then a young barrister struggling at the Bar but fired by idealism. He resigned in 1906, having made his mark in the corporation. In this he was not alone. Sir Pherozshah, Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and others of this calibre first cut their teeth in municipal bodies before moving on to acquire national eminence.

 

Ironically this avenue has become politically clogged while recent constitutional reform endows the local bodies with unprecedented status.

 

In former times young and rising professionals of independent means could enter public life, at little personal expense, through local bodies and make their contribution to public life. Now, not only have election expenses and corruption mounted, but the tentacles of party bosses have reached municipal corporations. Independents cannot match their means, and public life suffers from the non-renewal of fresh blood.

 

To the basic law of the Federal Republic of Germany, enacted in 1949, goes the credit for recognising “local government” as a vital part of the federal constitutional set-up.

 

Article 28 (2) says: “The municipalities shall be guaranteed the right to manage all the affairs of the local community on their own responsibility within the limits set by law. Within the framework of their statutory functions the associations of municipalities likewise have the right of self-government in accordance with the law.”

 

The states (the Lander) enact laws to establish municipalities. But, no such statute can violate or curtail the constitutional guarantees; namely “the right to manage all the affairs of the local community” and “the right of self-government”. There can be no arbitrary removal of mayors or supersession of municipal bodies.

 

Article 140A of the Constitution of Pakistan imposes a clear duty on each province: “Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments”.

 

This provision is pregnant with meaning. There is a constitutional mandate to establish by legislation “a local government system”. The provinces enjoy discretion as to the tiers of the system, from the village upwards. There is also a duty to “devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority” to the “local governments”.

 

The quantum of devolution can vary; but no legislation can rob the system of real “responsibility and authority” appropriate to each local body.

 

Corresponding provisions of the Indian constitution, like the entire document itself, do not suffer from excess of brevity. They are prolix to a degree; yet violations occur.

 

In 1992, came the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in respect of, both, the panchayats and municipalities; panchayats will be set up by law at the village, intermediate and district levels.

 

Article 234 G empowers the states by law to define their remit by endowing “the panchayats with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government and such law may contain provisions for the devolution of powers and responsibilities upon panchayats at the appropriate level, subject to such conditions as may be specified therein, with respect to — (a) the preparation of plans for economic development and social justice;(b) the implementation of schemes for economic development and social justice as may be entrusted to them …”

 

Similar provisions are made for municipal councils and municipal corporations. Their remit is akin to that of the panchayats.

 

All this has helped to curb the state governments’ powers to dissolve local bodies, remove mayors and chief executives etc. But no law by itself can alter political conditions or ensure renewal of political life; still less, infusion of idealism. Local government is not an inspiring subject in political discourse in India. Elsewhere, notably in Britain and in the US, mayors attract public attention as promising leaders who might reach the apex of power in the country.

 

Margaret Thatcher sought to diminish the status and authority of local government. In 1986 she abolished the Greater London Council. The Labour Party reversed the trend. It was approved in a referendum held in Greater London on May 7, 1998 and implemented by the Greater London Authority Act 1999, establishing a Greater London Authority consisting of a mayor of London and a London Assembly, each elected for a term of four years.

 

As an authority sums up “The GLA has responsibility and a general power, to promote economic development and wealth creation, social development and the improvement of the environment in Greater London. London borough councils continue to have responsibility for a wide range of local service (housing, education, social services, local roads and traffic, sport and recreation, etc). Strategic policies are formulated by the mayor in published ‘strategies’ relating to such matters as transport, spatial development (land use planning), biodiversity, air quality and culture.

 

 “The mayor must consult and is accountable to the assembly, which scrutinises the mayor’s performance of his or her functions and approves the mayor’s budget. The Greater London Authority act also established four ‘functional bodies’, answerable to the GLA. These are the London Development agency, Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Authority and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority”.

 

In India, at least, none of the municipal corporations, which are centres of affluence, enjoy such a wide array of powers and responsibility. There do exist private institutes on local self-government. Cannot Pakistani and Indian activists in this field meet and draw up a model statute for municipal corporations?

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.

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