On April 19, the Union government pushed a law through Parliament to merge Delhi’s three local governments into a single Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The debate sparked by this move is a reminder that despite the presence of local governments, India is missing the spirit of decentralisation.

Public debates on the new Municipal Corporation of Delhi controversy have focused on two questions. First, was the merger a good decision? Which arrangement is better for addressing Delhi’s garbage crisis or finance problems: three local governments or one – or for that matter, two or four?

Home Minister Amit Shah justified the merger by claiming that the single corporation would function more efficiently. A serious answer needs to identify the purposes of local governments (a contested matter) and carefully evaluate past arrangements in Delhi. But in general, policymakers have not explored what type of local governance arrangements would suit India’s big cities and metropolitan areas.

Most cities have single local governments due to historical legacy, not careful scrutiny. A review of the governance needs of big cities should find a prominent place on the public agenda, instead of impromptu and unilateral decisions to replace government architecture.

The second question in public debates is: who has the authority to decide local governance arrangements? Local government is on the Constitution’s State List, which means that the state legislature has law-making jurisdiction. However, Delhi is an exception because its state legislature functions with curtailed powers, which is itself a matter of controversy.

The Union government argues that it has the authority to reconstitute Delhi’s local governments while the state government argues otherwise. Opponents note that the arrangement with three local governments itself came from Delhi’s state legislature in 2011, not the national Parliament.

The second question raises a profound issue about decentralisation, a radical feature of governance that was formally written into the Constitution via an amendment 30 years ago. The issue is how the spirit of decentralisation affects decisions on local governance arrangements.

Whether the authority to create local government lies with the national Parliament or state legislature, both are interested parties since decentralisation will subsequently affect their own powers and responsibilities. Indeed, realpolitik suggests that substantive decentralisation is unlikely to be voluntary.

Benefiting the ruling party

In the current controversy, opponents accuse the national government of centralisation that benefits the ruling party. Proponents of the move accuse the Delhi state government of resisting the merger of local governments for its own political benefit. Without suggesting a false equivalence, we note that both accusations are likely partly true.

Decentralisation suffers when it is implemented in a centralised manner, whether by national or state government. Neither government is particularly concerned about the views of Delhi’s local governments and citizens. (We discount politicised support for the merger since currently Delhi’s local governments are from the same centralised party that controls national government.)

This leads us to ask how the spirit of decentralisation should shape decisions on local governance arrangements, the subject of our book Governing Locally. The constitutional amendments for decentralisation make the spirit abundantly clear. The 74th amendment views urban local governments as “vibrant democratic units of self-government” having “such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to carry out the responsibilities conferred upon them”.

The letter and spirit of the Constitution have three implications. First, states should have independent bodies to conduct democratic elections to local governments and share public finances. Such bodies have been created by state legislatures across India as intended by the constitutional amendment. Second, local governments should have autonomy to self-organise their affairs – naturally, within constitutional parameters also applicable to state and national government.

Third, since local governments would now have governance responsibilities previously performed by state governments, the latter should transfer the corresponding facilities, staff and tacit knowledge – thereby creating capacities in local governments for the new responsibilities. In fact, neither were local governments autonomous from state governments nor were corresponding facilities and staff transferred.

Further, even the Union government that introduced the constitutional amendment did not later own it, let alone promote its intent. It launched and funded mega urban development programmes (such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the Smart City Mission) giving guidelines to state governments to strengthen state agencies (“parastatals”) rather than local governments.

Electoral gains

The recent controversy of Delhi mostly ignores the spirit of decentralisation. Understandably, the tugs of short-term electoral calculations have shaped the debate about merging Delhi’s local governments. But there seems to be little else to the debate, and certainly no attention to creating “vibrant democratic units of self-government”, irrespective of whether the city has one local government or three.

Even in Kerala, despite its reputation for decentralisation, state law gives the state government the power to determine how local governments function. Such top-down control erodes people’s participation in local governance and also erodes decentralised service delivery. While even large cities like Delhi are unable to run their affairs autonomously, problems are far greater in the small cities that constitute most urban spaces. (According to Census 2011, of 4,041 urban local governments, only about one percent have million-plus populations.)

Today, when there is a clear hierarchy of importance across government levels and local government receives the least respect, we close with the heartening example of Bharat Singh of Rajasthan’s Kota. In 2015 he became a panch in Kundanpur panchayat after serving in the state legislature and cabinet. Bharat Singh said that he could do things in the panchayat that he could not do as a minister. This is a call to place greater value on local government.

When we the citizens ourselves veer towards the power-soaked perspective of national and state governments where local autonomy counts for little, then we fail to question the problematic terms of debates on governance. Whether Delhi has one government or three, the arguments of proponents and opponents rest in the tired field of power aggrandisement and little else. The spirit of decentralisation demands a different set of questions – about capacity and autonomy for self-governance, swa-raj.

Suraj Jacob teaches development and policy at the Azim Premji University. Babu Jacob retired as Chief Secretary of the Government of Kerala after a career in the civil service. Their recent book is titled Governing Locally: Institutions, Policies and Implementation in Indian Cities (Cambridge University Press, 2021).