The state of governance in Mumbai is akin to running a rich cruise ship. Largely resourceful, efficient at its own will and pace, selective in who it wishes to serve, ignoring the masses in the lower bunkers, shunning collaborative efforts, arrogant and yet capable of better performance.

This might be true of all the metropolitan cities of the world but in Mumbai’s case it is a ship without a captain.

The mayor-in-council governance system proposed for Mumbai by Yuva Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray in May is not a new idea.

The first failed dip-stick test in 1998 lasted less than a year. Then, in 2006, the state government think tank, the Mumbai Transformation Support Unit, prepared a concept note on the benefits of a directly elected mayor and equipping the mayor with a council of ministers with empowered ward committees.

In 2016, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for the decentralisation of power in Mumbai, the Bharatiya Janata Party made a similar attempt. Now, the Shiv Sena is again keen to bring to Mumbai the successful mayoral model followed in cities such as London, New York and Tokyo.

The recurrence of this vision stems from real frustrations arising because of the polycentric nature of Mumbai’s governance. The details of this governance system may not be of any interest to everyone but its effects are for everyone to see and bear on a daily basis.

The list is endless: from the constant digging up of roads for the laying or repair of multiple utilities, the precarious interface of a Metro station landing on a footpath-less arterial road to faceless, pencil-tower buildings with parking lots defining the streetscape.

Instead of floating an old idea, the attention must shift to the reasons for the failure of the mayor-in-council system in Mumbai. When such a governance system works well in similarly big metro cities across the world, what goes wrong in the case of Mumbai?

Credit: Reuters.

A significant lesson is that planning a robust city cannot be done through political urges alone. Such political monogamy is opaque, invites corruption, excludes citizens and manipulates the media.

A mayor needs to be a directly elected official answerable to citizens, who have faith in the individual. Such a person should be a responsible leader, unlike the titular heads appointed by the party in power. The council of ministers under the mayor should manage the integrated portfolios of infrastructure utilities and urban planning that run the city. The decentralisation of power needs to be complete.

Special planning authorities, such as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority and others within the geographical boundaries of the city, should be answerable to the elected mayor.

The council plays the dual role of an advisor and watchdog by making public knowledge the achievements, targets and financial undertakings of the mayor’s plan for Mumbai.

Successfully implementing such a holistic vision calls for the formation of a city planning commission or a similar independent system with a leader who can reconcile the pressures of politics with the advice emerging out of technical expertise, reporting to an executive mayor and be part of the council for urban development within the mayor’s cabinet.

This Director of Planning and Implementation (in detailed chart below) is essentially an urban affairs professional with the ability to lead a team of urban practitioners and designers. Urban planning and implementation today needs to be a continuous, direct and ongoing process rather than a once in 20 years process. Constant monitoring and adjustments are required to realise strategies and policies on evidence-based, integrated planning systems.

Equally imperative is the change in the scale of planning. Today, there are development plans and development control regulations that address the entire city as one homogenous mass with blanket rules.

What is beautiful about Mumbai is the diversity of residents, professions, economic class, religion. In this respect, urban planning should abandon its overarching authority and sensitively provide for the needs of each neighbourhood by introducing a third level of governance to the mayor-in-council. This should comprise a legal interface between community-based organisations and ward councillors that have powers beyond the advisory and interact with the lower of the two governing levels.

Tokyo, perhaps, has the strongest community participation through its machizukuri – a collaborative approach to town-planning – whose ordinances can be passed and upheld in a court of law.

What will have to be adhered to is the declared statement of intentions that constitute the guideposts, governing development under the mayor-in-council in Mumbai. The system, then, is worth another shot.

A chart showing a proposed governance structure under the mayor.

Jasmine Saluja and Oormi Kapadia are both architects and urban designers and are recipients of an awarding-winning proposal for a Community Land Trust Model for the redevelopment of Dharavi in Mumbai. Oormi Kapadia is an acting partner at MnO and a partner at Plural. Jasmine Saluja heads an urban research laboratory at Plural as its co-founding partner. She was also the founder and co-coordinator of the Mumbai centre of the Institute of Urban Designers – India.