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As Bengaluru has seen unprecedented floods over the past week, the situation was greatly exacerbated by the fact that the city does not have an elected government. The term of the previous elected Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike council ended in 2020 and the body is currently run by bureaucrats appointed by the state government.

“The fact that bureaucrats and not elected officials currently head the BMPP is a major reason why the city lacks accountability in tackling floods and other urban issues,” argued Tara Krishnaswamy, founder of the advocacy group, Citizens for Bengaluru.

Bengaluru is one of the world’s major cities. The Greater Bengaluru region has a population of more than eight million, about as many people as live in Switzerland. That it does not have an elected government is, in a word, astounding and points to what is probably India’s single biggest governance flaw: weak, almost non-existent independent urban governance.

Urbs prima?

India has an urban population of 675 million. By itself, this number is greater than the population of any country in the world save China. Moreover, urban India generates around 60% of the country’s gross domestic product. By the next decade, this will go up to 70%, predicts consulting firm Mckinsey.

Yet, as we saw in the case of Bengaluru, India has a shocking lack of governance when it comes to these high-population, economically vital parts of the country.

To begin with the basics, urban governance in India is crippled financially. India’s cities are only able to generate around two-fifths of their own revenue, depending for the rest on the Union and (majorly) their state governments.

Administratively too, they have been hamstrung by their state governments. The Constitution specifies a rather modest list of functions (when benchmarked with other countries) that should be performed by urban governments. However, state governments, and sometimes even the Union, have not allowed their municipalities to take up even those duties, by themselves appropriating functions like the building of roads or supplying water.

A garbage strewn beach in Mumbai. Credit: Hemanshi Kamani/Reuters

In Bengaluru, for example, water, sewage and land use – classic municipal functions – are handled by bodies created by the state, not the city. Even more bizarrely, in India, the federal government overseeing a population of 1.3 billion, regularly involves itself in the minutiae of urban governance such as sanitation (Swachh Bharat) or urban planning (Smart Cities Mission). In possibly one of the world’s starkest examples of centralisation, the transport backbone of India’s financial capital, the Mumbai suburban railway, is run not by the city or the state but by the government of India.

Most starkly, though, India’s urban governments are crippled politically. While the cabinet form of government is well established in India at the state and Union level, cities in India do not have that privilege. Urban governments rarely have powerful mayors who can provide accountable governance in a way a chief minister or prime minister can. Even a city like Mumbai, which has one of India’s most powerful city governments, has a ceremonial mayor and the administration is actually headed by a bureaucrat appointed by the Government of Maharashtra. In contrast, say, New York City’s mayor in the United States is not only elected by the people of the city but controls powerful departments such as the police.

Falling behind the world

Across the world, being the mayor of a major city is an important political post that is often a stepping stone to a national role. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Türkiye, cut his teeth as mayor of Istanbul. The outgoing British prime minister Boris Johnson was mayor of London till 2016.

Ironically, China, a unitary state compared to India’s federal union, has extremely powerful city governments. “The leadership of China’s four provincial-level cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing, is arguably the most important sub-national decision-making body in the country,” points out a report by the US think tank, Brookings. “The top leadership positions in these four major cities are high-powered stepping stones for further promotions.”

Even odder still, India once did have powerful mayors. Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, headed the Allahabad Municipal Corporation in the 1920s as did his future deputy prime minister Vallabhbhai Patel in Ahmedabad. In 1930, Subhas Chandra Bose became the mayor of Kolkata. However, much of this owes itself to the fact that till 1937, democratic government was only available at the local level to Indians. Post Independence, Indians – who now had control of the Central government – chose centralisation and weak local governments.

While sanituation is a classic municipal function, in India, it is one of the federal government's key projects. Credit: https://twitter.com/narendramodi/status/1040863549839486976

Local politics is key

It must be noted that there have been attempts to strengthen local government in India. Both Kerala and West Bengal have had politics that try to create a robust third tier. In 1992, the Union government passed the 74th Amendment to the Constitution, trying to administratively and financially strengthen local governments by bypassing state governments. In 2016, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor introduced a private members bill asking for a directly elected Mayor as well as a cabinet called the “Mayor-in-Council” chosen from elected councilors, in effect creating a hybrid Presidential-Parliamentary system.

Notably, all of these measures have failed. States, and in some cases the Union itself, has bypassed the aims of the 74th Amendment by eating into municipal powers. In fact, even when reforms succeed on paper, their effects on the ground can be limited.

To take Kolkata’s example: the city already has, to quote the municipal corporation’s own website, a “Mayor-in-Council, with all the attributes of the Cabinet form of government” as well as a powerful mayor, elected in the same way a chief minister or prime minister is. Yet, Kolkata also points to the fact that, at the end of the day, ground politics trumps top-down administrative design.

In theory, the mayor of Kolkata might have a significant amount of power compared to other local bodies, but politically he owes his post to the chief minister and the state’s ruling party. This is true across the country (in fact, India’s politics is so centralised, it is true even for most state chief ministers belonging to national parties).

Unless this political ground shifts, India’s local governance will be stuck in the rut it is in currently.