Relevance: GS Paper I & II (Local Government / Urbanization)
The Constitution of India considers states to be the smallest unit of governance, leaving further devolution of powers at their discretion. Even the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments do not sufficiently empower the panchayati raj institutions or urban local bodies to respond to the needs of citizens in a democratic manner. With growing urbanization, the problem of democratic deficit in the cities is going to become even more acute.
The weak position of ULBs
- Could a state government, by law, strip all urban local bodies (ULBs) in the state of their powers and hand it over to an administrator nominated by it? The answer is – Yes.The state government can do this, and it would not be unconstitutional.
- Nothing in the articles introduced into the Constitution under the 74th Amendment mandates that ULBs should enjoy certain powers at all costs.
- Articles 243W and 243X do not mandate that the state legislature has to bestow lawmaking or taxing powers upon the ULBs.
- This position of law reflects a situation that has existed since the Constitution has come into force: it has no conception of the city as a unit of governance.
- Whereas state legislatures and governments have been vested with legislative and executive powers under the Constitution, there is nothing in the Constitution which does the same for ULBs.
- More and more Indians are choosing to live in cities. This is a trend that is only going to increase as jobs become scarce in rural areas and opportunities beckon in megacities sprouting across the country.
- Unlike in the past where much migration from rural to urban areas was temporary and seasonal—with men moving to the cities for jobs and returning to the village—India is, perhaps, finally seeing the mass movement of families from rural areas to urban areas on a permanent basis.
- As of 2018, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, with the figure expected to go up to 68% in 2050.
- By 2030 India will be home to seven cities with 10 million or more inhabitants, though—given that five cities already match this criterion—it is possible that many more may join the club.
Benefits of Urbanization
- While unplanned urbanization is definitely hazardous and could lead to environmental damage, well-planned urbanization can have positive impacts on the environment.
- Urbanization has many benefits, including more efficient resource use, reduced carbon footprints, and an opportunity to escape oppressive social structures.
Imagining the City
- One solution, perhaps, to address the absence of the city in the Constitution is to grant cities plenary legislative and executive powers in the same manner as has been granted to the union and state governments.
- This would mean replacing the existing provisions, enabling the state to grant such powers by a clause that directly vests such powers with the ULBs or PRIs.
- This would also entail a separate list for ULBs and PRIs in the Seventh Schedule and/or a potential second concurrent list where states share legislative power with such bodies.
- However, this suggestion only goes some way towards addressing the problem of the absence of the city in the Constitution. At the heart of the problem is a democratic deficit and a power–accountability imbalance.
The Democratic Deficit
The democratic deficit is evident in two ways.
- On the one hand, cities and urban areas are severely under-represented in the state and national legislatures relative to rural areas.
- There is another aspect to this democratic deficit, though it is not exclusive to cities alone. Although the Constitution mandates that ULB elections should be held every five years, in reality, several states have had much longer gaps between elections to ULBs.
- If the powers of the municipal corporation are simply a gift of the state government, voters might assume that it would make better sense to hold the state government directly responsible. Redressing this, therefore, requires framing the city and its place in governance under the Constitution in a holistic manner.
- This will require an acknowledgement of the role of the city in economic and social development in India.
- This will also require the strengthening of institutions like the state election commissions and the state finance commissions to ensure that they are able to carry out their mandate in an impartial and timely manner.
- This will require conceptualizing federalism under the Constitution as a three-tier structure, where each tier performs its constitutional roles and responsibilities, and is independently accountable to the citizens.
As India urbanizes rapidly, it is going to face challenges when it comes to governance of vast urban agglomerations. Placing the city within the framework of the Constitution will provide a path to deepen India’s democracy and federalism.