Urban local government in India carries characteristics of its colonial heritage out- of – step with its current needs

By Mayraj Fahim, Local government adviser

14 January 2006: While India, like many other regions, has always had local councils of some sort, the mechanisms in existence today are rooted in the period during which it was a colony of the United Kingdom. A major foundation of the British roots of Indian local government was Lord Ripon’s resolution of May, 1882, on the subject of local self-government covering the structure and establishment of local bodies, their functions, finances and powers. This is the root of local self-government in post-Independence India.

In the context of the Indian Constitution, local government bodies are the subject of the State List and are thereby governed by State Statutes, or in the case of Union Territories, by the Union Parliament. Federal recognition of local government was substantively expressed in the 74th Constitution Amendment Act of 1992.

A primary reason for the delay was that local governments were perceived to be rivals, rather than complements, by state governments. Hence, local government was generally not a level that was maintained with commitment and sufficiently empowered in the post-Independence era. For that reason, it could be said that even by 2004, the state of West Bengal distinguished itself by its commitment to having regular local elections once the current ruling party of West Bengal came to power in the 1970s.

In other states, these bodies were frequently superseded for long periods by state governments. West Bengal’s commitment to local government in fact had an important role to play in the national recognition accorded local government. Its commitment inspired the 74th Amendment Act that formerly gave constitutional recognition to local government.

However, it can also be said that there is today a growing awareness of the need and importance of local self-government, as being a provider of services to local communities and as a mechanism for democratic self-government. There are currently two distinct types of local government system: urban local system and the rural local system. The structure of the latter is multi-tiered and will not form the subject of this article, which focuses on urban local government.

Municipal governments – Historical evolution from the British era

The first municipal mechanism created during British rule was the Municipal Corporation introduced in Madras (Chennai today) in 1688, which was followed by municipal corporations in Bombay (Mumbai today) and Calcutta (Kolkata today) by 1762. Subsequently, Lord Mayo’s Resolution of 1870 called for the introduction of an elected President in the municipalities. The current form and structure of municipal bodies is based on Lord Ripon’s Resolution on local self-government adopted in 1882. Since then the structure of municipal bodies has essentially remained the same, even though the urban areas multiplied along with their increasingly complex problems.

Statutory provision for creating a municipal unit is available in two forms. First, by statute that provides for the establishment of a municipal authority, as for instance in the form taken in the case of the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act in1888, the City of Nagpur Corporation Act of1948 and the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act of 1957. The other route is through statutory provision empowering State Government creation. The Bombay Provincial Municipal Corporations Act of 1949 and the Gujarat Municipalities Act of 1964 are both examples of the latter. Generally, these statutes confer significant control and supervisory powers on the state government. In this context, it can be said they are creatures of state government.

Municipal election provisions in different states are not uniform. In some, arrangements for election are made by the state government, while in others Municipal Commissioners (executive officers) make the arrangements. Prior to the passage of the 1992 Act, urban local government was defined generally by the Municipal Corporations, Municipal Councils, Town Area Committees and Notified Area Committees. In this context, the structure and composition of municipalities varied considerably, with wide differences in definition and structure between states. Hence, the 1992 Act attempted to instil some uniformity in the constitution of the municipal bodies by classifying them as Municipal Corporations for large urban areas, Municipal Councils for smaller urban areas and what are termed Nagar Panchayats, suburban government bodies.

The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act

The 1992 Act provided for the Twelfth Schedule which listed the functions of urban local units, along with their planning, regulation and development powers. It made provision for ward committees in areas exceeding 300,000 and the specification of the powers and responsibilities of municipal units and the ward committees. There is a requirement made therein for the holding of timely periodical elections and for the reconstitution of a municipal government within six months, should it be dissolved for any reason.

Sources of municipal finance and their periodic review by a statutorily constituted State Finance Commission were also provided for by the Act, which also made it obligatory for the Central Finance Commission to recommend steps to support state resources for the assistance of municipal governments. The Act also provided for reservation of one-third of the seats for women and scheduled castes in municipal bodies. State Governments were to adopt the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act with reference to their respective municipal bodies to effect its purpose within their jurisdictions.

Unlike rural bodies, urban government was not provided with a federated systemic framework (which is ironic, because since the 1950s outside India it has been urban regions that have seen the rising use of integrated federated systems). However, they do have direct access to state governments, something that is not open to rural governments which have indirect access through their relevant state bureaucratic representative – the District Collector and Divisional Commissioner.

Divisions of Powers Elected, Nominated and Administrative The 1992 Act provides for elected and nominated councillors. According to the size of the population of a particular unit, the number of elected councillors varies. Nominated councillors are to be chosen by the elected councillors for their special knowledge or experience in municipal administration.

The Municipal corporation – Mayor and councillors

This model is also known as the Commissioner system, taking its name from the role of the city administrator who is generally a state-appointed officer. In such a system the Mayor in the Municipal Corporation is usually chosen through indirect election by the councillors from among themselves for a term of one year, which is renewable.

The Mayor generally lacks executive authority. This is due to the British roots of the system that remain from the time when the administrator was the representative of the colonial power, not to the fact that it operates under a council-manager system (the subject of another article by this author on this website) whereby the executive would be accountable to the elected representatives. In this context, the indirect election of the Mayor combined with his short one-year tenure renders the role little more than that of a figurehead. Councillors act by committee, the most powerful being the Standing Committee with its role of the steering committee exercising executive, supervisory, financial and personnel powers. It is composed of elected members varying in number between seven and sixteen through a system of proportional representation of councillors.

The executive arm of the corporation The Municipal Commissioner is the chief Executive Officer and head of the executive arm of the Municipal Corporation. All executive powers are vested in the Municipal Commissioner. Although the Municipal Corporation is the legislative body that lays down policies for the governance of the city, it is the Commissioner who is responsible for the execution of the policies. The Commissioner is appointed for a fixed term as defined by state statute. The Commissioner’s term in office can be extended or reduced. The powers of the Commissioner are those provided by statute and those delegated by the Corporation or the Standing Committee. This is the closest that India has come to the council-manager system, with the critical difference of accountability of the manager to the elected arm of government; and the fact that the power of the unelected executive arm of government is thus weighted in its favour.

The Kolkata model

An alternative model to the prevailing Commissioner model is the one implemented in Kolkata, West Bengal. This model was introduced in 1984 and is known as the Mayor-in-Council form of city governance that can be described as a cabinet government replicating the formula operating at the state and national levels. This system is composed of a Mayor and a ten-member cabinet with individual portfolios chosen from among the elected councillors (in the context of Kolkata there are 141 wards in a single member ward system, rather than a multiple member ward system). It is in essence a hybrid between a mayor-council CAO system and the integrated federated framework. The Municipal Commissioner serves as the Principal Executive Officer subject to the control and supervision of the Mayor as the Chief Executive Officer in this model.

The municipal Corporation groups wards into boroughs with each one having a committee consisting of the councillors elected from the respective wards of the borough. The councillors elect one among themselves as the chairperson of the borough. The borough committees are subject to general supervision of the Mayor-in-Council, and look after sublocal functions such as water supply, drainage, collection and removal of solid waste, disinfection and health services, housing services, lighting, repairs of certain categories of roads, maintenance of parks, and drains.

It is perhaps best described as a transitional form of an integrated federated system, which seems to indicate that less of a study of urban federated systems was made outside India. Instead, what was attempted was a system that tried to create an urban variation of the federated rural system. It is commendable that this effort was made, since an urban variation is due for India which was one of the very first regions of the world where the integrated federated framework was implemented.

One can contrast the Kolkata system to the Birmingham (UK) formula or the geographically closer new Karachi formula, which are both systems with a three-tier federated framework to place it in the context of these more defined models. (A description of the Karachi system can be found on this website in an article drafted by this author).

The weaknesses of this model in practice have been that the borough and ward committees have been too dependent on the mayor-in-council arm of the system. There has been inadequate operational autonomy in the selection and execution of schemes and a lack of involvement with revenue-raising and tax collection. Another variant of this approach is known as the chairman-in-council system, where the Mayor is the Chairman of the Council.

Municipal councils

Municipal Councils are units designated for smaller areas than the Municipal Corporations. State statutes govern Municipal Councils. The Municipal Council, the President elected by the councillors from among themselves, the Committees and the Executive/Chief Officer constitute the structure of this type of municipal government. The size of each Municipal Council varies from state to state, with the municipal acts prescribing both the maximum and the minimum number of councillors with terms in office varying from three to five years. In some states the council Presidents are elected directly by the citizens. In a number of states the term of the President varies from one to three years and is not coterminus with that of the council.

The President has a substantive position in the municipal administration and enjoys significant authority and power both in the deliberative and executive arms of the municipality. The powers and functions of the Municipal Council Committees are the same as those of the Municipal Corporation. In most states the state government appoints the Executive Officer. In some states the council makes the appointment, but his or her independence has been confirmed by making removal from office difficult – generally by a three-quarter majority vote.

Local government functions

All municipal acts in India provide for functions, powers and responsibilities to be carried out by the municipal government. These are divided into two categories, obligatory or discretionary.

Obligatory functions include: supply of pure and wholesome water; construction and maintenance of public streets; lighting and watering of public streets; cleaning of public streets, places and sewers; regulation of offensive, dangerous or obnoxious trades and callings or practices; maintenance or support of public hospitals; establishment and maintenance of primary schools; registration of births and deaths; removing obstructions and projections in public streets, bridges and other places; and naming streets and numbering houses.

Discretionary functions include: laying out of areas; securing or removal of dangerous buildings or places; construction and maintenance of public parks, gardens, libraries, museums, rest houses, leper homes, orphanages and rescue homes for women; and public buildings; planting and maintenance of roadside and other trees; housing for low income groups; conducting surveys; organising public receptions, public exhibitions, public entertainment; provision of transport facilities with the municipality; promotion of welfare of municipal employees.

Some of the functions of the urban bodies overlap with the work of state agencies. The functions of the municipality, including those listed in the Twelfth Schedule are left to the discretion of the state government. Local bodies have to be bestowed with adequate powers, authority and responsibility to perform the functions entrusted to them by the Act. However, the Act has not provided them with any powers directly and has instead left it to state government discretion. The Act does address devolution of powers and responsibilities. However, the devolution of powers commensurate with the relevant responsibilities is left to the discretion of the state government concerned. This leaves it open to the states to devolve powers, together with the challenge of determining whether what is devolved can be managed in terms of sufficient capability and money. In sum, the 1992 Act was a step towards modernising local government; although still doing so on the basis of the foundation of the earlier era.

Currently, there remains the void that can be filled by establishing city regions that would embrace both core cities and the Nagar Panchayats, or intergovernmental cooperative bodies that could be a preliminary mechanism from which more substantive bodies could emerge. Both alternatives can be found in countries outside India.

Coordination Challenges In urban areas in the post-1992 Act era there remains a need for coordination between the various agencies that operate in the same environment. Ramesh Ramanathan encapsulated the confusion and patent lack of coordination that can result thereby in his article in the Financial Express entitled “Too many cooks in the urban services kitchen”. Such agencies are rooted in India’s pre-Independence era, and there remains the requirement that there be developed some coherence with clear demarcation of responsibilities and accountability; or in the alternative that some of these agencies be consolidated with urban government . The National Urban Renewal Mission

In December, 2005, a National Urban Renewal Mission (NURM) was announced, which calls for the creation of other arrangements for improving service delivery, which may also affect the environment by adding even more confusion to the situation preceding it.

The goal of NURM, however, is to upgrade urban infrastructure and to further reform the urban situation. The centrally devised program has identified over 60 Indian cities for the improvement program. Funding provision for the improvement is to be divided according to a defined ratio for mega cities and those with more than a million plus population. This is to be 35 per cent from the national government, 15 per cent from the states and the remaining 50 per cent from financial institutions. For other cities, the formula is to be 80:10:10. However, release of funding is tied to the states and their urban local units becoming signatories to a tripartite memorandum of understanding with the national government of accepting to undertake the reforms required. The reform agenda includes core reforms, mandatory reforms and five optional reforms.

The core reforms include implementation of decentralisation measures as envisaged in the 74th Constitutional Amendment, the drawing up of public-private-partnership (PPP) models for development, management and financing of urban infrastructure the adoption of an accrual-based double entry system of accounting, passage of public disclosure law to facilitate quarterly performance information to all stakeholders and a community participation law to institutionalise citizen participation.

It can be noted here that neighbouring Pakistan’s new system saw the implementation of some of these steps taken (but, not the PPP goals envisaged in India) when the new system was implemented in 2001; however, in the case of India, it will be changes that are still being implemented in the course of the system with its developed foundation. It was noted, by articles published in the summer of 2005 that India would be looking at Pakistan’s local system and it seems certain that a reform agenda is being undertaken in the context of the cities with an eye in some measure towards the implementation of the NURM.

There is also the requirement for the states to transfer, over a period of five years, all special agencies that deliver civic services in urban areas and the creation of an accountability framework for all urban civic service providers during the transitional period. This is an effort, it seems, to reduce the “too many cooks in the urban kitchen” scenario that has prevailed thus far. Its degree of success will be learned over the course of time.

Other core reforms include introduction of e-governance for property tax collections, with the goal of at least 85 per cent collection efficiency within five years and the introduction of similar practices in the case of financial accounting systems, work management, water tax billing and collection systems, the trade licensing system and the approval of building plans. Compulsory reforms to be undertaken by the states include repeal of the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act, reforms to the rent control law to stimulate private investment, reduction of Stamp Duty to bring it down to no more than five per cent within the next five years and the introduction of independent regulators for urban services.


Over the past couple of decades, India has seen the implementation and framing of efforts to modernise local government and has also revealed in the course of these efforts a commitment to local government that was hitherto a weak link in the Indian system. Nevertheless, it remains a system in transition that has room for further evolution to match its prevalent ground conditions. In addition to the areas to which attention has been drawn, the system also needs adequate quality control monitoring and capacity building mechanisms as well as additional reforms.

4 Responses to Urban local government in India carries characteristics of its colonial heritage out- of – step with its current needs

  1. Pradeep says:

    Very interesting and informative. Look forward to more.
    Pradeep Kakkar

  2. Premalatha.M says:

    The information flow pattern is highly interesting. This is good subject to be reviewed.

    Premalatha Gunasekar

  3. Keerthana.Y. says:

    its a very interesting topic and its a very important subject for each n every child to know

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 129 other followers

%d bloggers like this: