The first civic body

Print edition : September 05, 2014

A view of Ripon Building, the seat of the Corporation of Chennai. It was built in the neoclassical style by Loganatha Mudaliar in 1913. Photo: V. Ganesan

Dr P.V. Cherian, Mayor of Madras, vaccinating a resident of Gokulam Colony on Lloyds Road during the revaccination programme of the Corporation in 1949. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Set up in 1688, the Corporation of Madras, the first civic body of its kind in India, has done pioneering work despite many ups and downs.

IN 1688, when the Corporation of Madras was established as the first civic body of its kind in India, it limits did not exceed “ten miles from Fort St. George”. Today, the administrative limits of the Corporation of Chennai stretch up to 43 kilometres on the coast of the Bay of Bengal from Kathivakkam in the north to Uthandi in the south and extend inland up to Ambattur in the west and Meenambakkam in the south-west. The growth of the most important urban agglomeration in Tamil Nadu has been remarkable. It was Sir Josiah Child, one of the directors of the East India Company in London, who recommended the establishment of the Corporation, but the formation of the municipal institution is considered the biggest achievement of Elihu Yale, the Governor at Fort St. George.

In 1901, the corporation had 30 divisions (wards) covering 68 square kilometres. Today, it has 15 zones with 200 wards and covers an area 426 sq. km. The Census of the Town of Madras, 1871, mentions the number of residents in 1687 as about 50,000. The population of the city went up from 5.40 lakh in 1901 to approximately 65 lakh in 2011.

Ever since its inauguration on September 29, 1688, and the appointment of Nathaniel Higginson as the first Mayor, the Corporation has tried to be representative. The first council had 12 aldermen to assist the Mayor in the administration. Of them, “three were to be selected permanently from the East India Company’s servants, while the other nine should be the heads of the representatives of various religious and ethnic groups in Fort St. George, Armenian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Gentue and Moors”, notes Walter J. Fischel in a paper on “The Jewish Merchant-Colony in Madras (Fort St. George) during the 17th and 18th centuries” ( Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 3, No. 2, August 1960).

It was only after the British took over the administrative control of the Indian colonial cities in 1858 that the municipal corporations in India got the powers to levy taxes and provide urban facilities.

Susan J. Lewandowski, writing on “Urban Growth and Municipal Development in the Colonial City of Madras, 1860-1900” ( Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2, February 1975), asserts that while Madras was a hub of commercial activities, industries did not develop in the region. “This was primarily due to two factors: (1) there was little encouragement given by the Madras government at this time to either indigenous or foreign industrial investment, and (2) the city was not well situated in regard to raw materials.” Because of this, Madras grew as a centre for administration and services. In the first 150 years of the corporation, the villages that formed Madras had their own functions, service castes, bazaars, and places of worship.

As expected, the civic body catered well to the “White Town” area, while neglecting Black Town. By 1900, almost a third of the city’s population lived in just over 5 per cent of the residential land in Black Town. Mortality rates were high and civic services could never keep pace. Although a water supply system was introduced in 1872, Susan Lewandowski notes that “it did not take into account the long-term implications of the city’s development, and within a short period of twenty years there were severe water shortages in its most congested neighbourhoods”. There was severe overcrowding in Black Town as large wholesale and retail markets were located there. By 1898, Moore Market was established to shift the general market out of Madras and decongest Black Town. Also conscious of the need for public transport, the corporation provided a horse-drawn tram car, which continued to be the most important form of transport from 1870 to 1900.

The Corporation of Madras was in the forefront of implementing programmes for the benefit of its citizens. The midday meals scheme in schools began in 1925 as a private effort to provide food for disadvantaged children within the corporation’s limits. It was an arrangement between a local philanthropist and the corporation’s representative. The understanding was to use the facilities of the corporation for the purpose. This became a precursor for Congress Chief Minister K. Kamaraj’s midday meal scheme. Later, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran extended the scheme throughout the State.

Right from the 1900s, members of various castes made persistent demands for representation in government service. In 1908, reservation was introduced for castes that had very little share in the administration. Subsequently, the Minto-Morley reforms (Government of India Act, 1909) made out a case for involving Indians in the administration in a limited way.

But the biggest reform came in 1921. The Madras Presidency introduced the far-reaching Communal G.O. (Government Order), which provided reservation of 44 per cent for non-Brahmins, 16 per cent for Brahmins, 16 per cent for Muslims, 16 per cent for Anglo-Indians/Christians and 8 per cent for the Scheduled Castes. This order was modified several times subsequently. But in 1951, in State of Madras vs Smt. Champakam Dorairanjan (AIR 1951 SC 226), the court declared that caste-based reservation as per the Communal G.O. violated Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution. Significantly, on June 18, 1951, the Government of India introduced the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, adding Clause 4 in Article 15 to make the judgment invalid.

Grass-roots democracy took a back seat following what came to be called the “muster roll” scam in the Madras Corporation in 1973. Between 1969 and 1973, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Congress councillors colluded with civic body officials to create bogus muster rolls of contract labourers and siphoned off money allocated for projects.

When the scam came to light in 1973, DMK Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who was in his first term then, dissolved the Corporation Council, and no elections were held to it for almost 23 years. Karunanidhi’s government was dismissed in January 1976 as he had defied the provisions of the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Although the DMK came to power in 1989, Karunanidhi did not revive the Council. During this period, active discussions were held on what should be the structure of a local self-government, but they could not be taken forward as the Karunanidhi government was once again dismissed in 1991, on the pretext of deteriorating law and order.

Without a Council

So, between 1973 and 1996, the Corporation had to conduct business without elected councillors. The government found a curious way out the situation. It appointed a Special Officer, provided for under the relevant Acts, to carry out the functions of the Council and those of various Standing Committees. The Special Officer was a reasonably senior officer from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). For more than two decades, democratic functioning was replaced with technocratic solutions. The move had some benefits. Parts of Chennai, particularly south Chennai, developed.

However, large swathes of north Chennai remained neglected. This was because most of the service colleagues of the officers as well as senior politicians stayed in south Chennai. The officers, more beholden to the government than to an elected body, were eager to make sure that the service functions of the Corporation were done properly in these localities.

During the years when the Council was administered by the Special Officer, the duty of providing water and clearing sewage was taken away from the purview of the Corporation, greatly reducing its powers. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board was set up in 1978 to tackle the highly technical issue of providing quality piped water to the people and building a sewerage network. Similarly, electricity, too, was taken from the purview of the Corporation, with the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board taking over complete control of supplying power to the Chennai municipal area.

With the reduction in the powers of the Corporation, the officials were left with the tasks of providing infrastructure such as roads and street lighting, clearing garbage and taking measures to prevent communicable diseases.

The period from 1991 to 1996, when the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK was in power for the first time, is considered the best period of the Special Officer-driven Corporation. Jayalalithaa hand-picked a 1970-batch IAS officer, R. Poornalingam, for the post, and a 1981-batch officer, K. Allaudin, for the post of Corporation Commissioner. A team of young IAS officers was appointed to oversee the critical functions of the civic body—solid waste management, finance, works, health care and education. The officers brought with them a new sense of urgency, better management, and computerisation skills, which were lacking in the civic body. The team gave direction and focus to its functioning and delivered decisions at a pace that no democratic institution can match. It focussed on constructing multi-lane roads, improving street lighting to international standards, ensuring periodic removal of garbage and better solid waste management practices, and improving health-care delivery.

With the Panchayati Raj Act coming into force, the Tamil Nadu government enacted two separate Acts for urban local bodies and panchayats in April 1994, necessitating the holding of civic elections across the State.

The elections were held in October 1996. The DMK, which came to power in May 1996, amended the provisions of the Nagar Palika Act by which the Mayor of the Corporation would be elected by the citizens of Chennai in a public election and the term of the Mayor’s office as well as the elected Councillors would be five years from the date of the election. However, the Deputy Mayor would be elected from among the members of the Council.

Karunanidhi, who was grooming his son M.K. Stalin to succeed him, used the local body elections as a platform to initiate his son into the next level of politics. Stalin, who lost the first Legislative Assembly election he contested in 1984 from the Thousand Lights constituency, was elected from the seat in 1989. He was defeated in the next election held in 1991. He was, however, elected from the same constituency in 1996 and re-elected in 2001 and 2006.

In 1996, Stalin became the first directly elected Mayor to occupy the high office in Ripon Building, the official seat of the Corporation since 1913. Under his mayorship, the civic body drew up a slew of schemes, both to cater to the neglected areas of the city and to reduce the traffic bottlenecks at various important junctions. The mini-flyovers, nine of which dot the city, was his contribution to reduce traffic congestion. While capital works got a fillip between 1996 and 2001, this came to a virtual standstill after Stalin was elected Mayor for a second time in 2001.

The DMK was defeated in the 2001 Assembly elections, and the AIADMK government, which was looking to curtail the powers of the Mayor, introduced a special Act, popularly called the one-man-one-post Act, which held that an individual could not hold the post of Mayor and MLA at the same time. With the Madras High Court refusing to stay the order, Stalin had to quit after holding the office for six years. He is the longest serving Mayor of Chennai.

The Deputy Mayor, ‘Karate’ S. Thiagarajan, assumed the powers of Mayor after Stalin quit. But the court came down heavily on him and also struck down the amendment. In effect, from 2001 to 2006, the Corporation wasted precious time in scoring political points even as the city was bursting at the seams. It was left to the next directly elected Mayor, M. Subramaniam, to work on some of the critical issues, when the DMK once again came to power in 2006. A political lightweight within the party, Subramaniam lacked Stalin’s sway over Fort St. George, the seat of power, and hence, despite hard work, he had not much to show for it at the end of his tenure.

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