Capital confusion

Published : Feb 24, 2006 00:00 IST

Delhi epitomises an urban scenario where apolitical planning has marginalised the majority.

AMAN SETHI in New Delhi

IT was a demolition order that even the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) would never have predicted. On January 18, the Delhi High Court stated bluntly that if the MCD failed to implement its most recent directive in four weeks, it would be left with little choice but to dissolve the Corporation under Section 490 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act of 1957. The crime? The Corporation failed to rid Delhi's Tis Hazari Court Complex of the 1,000-odd monkeys that "attacked lawyers, their clients and court staff and even snatched eatables".

While the court's concern for lawyers' lunchboxes was duly noted by the MCD, that this was the second such warning in a week (the first being on January 13, in the case of the MCD's failure to prevent weddings in farmhouses on Delhi's outskirts) was not lost on it.

In fact, the MCD has been taken to court innumerable times in the past six months, most recently on issues such as the demolition of illegal constructions, the Yamuna Action Plan, stray cattle on Delhi's streets, slum evictions, the condition of Delhi's roads and the MCD's failure to remove illegal speedbreakers. Predictably, the Corporation's unenviable record has led to considerable speculation on the manner of its functioning and its future, and questions have been raised about its efficiency, transparency and accountability.

If statements by the Delhi government are to be believed, the solution being considered most actively is based on the Virendra Prakash Committee's recommendations to disaggregate the MCD into a number of smaller, geographically divided mini-corporations. Citing the example of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (the organisation responsible for the upkeep of Delhi's VIP areas), Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit told Frontline that a division of the "leviathan" corporation into smaller entities with their own Commissioners, Mayors and Standing Committees would result in "efficient, transparent and accountable entities", better suited to delivering essential services. Predictably, the proposal has been met with howls of protest from both the Opposition, which alleges that the proposal is "ad hoc" and "half-baked", and MCD councillors, who feel that the division will only lead to more chaos.

As has become increasingly common in the Congress in Delhi, the strongest opposition to Dixit has come from within her own party. Highly placed sources within the party told Frontline, that Dixit's attempts to break the MCD are principally to destroy an alternative power centre headed by her rival and Delhi Pradesh Congress president Rambabu Sharma. The recent elevation of her former protege-turned-arch rival Ajay Maken to the Union Ministry (possibly in the Urban Development Ministry), suggested that splitting the MCD might be much harder than imagined. However, Dixit has indicated that the proposal will be a central part of the Congress' election manifesto and that she intends to throw her weight behind it.

The proposal to reconstitute the MCD in a more decentralised manner has met with both support and resistance. However, restructuring the organisation can only be one part of the solution. While the incompetence of the MCD cannot be denied, the unique position of the Corporation must also be understood.

By virtue of its designation as a Class "C" State, Delhi is unlike most cities in the country. Its local affairs are managed by a host of government agencies, often with overlapping portfolios. As per the Twelfth Schedule of the Seventy-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, urban local bodies such as the MCD are charged with 18 specific tasks, including urban planning, regulation of land use and construction of buildings, roads and bridges, public health, urban forestry, slum improvement and upgradation, and the promotion of cultural, educational and aesthetic aspects. For this purpose the MCD consists of an executive wing headed by a Commissioner and a deliberative wing consisting of Municipal Councillors elected by the people. The Councillors are organised into committees, the most powerful being the Standing Committee - of between six and 17 members, which exercises executive, supervisory and financial powers. Thus, the Corporation functions as a legislative body that lays down policies for city governance, which are executed by the Commissioner.

Things begin to get complicated from here on. Owing to its designation as a State, Delhi also has an elected State Assembly that is largely concerned with matters of daily governance, administration and policy - matters that lie squarely in the MCD's portfolio. Apart from the State government, Delhi's status as a Union Territory and the National Capital implies that the Centre owns significant extents of land and has a direct role to play in the daily functioning of the city.

Further, the Union Territory designation implies that the MCD is directly answerable to the Centre, not the State government. Ironically, neither the Delhi government nor the MCD owns most of the land in Delhi; it is owned by the Delhi Development Authority or DDA - another organisation that is answerable only to the Centre. Thus, any proposal by any organ of government must traverse several rungs of the ladder of the federal government to attain any sort of completion.

The Yamuna Action Plan serves as a useful illustration of the problem. The clean-up of the river must be coordinated by the MCD, the Delhi government, the Union Ministry of Urban Development, the Ministry of State for Urban Development, the DDA, and now the Sports Authority of India as the riverbanks have been chosen as a site for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Organisational chaos also allows the State government an easy scapegoat. Minister of State for Urban Development, Planning, Finance and Public Works Dr. A.K. Walia points out that in spite of being the elected government of the people, the Delhi government is not even charged with drawing up the Master Plan (an area jealously guarded by the DDA), it can only make suggestions. Thus the Delhi government and the MCD can legitimately blame the DDA for the state of the city.

The MCD issue is squarely located in the matrix of efficiency, corruption and planning. Hence, the solutions for its overhaul are likely to follow the same logic of transparency, flexibility and accountability. What is lost is the acknowledgement that the logic of city planning, maintenance and growth often lies beyond this frame of reference. The stock response of the Delhi government to the demolitions fiasco is that a public administration problem must not be treated as a political one. However, the case may be made that in an urban scenario, where planning paradoxically attempts the marginalisation of the majority, politics will continue to be the key tool of urban transformation. The MCD claims that 80 per cent of Delhi is unauthorised: a clear indication that "apolitical" city planning has failed. A principal reason why the MCD seems so incompetent could be because the court routinely directs it to accomplish exactly the opposite of what its core constituency expects it to. Municipal Councillors are not elected to tear down houses; they are elected to ensure that houses constructed at great personal cost, owing to a failure of the state to provide adequate housing, stay up. But such an argument suggests that even seemingly "neutral" elements of governance and administration are open to political negotiation and contestation, an argument that makes established elite groups deeply uncomfortable. Elite groups prefer certain aspects of city life to remain "untainted" by the smudge of politics and be governed by autonomous entities unhindered by political pressure. Political processes, by virtue of their emphasis on numbers, allow the economically underprivileged a degree of access to the levers of power, levers that the elite have historically held.

In its most recent statement in the monkey case, the MCD has maintained that curbing the simian menace is not the responsibility of the Corporation - the task must be handed over to the Wildlife Department. The Corporation for its part has caught only 19 monkeys. However, a shortage of space at the existing monkey shelter in Rajokri has meant that the monkeys have been released into the Delhi Ridge. The city waits with bated breath.

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