A few days ago, a researcher friend based in Chandigarh asked if there was a provision in the Local Bodies Acts to ensure that election candidates, candidates and parties, make achievable promises. And if they were to promise something beyond the scope and capacity of the municipality, can they be sued. How I wished we could apply such a law to our Prime Minister’s promise of Rs 15 lakh to every Indian’s bank account. Indeed, candidates should only promise what they can deliver.
The researcher friend echoed a former mayor of Chandigarh, who lost in the municipal elections recently held in the Union Territory. The mayor was likely referring to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) promising to replicate its “Delhi model” in Chandigarh. The AAP became the largest party, overtaking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the polls for the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation. Not only did some of the former BJP mayors lose despite the party’s high decibel campaign, but its defeat was more brutal since the UT is under Center control and its MP is also from the BJP.
The main promises of the AAP were to provide 20,000 liters of free water to all households every month, to clean the garbage from the Dadumajra landfill, to install CCTV cameras and to make wifi accessible throughout the city. These poll promises necessitate a debate on issues of urban governance.
The demands and slogans of the Chandigarh municipal elections, such as free water, free electricity and social housing, resonate and reinforce the concept of “democratization of surplus”. BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, spoke of “one person, one vote”. It should also mean “one man, one economic unit”, but these slogans are becoming more relevant due to widespread and vast inequality.
Cities have become centers of capital accumulation through expropriation, especially over the past four decades. Twin processes were at work. First, the state, which provided essential services to citizens, passed this agenda on to private capital. Services such as water supply, education, health care and even housing are now areas of expansion for private capital. According to one estimate, real estate is the primary driver of capital accumulation in some cities.
The other reason people have lost their ability to acquire or hold assets is the nature of capitalist production in cities. According to one estimate, most workers – nearly 94 percent – are engaged in the informal sector. This has drastically reduced the bargaining power of workers in the cities.
The city itself has become a center of capitalist accumulation. As several urban planners have pointed out, cities are the centers of surplus production and should therefore be seen as factories. The democratization of the surplus in these urban centers and the slogans related to this idea, such as free water and electricity, more health centers, are neither gifts nor populist ideas but linked to the class demand of the workers .
Even in Chandigarh, the middle class elite still voted for the BJP, while the poorer and marginalized sections voted for the AAP and Congress.
Such democratization of surplus in cities is taking place in different parts of the world.
In many cities, remunicipalisation is being implemented in service delivery. For example, in Barcelona, progressive groups raised the slogan “Win Barcelona” and, after winning the elections, worked to democratize the urban commons, especially in the digital realm. Similarly, in Montreal, there has been an attempt to shift the city’s mobility from elevated privately driven vehicles serving the interests of oil and automobile capital to mass transit.
Next comes the question of the role of local self-government. After more than a quarter century of the 74th amendment to the constitution, functions, officials and finances have not been transferred to local governments across the country except Kerala.
The universally transferred function is that of a garbage collector. We will even soon have the registration of births and deaths transmitted to the central government. The cities are more like annexes of the State or the Center. The demand for municipal cadres corresponding to the services of state cadres has not been implemented anywhere.
Cities are to be governed by the principle of democratic decentralization envisioned in the 74th Amendment. Urban planning, apart from other functions, must be conveyed to the city council, preparing plans through meetings of neighborhood committees and community participation. However, the reality is that citizens are removed from the decision-making process.
Third, the debate over candidate and political party pledges and their feasibility – pledges are made to break the inertia of the existing delivery system and according to the class of people a political party represents.
Architect Charles Correa, chairman of the first urban commission formed in 1986, felt that urban governance in India was in desperate need of accountability. He said that more and more cities around the world are run by political leaders directly elected by the people of that city. So they defend the interests of citizens, otherwise they will not be re-elected. Unfortunately, in India, we find that cities are run by Chief Ministers of State who are not elected by the citizens of the city and therefore completely unaware of the demands and demands of the city.
Therefore, accountability in elections should not just be limited to promises made in elections, but should be drawn into a broader canvas of ‘autonomy’ in cities. This should be done by ensuring not only wider participation of people, but by democratizing the whole process.
(The author is a former Deputy Mayor of Shimla)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.
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