Communities have evolved through multiple forms of political organisations where source of power is either in hands of one (monarch), a few (oligarchy), or many (democracy). Democracy, which literally means ‘power to the people’ was one of the early forms of political organisations that intended to give power to the citizens.
Magna Carta Libertatum or the Great Charter, was signed in the 13th century by King John of England to broker peace with his rebel barons and control his unequal powers. In simple terms, Magna Carta laid the principles for guaranteeing rights of those not in power. Some of these rights pertained to issues such as taxation, marriage, property ownership, inheritance, personal liberties, rule of law for criminal proceedings and so on. Though not devoid of conflicting opinions about its role, the Charter and its various revisions are seen as the historic fountainhead of modern democratic principles.
From the 63 original clauses of the Charter, only 3 remain in the English Law. One of those 3 clauses include the preservation of ‘liberties and customs’ of the ‘City of London and other towns, cities and boroughs’. These liberties and customs for the city essentially meant the rights of the people living in those cities as well as officials governing the cities.
Over the centuries, this clause has been eroded by various legislations that have prevailed over the clause or by the obsoleteness of the sub-clauses themselves such as archaic taxes, tolls, penalties, officials and so on. However, the continuity of this clause and its survival over almost seven centuries, brings forth two important points.
1. Rule of law is essential to guarantee (city’s/citizen’s) rights
2. Role of cities (and citizens) is important in any Rule of Law
As an independent country, India chose be a democratic republic i.e. it gave power to the people through their chosen representatives, while guaranteeing certain inalienable rights via a Constitution. For us, the rule of law stems from the Constitution, which gives power to the legislature as well as executive.
Where does the role of cities feature in our rule of law? After being ruled by British for over two centuries, our system of governance as well as rule of law was largely influenced by that of Britain. We still have many laws dating back to pre-Independence. Role of cities in our rule of law also has been in evolution since British times. And since then, we have gone back and forth from acknowledging the role of sub-national units and giving them power. To govern (or rule) India, British Parliament started with the Governor General of Bengal who later became Governor General of India and then the Viceroy. The process, in effect centralised the British rule. The reforms initiated by Lord Rippon in 1882 and subsequent Government of India Acts in the period before Second World War, were all aimed at making local governments stronger. Next year will be 100 years of the Govt. of India Act of 1919, which (for a short while) created the system of ‘diarchy’ which devolved certain powers to the provinces while keeping others with the Viceroy (central government). Subsequently in 1935, greater autonomy was legislated for provinces and power was divided between the centre and the provinces through a Federal List, Provincial List and a Concurrent List (but no City List).
Post-independence, we seem to have undertaken a similar journey of effective centralisation and then yearning for decentralisation. After almost four decades of being a Republic, the role of local bodies was acknowledged constitutionally, and an amendment was made to make panchayats and urban local bodies a third-tier of government. The 74th Amendment to the Constitution, made in the year of 1992 (enforced by 1994), redefined the role of urban local bodies in terms of their functions and powers, revenue sharing with state governments and stable representative government at the city level. It has been 25 years since the amendment but the evidence of the efficacy of the amendment is mixed.
We are currently the knowledge partner of a pan-India study to collect this evidence and have already visited 12 states studying the Municipal Acts in conjunction with the constitutional amendment and mapping it with actual implementation in cities. Though the amendment clearly designated 18 functions (perhaps similar to a City List) to be performed by the municipalities, the evidence on actual implementation is mixed. In some states, the fire services are with the municipal bodies, in others with the state fire department or home and emergency services. Some cities control the water supply while in others para-statal departments are still providing the connections and collecting water charges. The institutional structures are also varied where some cities have a directly elected mayor and others have indirectly chosen mayor. Few have a 5-year term for the mayor and others have 2.5 years or 1 year.
In most of the states, the role of citizens is city affairs is not institutionalised. Power to the people at city level was envisaged directly through citizen participation via Ward Committees and indirectly by providing democratically elected governments where every citizen could vote (as per the eligibility). More than a decade after the 74th CAA, the ‘Community Participation Law’ (CPL) was made a (state level, not city level) mandatory reform under the Jawahar Lal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM). However, municipal elections in many states/cities still don’t take place every five years and municipal bodies continue to run without any elected body. Ward Committees have not been constituted or are not functional in many cities even today.
However, now the onus of citizen participation is not solely on the constitutional provisions but also on the present context in which city specific programs are being implemented. As the flow of information has increased, it is not possible to implement major programs without taking inputs from the citizens. New forms of participation, including those enabled through technology, have emerged. Citizens themselves are realising the importance of their voices in steering the future of their cities. Resident Welfare Associations in Secunderabad recently demanded a statutory status for themselves. Municipalities also have come a long way in understanding and enabling citizen participation as compared to almost a decade ago when JnNURM required City Development Plans to be formed through citizen participation.
It is interesting to note that it was communities and cities that provided the initial template for democracy that got translated at national level. Now we are coming back to conforming these templates at a city level. We indeed have come a long way where courts have to intervene to allow citizen's participation in functioning of urban local bodies from the times when the first urban local bodies in India could only be formed if residents of the city made an application for their formation.