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'Dire need' to further decentralise Gujarat urban local bodies, form Areas Sabhas

Countreview Desk

In a letter to Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, My City Our City (MCOC), a network of civil society organizations (CSOs), researchers and development professionals of Gujarat has asked the state government to frame state legislation on lines of the Government of India’s Model Nagar Raj Bill (MNRB), stating, this is necessary in order to remain committed to the ideology of ‘Swaraj’ and ‘Self-reliance’ of Gandhiji at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is talking about Atma Nirbhar Bharat.
Signed by nearly 130 activists representing Gujarat’s CSOs, the letter says, the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) had prescribed Community Participation Law (CPL) as a mandatory reform, suggesting, this idea is also reflected in MNRB, which introduced the concept of ‘Area Sabha’ as the third and smallest unit of local governance in a city.
Pointing out that these Area Sabhas should function similar to Gram Sabhas in rural areas, the letter regrets Gujarat is one of the several states which has not ensured formation of the JNNURM-mandated CPLs, necessary to trigger decentralised governance in urban areas.

Text:

The decentralised governance to ensure participation of citizens in public policy formulation and decision making was one of the pillars of a strong nation as proposed by Gandhiji. The vision of Gandhiji was to have as a self-sufficient governing system wherein Panchayati Raj system prevailed for the rural India and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) for the urban India. The participation in democratic government is successful only in decentralised form wherein the local units play an important role and participation of citizens is ensured.
For municipal administration, decentralisation is the very essence of good governance. It has the innate ability of promoting democracy by taking decision-making close to the scene of action. It allows direct, large, continuous and more meaningful participation by citizens in the development process of their area. This heightens a sense of the true ownership of citizens and their commitment to the civic cause.
Good governance also demands that while ULBs should be empowered, they must also have an equal measure of accountability. It is an axiom of good governance that power must be counterbalanced by accountability; and in this age of digitisation, a whole host of transparency mechanisms need to be injected in municipal functioning.
There is no conceptual conflict in assuming citizen’s participation as a tool to ensure transparent and accountable governance; however, it is needed to ensure that true citizens’ participation in the process of governance is in place. Regardless of actions from the government, a proactive effort on behalf of citizens is also inevitable to seize a meaningful role in the process of urban governance.
The 74th Constitution Amendment Act (CAA), 1992 was passed with the objective of making ULBs empowered and self-governing institutions. If ULBs are to be empowered to become self-governing institutions, the state would have to perform a different role than what it is doing today. Article 243W of the Constitution of India states Legislature of a State may, by law, endow the Municipalities with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable then to function as institutions of self-government and such law may contain provisions for the devolution of powers and responsibilities upon Municipalities.
Enactment of the 74th CAA was the result of two parallel phenomena. The first was the growing demand of decentralisation in urban governance to fulfil the promises that have been made in the Constitution. The second was the pressure from neoliberal forces which argued for a roll-back of the state in order to foster maximise public participation in the public process.
Moreover, the broader objective of adopting a system of local self-governance in urban areas is to promote citizens’ participation in the process of governance and make administration accountable and transparent. Unfortunately, this has not happened.
Therefore, Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) had prescribed Community Participation Law (CPL) as a mandatory reform. The Government of India (GoI) has also drafted a Model Nagar Raj Bill (MNRB) for the consideration of and adoption by the states. The MNRB introduced the concept of ‘Area Sabha’ as the third and smallest unit of local governance in a city.
ULBs as autonomous bodies should promote decentralisation through ward and area committees and give them executive and financial independence
An Area Sabha would cover the citizens who are voters in one or more polling stations, but preferably not covering more than, say, 2500 voters, where 1000 to 1200 is the size of electorate for each polling station (booth) as defined by the Election Commission of India.
Each citizen within the boundary of the Area Sabha would be a member of the Area Sabha and each Area Sabha would elect, once in five years, a small Committee of Representatives. The Committee of Representatives would elect one person who would chair the meetings of the Area Sabha and would represent the Area Sabha in the relevant Ward Committee. Area Sabha would function similar to a Gram Sabha in rural areas.
Many states, including Gujarat, have not passed rules related to the Ward Committees as per the provisions of 74th CAA. As JNNURM had mandated CPL as a mandatory reform for the state governments, consequently Government of Gujarat (GoG), though having ratified 74th CAA in 1993, sanctioned the rules for the formation of Ward Committees only in 2007 under the provision of CPL reform of JNNURM, after signing a MoA with national government in 2006 committing to this and other reforms.
The GoG rules for Ward Committees are ‘Gujarat Municipal Corporation’s Wards Committees Functions, Duties, Territorial Areas and Procedures for Transactions of Business Rules, 2007' and for the constitution of Area Sabha, GoG rules enacted in February 2012 are ‘Functions, Duties, Territorial Areas and Procedures for Transaction of Business of Area Sabhas’.
The list indicates that a Ward Committee is limited in functions and powers, participation and is to only serve as a platform for advising, reviewing, seeking cooperation and extending cooperation to citizens and municipal corporations. It is not assigned independent power in formulation, passing and implementation of projects at ward level.
Regarding Area Sabhas, GoG rules limit the functions and powers of an Area Sabha to being only advisory by stating “Ward Committees shall prepare their proposals/suggestions for the annual budget for respective ward in consultation with Area Sabha’. Other than this statement, there is no mention of functions, powers and resources or financial autonomy to this invited space.
Briefly, GoG rules are deviated from the mandates of CPL by GoI as they do not devolve substantial functions, powers and financial autonomy. Even implementation of these rules on ground is worse; for instance, there is no Area Committee formed till date in the city of Ahmedabad or any other city whereas the Ward Committees consist only of elected councillors and a few municipal officials. There is neither participation of citizens nor Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) working in the ward are allowed in these meetings of the Ward Committees.
Considering the importance of ‘self-reliance’ propagated by the present government especially under the Aatma Nirbhar vision of our Honourable Prime Minister as the solution for India to counter effect the challenging times of COVID-19 pandemic, there is a dire need to make ULBs autonomous bodies by promoting decentralisation through ward and area committees and giving them executive and financial independence.
Here, it is important to note that ULBs, irrespective of its population size should be considered for the same as previous rules (2007 & 2012) were meant just for JNNURM cities and not for all ULBs. Millions of citizens residing in small and medium towns in Gujarat have enough potential to make them self-reliant based on available local resources and skills; but are kept deprived from any kind of participation in planning and decision making for their cities since decades.
In this context, My City Our City (MCOC) – a network of CSOs, researchers and development professionals in Gujarat – humbly requests the Gujarat state to frame state legislation in line of the MNRB considering peculiarities of Gujarat.
In fact, we propose to have a wider discussion between the state representatives and CSOs, researchers, development professionals and citizens on this important issue and frame an appropriate legislation following the ideologies of ‘Swaraj’ and ‘Self-reliance’ in Gandhi’s own land -- Gujarat. This would be a tribute to our father of nation in the truest sense.
We firmly believe that the present government which is committed and working for establishing democracy, transparency and social well-being through ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vishwas’ would take this letter seriously and enact a CPL incorporating the spirit of 74th CAA that would help our cities to become self-reliant through democratic decentralisation, Aatma Nirbhar Bharat, Aatma Nirbhar Gujarat.
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