Any Indian who has traveled around the world is forced to contemplate about the lackluster nature of Delhi.
A mere glance at the news on Delhi, and you see the same issues or more, ranging from pollution-related incidents to poor infrastructure and governance. Depending on the perspective, the blame lies with either the Delhi government or the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his party in fact made a big issue out of this during the recent MCD elections, seeking to impress voters that “MCD under the same party” would solve many problems.
The cure suggested by the pundits, however, are partially true at best. The MCD has only restricted powers and responsibilities. Delhi’s problems stem from a maze of administrative complexities.
Technically, Delhi is under the administration of the President of India through the Lieutenant Governor (LG), who is vested with administrative powers. This confusing organisational structure often leads to diffused, incoherent planning and execution.
This is clear on seeing the division of powers. Of the 18 functions to be devolved to city governments under the Seventy-fourth Constitutional Amendment Act, only four are under the MCD; 11 are under multiple agencies, while the balance three are with the state government.
This has been a cause of several legal battles reaching the Supreme Court’s doorstep on multiple occasions. On the last occasion in 2018, the Supreme Court had concluded that while the LG wasn’t the administrator, (s)he could make decisions upon the instructions of the President.
The Problems of Delhi in Independent India
The problem of Delhi in Independent India has been a perpetual puzzle. Delhi was a Category C state at the time of Independence, with Chaudhary Brahm Prakash being its first chief minister.
Despite being a Congressman, he faced significant problems with , the then chief commissioner, equivalent to today’s LG. Eventually though, the States Reorganisation Commission recommendation led to Delhi being downgraded to a Union Territory (UT) amid near universal criticism.
Of course, demands for statehood remained alive, thanks to the . However, the thinking of creating a UT was that the city should have lesser governance layers and a uniform governance model.
Then, there was also the need for a security force to guard elected members of parliament among other functions.
The challenges however persisted. As the Balakrishnan Committee noted, there were several functional and structural deficiencies in the way Delhi was administered.
Chief among them was the fact that the Metropolitan Council and the Chief Executive Councillor had little say, and were just another body like the Delhi Municipal Corporation.
The various departments at the time moved in their own directions in the absence of any nodal agency, and multiplicity of agencies was seen as a problem. Yet, the reasons for rejecting full statehood that time held up even in 2018. Among them, two stood out.
Firstly, Delhi’s finances would be in a Constitutionally untenable position since it was bound to receive disproportionate central benefits.
Secondly, as India’s capital, Delhi needed central interventions on a daily basis. Thus, a middle path of sorts was sought.
However, the Committee had clarified that the LG had powers to override the advice of the elected government on matters outside the purview of the elected government and where his discretionary powers may apply.
So What Should be Done About it?
Let’s consider the most basic amenity to understand the mess – waste generation. In Delhi, the generated waste collection, transportation, and treatment are done by two independent bodies. A process as simple as collecting, transporting, and treatment of waste is mired in bureaucracy.
In contrast is the case of Indore, identified as India’s cleanest city - the effort is led by the municipal corporation primarily. The Indore model has of course had the backing of a stable regime.
Delhi’s voters may have reached the same conclusion by electing Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) into governance thrice now. The results, however, have been underwhelming at best, as the recent pandemic exposed the shortcomings spectacularly.
Infrastructure has been the moot point in all elections, and yet little changes. Delhi has developed a set pattern of failure over the years.
During summers, industries are asked to shut down due to lack of electricity; during monsoons, the whole capital comes to a standstill. Lack of clean drinking water, flailing mass transportation and the pollution crisis each winter are for all to see.
However, as AAP governments in Delhi and Punjab are forced to realise, freebies are no substitute for urban governance. For a fact, provision of free electricity is possible in Delhi today primarily due to the Vajpayee era reforms in the power sector—reducing power theft and losses to single digits and increasing revenues for the Delhi government, which is still a minority shareholder in the discoms.
While Delhi desperately needs reforms and reimagination of urban governance, Arvind Kejriwal has shown no such inclination. With such promises as freebies and Old Pension Scheme reinstatement, what we witness on a daily basis is opportunity losses.
Thus, even with the Municipal Corporation within his grasp now, the chances of anything changing seem bleak.
This is a far cry for the party, which, in its initial days talked about urban governance and recently tried taking the high ground on air pollution, transport and education.
But far from meaningful results, there has been just optics. Further, freebies have led to an ever widening deficit in Delhi’s pocket, eliminating any hope for investments to improve and augment existing infrastructure.
As India sets its eyes on the $10 trillion GDP target, it truly deserves a capital fit for that economic stature. While the centre is doing within its capacity things that it can deliver on, be it the Central Vista, the Rapid Rail, or the Ring Road expansion to name a few, much rests now on Kejriwal's shoulders.
But can Arvind Kejriwal really deliver should he gain full control post the Mayoral election? Only time will tell.
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