It is time for comprehensive reforms to municipal elections: Data

To deal with challenges with respect to the conduct of municipal elections, State Election Commissions need to play a far more significant role

Updated - April 03, 2024 12:53 pm IST

Published - April 03, 2024 12:17 pm IST

Municipal elections are either delayed or when held, councils are not constituted for urban local governments

Municipal elections are either delayed or when held, councils are not constituted for urban local governments | Photo Credit: PTI

The Supreme Court judgment on the Chandigarh mayoral election gives us a good occasion to think more broadly about elections to municipalities. Elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are impressive democratic exercises in terms of timeliness of elections, the manner in which they are convened, and the clockwork nature in which power is transferred from one government to another. But elections to “first-mile” governments, i.e., panchayats and municipalities, is another matter altogether. The Court has only intervened to right one wrong in one city. A lot more remains to be done to strengthen first-mile governments in India.

The first issue with respect to municipal elections is that they are not being held on time. This is in violation of the Constitution. As per Janaagraha’s Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems 2023 study, over 1,400 municipalities did not have elected councils in place, as of September 2021 (Table 1).

Table 1 | The table shows urban local governments without elected councils across States and UTs.

*Haryana - ULBs - Local Self-Government Directory says that there are 92 ULBs in the State, whereas, says 87 (updated on 15 November 2021)

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The CAG’s audit reports of 17 States on the implementation of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act (74th CAA) observes that over 1,500 municipalities did not have elected councils in place during the audit period of 2015-2021 across States (Table 2). Among larger cities, the Greater Chennai Corporation had elections in 2022 after a gap of nearly six years, and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi had elections after a delay of seven months, while the municipal corporations of Mumbai and Bengaluru are awaiting elections for over one and a half years and three years after the expiry of the term of their previous elected councils.

Table 2 | The table shows the urban local governments without elected councils as per the CAG’s performance audit reports.

Second, where elections to urban local governments were held, in certain cases, councils were not constituted, and elections of mayors, deputy mayors and standing committees were delayed. In Karnataka, there was a delay of 12-24 months in the formation of elected councils after the declaration of election results in most of the 11 city corporations. As per reports, in 214 urban local governments (out of 304) in Karnataka, there was a 26-month delay in the formation of councils and election of chairpersons and standing committees for the first 2.5-year term, after election results were announced in September 2018. Further, after the expiry of the first term of 2.5 years in May 2023, the same urban local governments did not hold elections for chairpersons and standing committees for more than eight months as of 2023. The delay in Chandigarh by comparison was 12 days. Summary data on the constitution of councils, and elections of mayors, deputy mayors and standing committees are not available easily.

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The first challenge of holding timely elections requires determined enforcement with the Supreme Court’s intervention. Article 243U of the 74th CAA stipulates that the duration of urban local governments is five years and that an election to constitute an urban local government should be completed “before the expiry of its duration”. Further, in case of dissolution of the elected council by the State, the election should be held before the expiration of a period of six months from the date of its dissolution. Despite the Supreme Court stating in Suresh Mahajan v. State of Madhya Pradesh (2022) that this constitutional mandate is inviolable, State governments do not hold timely elections for urban local governments.

The second challenge is what the courts dealt with partially in the Chandigarh case. It appears to be an area that deserves greater policy attention in at least the following aspects: discretion of government officials in scheduling elections on time; the possibility of the State government exercising undue influence on officials to delay elections; discretion of officials in identifying the presiding officer; the possibility of conflict of interest as the presiding officer may not be independent; and the manual ballot paper-based process. A reform roadmap for timely, free, and fair elections is much needed. The terms of mayors, deputy mayors and standing committees being less than five years accentuates this challenge by necessitating frequent elections, sometimes even annually. In India, 17% of cities including five of the eight largest ones have mayoral terms less than five years. We need a standardisation of mayoral terms of five years.

To deal with these challenges, State Election Commissions (SECs) need to play a far more significant role. Articles 243K and 243ZA of the Constitution state that the superintendence, direction, and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to panchayats and urban local governments shall be vested in SECs. Our analysis of municipal legislation across 35 States and UTs reveals that while except for Meghalaya, all States have constituted SECs, only 11 have empowered them to conduct ward delimitation. The Court has emphasised that in the domain of elections to panchayats and urban local governments under Part IX and Part IXA of the Constitution, SECs enjoy the same status as the Election Commission of India.

Perhaps it is time to also evaluate a potential role for the SECs in the elections of mayors, deputy mayors and standing committees, given what happened in Chandigarh. Unlike the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies, where there is a clear distinction between the legislature and the executive, in the case of a municipality, the mayor heads both the elected and the administrative wings of the city government. Given the reluctance of State governments to strengthen SECs, perhaps it is only the Supreme Court that can bring greater salience to municipal elections.

Source: Table 1 - Janaagraha’s City Leaders report based on the data available on the Local Self-Government Directory, urban local government websites, telephone calls made to government officials and journalists, and newspaper reports. Data as of 16 September 2021

Table 2 - CAG audit reports | The audit period for all the States is from 2015-2020 except Kerala, for which the updated position as on March 2021 was included. The audit covered 539 urban local governments.

Srikanth Viswanathan is CEO, Janaagraha

Also read |Data | Municipal corporations are gasping for funds, depend on State, Centre for grants 

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