A vote for robust civic governance: T.N. all set for civic polls after 10 years

While political parties are picking their candidates for the urban local bodies, experts point out the significant difference elected local bodies can make in urban governance.

Updated - January 23, 2022 04:43 pm IST

Published - January 23, 2022 01:20 pm IST

For the urban local bodies elections, the ruling DMK may go with the same alliance that won the Assembly election in April last. The AIADMK is likely to retain the BJP as its partner. File image.

For the urban local bodies elections, the ruling DMK may go with the same alliance that won the Assembly election in April last. The AIADMK is likely to retain the BJP as its partner. File image.

With the Supreme Court’s deadline of January 27 set to expire in a few days, Tamil Nadu will witness elections to the urban local bodies (ULBs) shortly. There are enough indications to this effect, going by the preparations of political parties and the authorities.

The principal parties — the DMK and the AIADMK — are said to have zeroed in on their likely candidates. The ruling party may go with the same alliance that won the Assembly election in April last, while the AIADMK is, in all likelihood, to retain the BJP as its partner. Some allies of the principal players have begun shortlisting their nominees. “In some districts, we have completed this work,” says A. Gopanna, senior vice-president, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee. The BJP has put former Union Minister Pon. Radhakrishnan in charge of the election work, according to M. Chakravarthy, vice-president of the party. Despite drawing a blank in the Assembly election, the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), founded by actor Kamal Haasan, has released two lists of 98 candidates. The others are gearing up for the elections.

On Wednesday, the State Election Commission held discussions with parties to ascertain their views on holding the polls. In the last few months, it conducted training programmes for district officers on a host of matters, including COVID-19 safety protocols. Last week, the State Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department and the Greater Chennai Corporation notified the reservation for the posts of heads of ULBs and wards.



Deadline fixed

Subject to any last-minute dramatic development, it is only a matter of days before the SEC announces the elections. Civic polls are being held in the State after 10 years. In October 2016, the elections were scheduled but were postponed in the wake of the Madras High Court’s direction. Subsequently, a host of developments, political and administrative, contributed to the delay. In September last, the Supreme Court took exception to the SEC’s plea for extending the deadline by seven months (till April 2022) and fixed a four-month deadline.

Without committing itself in the Assembly election manifesto to holding civic polls, the DMK had assured the electorate that it would go ahead with the plan of having elected bodies. True to its word, the government has paved the way for the polls. At the same time, it has not deviated from the AIADMK government’s decision on indirect elections to the posts of Mayors and chairpersons of municipalities and town panchayats.

This does not seem to have gone down well with a section of activists. P. Viswanathan, convener of all residents’ welfare associations at Chitlapakkam and D.R. Sivasamy, president of the Confederation of Organisations for Integrated Urban Development, believe there will be greater accountability only if Mayors are directly elected. Mr. Viswanathan says that under direct election, candidates have to cover the entire area of local bodies, at least at the time of campaign. An academic, based in Tiruchi, says the style of campaigning will be more intense than under the indirect election.


Critics of indirect election say the person who occupies the post of Mayor would not have to step out of his or her ward at the time of election. This may come in the way of the person’s understanding of issues of different parts of the city after assuming office. The system of indirect election would “reinforce party politics” at the local bodies, leaving no scope for non-party individuals to aspire for the post. Even the direct election has its minuses. While the head of a local body may belong to one party, a majority of councillors may be from another party. A similar situation was witnessed by R.S. Bharathi, now the DMK member of the Rajya Sabha, when he was elected chairperson of the Alandur municipality for the first time in February 1986 when AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran was the Chief Minister. “The strength of my party in the municipal council was lower than that of the AIADMK and Independents. In a House of 32 members, only 10 belonged to the DMK. I managed the situation with great difficulty,” recalls Mr. Bharathi, who became the head of the municipality for three more terms, including once through indirect mode in 2006.

Besides, under the system of direct election, it is not that the party leadership will have no control over its Mayors, who can ill afford to ignore the diktat of bosses of their parties. In May 2014, immediately after the Lok Sabha election, the then Mayor of Coimbatore, S.M. Velusamy, was first removed by the AIADMK’s general secretary and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa from the party’s post of the Coimbatore urban district secretary. Hours later, he quit the post of Mayor, too, without giving any reason. One reason cited for this development then was that his performance did not benefit the party to the extent it should have, as the AIADMK, which bagged 37 seats with huge margins in many constituencies, could win Coimbatore by about 42,000 votes.

Though this will be the second time that the indirect election is being held after the 74th Constitutional Amendment on ULBs came into force in June 1993. the system was traditionally followed in Tamil Nadu. For instance, in Chennai, till November 1973, the Mayor held the post only for one year through a rotation of representatives from different segments of society. As for the intensity of campaign in the indirect system, S. Nandakumar, founder of Thannatchi, a civil society organisation specialising in the issues of local bodies, points out that this depends on the participation of the major political players. “The system per se has no role to play.” Even as the discussions are under way on the two systems, there are voices against holding elections in the middle of the raging COVID-19 pandemic. “I am a strong votary of elected local bodies. At the same time, the reality of the pandemic gathering its momentum cannot be glossed over,” Mr. Sivasamy observes.



No room for consultations

Also, there are groups of people that do not want elected bodies at all. Rama Valan, a resident of Anna Nagar, had faced “several odd situations” when he built a house at Valasaravakkam. Needless to say, the situation was all creation of the elected representatives. But S. Kumararaja and K. Kathirmayon, activists based at Velachery in Chennai and Coimbatore respectively, do not dispute the problems that councillors may pose. However, in the arrangement in which corporations are managed through special officers for the last five years, there is not much room for consultations with people. Field officers are either risk-averse or indifferent to the needs of people. A keen observer of ULBs says accountability has become a major area of concern in the absence of elected local bodies. So long as elected representatives ran the Tiruppur municipal corporation, the local body did not falter in making payments to the New Tiruppur Area Development Corporation for getting water. But the situation turned worse as soon as the elected body ceased to exist.

Councillors can play a positive role. There is a perception in the bureaucracy that the presence of councillors could have lessened its work load in times of floods or at the peak of the pandemic. Elections can make a qualitative difference to urban governance if honest candidates rooted in local issues win, says S. Pushpavanam, an activist. The activists say the government should give ULBs more space in governance. Take the case of Chennai, where the local body virtually has no say in the functioning of the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Drainage Board or the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA). When M.K. Stalin was the Mayor during 1996-2001, there was an institutional arrangement between the local body and the water board.

A similar mechanism will have to be put in place not just in Chennai but also in Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Madurai and Hosur, where CMDA-type bodies have been established.

Given its rapid urbanisation and potential, the activists hope, Tamil Nadu can emerge as a model State where the local bodies blossom into ideal institutions of self-governance, if changes are made in policies and institutional mechanisms.


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