Tamil Nadu

No substitute for local governance

Little republic: Holding elections to panchayats and urban local bodies, every five years between 1996 and 2011, threw up many enterprising panchayat leaders, who came up with innovative solutions to several vexing problems.

Little republic: Holding elections to panchayats and urban local bodies, every five years between 1996 and 2011, threw up many enterprising panchayat leaders, who came up with innovative solutions to several vexing problems.   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ


Tamil Nadu has gone without elected bodies in urban and rural areas for over two years now. While there are arguments aplenty on how elected representatives haven’t delivered the goods in the past, there is no denying that local self-governments make a qualitative difference to the lives of people

For a State that boasts of having established a system of elected village bodies over 1,000 years ago (Kuda Olai Murai, as reflected in Uttaramerur inscriptions of the Parantaka Chola era [907-955 C.E]), the prolonged absence of grassroots-level democratic bodies must be an irony.

Tamil Nadu, for the first time since the mid-1990s, has been without elected local bodies in urban and rural areas for more than two consecutive years.

On December 30 last year, the State government got yet another ordinance promulgated, extending the term of office of special officers of local bodies up to June 30, 2019. A few days later, in the customary address delivered by Governor Banwarilal Purohit to the State Assembly, there was no reference to conducting civic polls, though the Governor had covered the government’s plans, policies and programmes on a number of other matters.

Even during the January 7 hearing of the ongoing case when the State Election Commission (SEC) assured the Madras High Court of holding polls to local bodies in six months, the judges had their own doubts about whether the election schedule, presented before them, would be enforced.

Confidence personified

However, State Election Commissioner M. Malik Feroze Khan exudes confidence. “Both direct and indirect elections for the local bodies will be over by the end of July,” he says.

Mr. Khan, who is also the chief of the State Delimitation Commission, says that in mid-December 2018, details on fresh territorial wards of village panchayats, panchayat unions, district panchayats, town panchayats, municipalities and municipal corporations, drawn up using the 2011 Census, were published in the government gazette.

At present, the process of reservation of seats in urban local bodies (ULBs) is under way and the exercise for rural local bodies (RLBs) has almost been completed. “Once this is over, which we expect to achieve by the first week of February, we will take up the task of incorporating the revised electoral rolls, as prepared by the Election Commission of India (ECI), into those of ours which will be based on the latest delimitation of wards,” the Commissioner says.

Tamil Nadu not holding local bodies’ polls has come to the notice of the Centre, which has not been releasing basic grant and performance grant to the State as a matter of routine. For this financial year, the State government is awaiting the release of ₹3,612.05 crore as basic grant, apart from the performance grant of ₹560.15 crore, due for 2017-18. At least, the Centre can release the basic grant as the local bodies are deprived of this amount, says a top official.

Elections and having elected representatives are only some of the aspects of local self-governance. Larger issues are involved. A local body functions as a “school of democracy”, imparting education to people about local, State-level and national issues. Apart from nurturing qualities such as leadership, initiative and compromise, a local body provides space to marginalised communities and sections of society. As G. Palanithurai, a former Professor of Gandhigram Rural Institute, says, it is the duty of local bodies to ensure economic development and social justice, apart from a host of services.

Questions abound

At the same time, questions are being raised, not just in Tamil Nadu but also elsewhere, about whether local bodies, ever since the adoption of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in 1993, have ushered in an “inclusive, responsive and participatory democracy.” These macro issues are of no consequence to people like Ramanan, a resident of Kotivakkam in Chennai. “Were councillors of any use to people in an urban setting? Were they not a source of harassment ?” he wonders.

D.R. Sivasamy, former Additional Commissioner of Municipal Administration and now president of the Confederation of Organisations for Integrated Urban Development, does not fully dispute Mr. Ramanan’s statement. He explains why people are not feeling the absence of elected representatives. “The fault lies with them, as they, while in office, did not conduct themselves in an unbiased manner or non-partisan way.” Mr. Sivasamy points out that the situation in urban local bodies is “pathetic” as officials at the field level “are not concerned about micro problems of the people”, which largely remain unattended. “There is no systematic review of the status of works that are supposed to be carried out through general funds of municipalities. The officials seem to be concentrating only on those works for which government grants are given,” he laments.

G. Prakash, Commissioner of Municipal Administration, was not available for comments.

Echoing Mr. Sivasamy’s views on the role of councillors, an IAS officer, who has been studying local bodies for long, says that one cannot paint all councillors with the same brush. They do have a role in proper functioning of the local bodies which one cannot dismiss.

Role to play

People in urban slums or those belonging to economically weaker sections of society are the real sufferers, says Jayaram Venkatesan, convener of Arappor Iyakkam, which has been running a campaign against alleged corruption in the Chennai Municipal Corporation. With all their shortcomings, the councillors were of some help to these people, handling issues concerning the public distribution system or old age pension. “This channel is no longer available to them,” he points out.

The plight in rural areas is worse, complains Sumathi Chidambaranathan, former president of Adigathur Village Panchayat, Tiruvallur district, who, as a panchayat chief during 2006-2016, had shot to fame for having banned the use of plastics and revived nine waterbodies. Apathy is there all over, in every aspect of rural local bodies. To cite an example, no official even bothers to water the saplings that were planted when she held office, Ms. Sumathi points out.

S. Ravichandran, who was president of Vaalikandapuram village panchayat of Perambalur district during 2011-16, says that except big road projects, nothing is happening in rural areas. More than this, he dwells upon “bureaucratic hassles” that the people have to face at the field level in getting their grievances redressed on immediate issues as one special officer has to cover a number of village panchayats and the functioning of panchayat secretaries leaves much to be desired under the given circumstances.

Prof. Palanithurai says that the State government would have faced less criticism in handling the situation in districts hit by Cyclone Gaja had elected representatives of local bodies been available. “The way the councillors rose to the occasion during the December 2004 tsunami was remarkable,” he recalls. However, he ducks a question on elected representatives of the Chennai Corporation having abandoned residents during the December 2015 floods, saying that the main area of his study has been rural local bodies.

Nursery of leaders

The regular conduct of polls to the panchayats and urban local bodies, every five years between 1996 and 2011, threw up many enterprising panchayat leaders such as Ms. Sumathi. “Otherwise, we would not have got Jesu Mary of Michaelpattinam (Ramanathapuram district), who had received the attention of the World Bank, for her work in rainwater harvesting, and Ponni Kailasam of the Aanaikuppam panchayat, Tiruvarur district, who ran a campaign against illicit arrack,” recalls S. Nandakumar, founder of Thannatchi, a civil society organisation specialising in issues concerning local bodies.

There are similar accounts of male panchayat leaders. The examples of R. Shanmugam of Odanthurai panchayat in Coimbatore district, who harnessed new and renewable energy, and R. Elango of Kuthambakkam of Tiruvallur, for his work in poverty alleviation, are some of the success stories from Tamil Nadu.

That representatives of local bodies have fallen short is an open secret. Mr. Ravichandran concedes that there were some panchayat leaders who had committed irregularities in the utilisation of funds. The instances of de facto panchayat presidents, where women headed the local bodies, are considerable. “All these problems are not insurmountable,” says S. Kesavamurthy, an activist of Melmugam panchayat in Namakkal district

The defence by senior officials of the government, handling matters of rural and urban local bodies, runs like this: both the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj as well as Municipal Administration and Water Supply departments are functioning in sync with other departments such as Health when it comes to the outbreak of any disease. As for Cyclone Gaja relief works, the degree of mobilisation of resources that the Cauvery delta districts experienced was only possible on account of the government.

Besides, those who man the departments are “alive to issues and problems” which are brought to their notice through the media or social media or any other channel and they act on such reports immediately, the officials contend. They say their internal system of monitoring and follow-up is “quite robust”.

The state of affairs concerning local bodies is not without political discourse. A. Narayanan, activist and one of the petitioners before the High Court in the civic polls case, feels that political parties have found the present situation convenient.

Asked a few months ago why the government was not doing anything to hold the polls at the earliest, the reply of a top official was: “Let the DMK withdraw its petitions [filed before the High Court and Supreme Court].” R.S. Bharathi, DMK’s organising secretary and another petitioner, recalls how his party, while in power in 1996 and 2006, saw to it that the local bodies’ elections were held without any hassle.

Regardless of the pros and cons cited by stakeholders, what is acknowledged is the qualitative difference that local self-governments can make to people. The State Election Commission, which completes 25 years on July 14, will do well to ensure that elected local bodies are in place in the State by then, activists and public-spirited bureaucrats say. In making this happen, the responsibility of the ruling party cannot be glossed over.

As, only a revival of grassroots-level elected bodies will complete the democratic set-up, in tune with the State's glorious traditions.


Decoding grassroots democracy

A lowdown on the local government set-up, both urban as well as rural, in Tamil Nadu

Decisions and delays

Sept. 26, 2016: State Election Commission (SEC) issues notification for local bodies’ polls to be held on October 17 and 19

Oct. 4:  Madras High Court directs SEC to issue fresh notification and hold elections not later than December 31. Special Officers (SO) appointed

July 11, 2017: Ordinance promulgated, forming Delimitation Commission for local bodies

Sept. 3: Ordinance issued, linking the conduct of local bodies’ polls to fresh delimitation of territorial wards of local bodies

Sept. 4: High Court orders that fresh notification be issued by September 18 and poll process be completed by November 17

Order not complied with. Contempt petition filed in High Court

Dec. 14, 2018:  Notifications issued on revised territorial wards of rural and urban local bodies

Dec. 30: One more ordinance promulgated, extending SOs’ term till June 30, 2019

Jan. 7, 2019:  SEC assures High Court that it will hold elections by May-end


Profile of urban local bodies

CategoryNumberArea (in sq. km)Population (in lakh)
Municipal corporations   12   1,704.31   148.38
Municipalities124   2,502.09     87.40
Town panchayats528  6,388.20    80.53
Total66410,594.60  316.31

Population of women:  174.54 lakh
Population of Scheduled Castes:  49.63 lakh


Profile of rural local bodies

 Village panchayats:  12,524

 Area: 1,04,149.61  sq. km

Rural population (Census 2011): 404. 86 lakh

Women: 185.5 lakh

SC:  94.75 lakh


Local bodies élections: reservation of seats in 2016

No substitute for local governance

Note:  SC (gen): Scheduled Castes (general); ST (gen): Scheduled Tribes (general) 

The table pertains to the 2016 break-up of the posts for various categories of local bodies. On completion of the ongoing reservation process based on the latest delimitation of wards, changes are likely in the break-up for some posts.  However, there will be no change in the total number of the posts for each layer of local body.  

Mayors of municipal corporations, chairpersons of municipalities and town panchayats and presidents of  village panchayats are elected directly by people whereas chairpersons of 

district panchayats and panchayat unions are chosen through indirect elections.


Laws that govern urban local bodies

Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act, 1920 (covers municipalities and town panchayats)

Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act, 1919  

Madurai City Municipal Corporation Act, 1971  

Coimbatore City Municipal Corporation Act, 1981

Tiruchirapalli City  Municipal Corporation Act, 1994

Tirunelveli  City Municipal Corporation Act, 1994

Salem City Municipal Corporation Act, 1994.

Tiruppur City Municipal Corporation Act, 2008

Erode City  Municipal Corporation Act, 2008

Vellore City Municipal Corporation Act, 2008

Thoothukudi City Municipal Corporation Act, 2008

Thanjavur City Municipal Corporation Act, 2013

Dindigul City Municipal Corporation Act, 2013.


Law that governs rural local bodies

Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994

(covers village panchayats, panchayat unions and district panchayats)


Common laws and rules for local bodies

 Tamil Nadu State Property Tax Board Act, 2013 

 Tamil Nadu State Property Tax Board Rules, 2014

 (both meant for municipal corporations & municipalities)

Tamil Nadu Local Fund Audit Act, 2014  

 Tamil Nadu Local Bodies Ombudsmen Act, 2014 

 Tamil Nadu Local Bodies Ombudsmen Rules, 2015 

 (all meant for rural and urban local bodies)


“Tamil Nadu ranks second in terms of the Improved Index of Devolution in Policy. When the indices of policy and practice are adjusted against each other, Tamil Nadu secures the 4th rank overall amongst the States. What is most striking about Tamil Nadu is that the State ranks very high at the 2nd position in terms of the Finance component of the Devolution in Practice indicator, but ranks 11th in terms of the Functions component. This implies that in practice, the State is transferring substantial funds, but the functions being transferred are comparatively less.” — Fifth State Finance Commission’s report (2016), quoting a publication of the Union Ministry of Panchayat Raj on the status of devolution across States

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 4:56:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/no-substitute-for-local-governance/article26102040.ece

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