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Why The Three Civic Bodies In Delhi Should Be Reunified
The erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) was trifurcated in 2012 to bring about efficiency in administration, but over the years, due to the unequal distribution of resources and assets post trifurcation; the three bodies face a severe financial crisis affecting civic services, delays in payment of salaries and a weakening local infrastructure in the capital
Photo Credit : PTI
Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Civic Centre, the seat of North and South Delhi Municipal Corporations
On March 9, the Delhi State Election Commission sent a press invitation to announce the schedule for elections to Delhi’s three civic bodies due in April 2022. However, in a surprise turn of events, State Election Commissioner SK Srivastava said that the Commission had deferred the announcement by a week.
He said that at 4:30 pm, half an hour before the press conference, the Commission received a ‘communication’ from the central government. “The communication that we received requires legal examination and hence I’m not announcing the poll dates today,” said Srivastava.
On being asked by the media what the communication was related to, Srivastava subtly said that the central government is considering the reorganisation of the three bodies or, in other words, the reunification of all three corporations.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) didn’t waste any time unleashing its machinery on social media and said that the BJP has conceded defeat and is running away from elections. Delhi Chief Minister and AAP National Convenor Arvind Kejriwal tweeted, “BJP ran away. Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) elections postponed; they have conceded defeat. In our survey, out of 272 seats, 250 seats were coming. Now more than 260 will come. But the Election Commission should not have come under the pressure of BJP.”
On March 10, the results for the five states which went to polling in February and early March came in. The BJP retained Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh with a comfortable majority. On the other hand, the AAP registered a clean sweep in Punjab by winning 92 seats in the 117-member assembly. The deferring of MCD polls hardly got any coverage as the count was on in these states.
On Friday, however, Kejriwal urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to let MCD elections take place in the national capital, stating that postponing the polls weakens the democratic system. Questioning the relationship between polls and unification of the three civic bodies, Kejriwal asked, “What does election have to do with unification of the three civic bodies? The new councillors chosen after the polls will sit in their respective offices if there are three civic bodies. If the three bodies are merged, they will sit together.”
However, the unification of the three civic bodies is not just limited to a unified house in the corporation where all the councillors will sit together. It has significant financial implications regarding the finances of the three bodies and the distribution of their revenue sources. This is precisely why even Kejriwal and the AAP have not explicitly spoken against the move to reunify the three corporations and have only focused on getting the elections conducted on time.
The local governance structure in Delhi
Delhi has five local bodies, namely the North, East and South Delhi Municipal Corporations, the Delhi Cantonment Board and the New Delhi Municipal Council. The latter two provide civic services to a limited area such as the cantonment and the Lutyens’ Delhi area. The majority of Delhi’s area is covered by the North, South and East Delhi Corporations. Before 2012, these three corporations were a single entity known as the MCD. In 2012, the erstwhile MCD was trifurcated into North, South and East Delhi Corporations for “better administration” by the then Sheila Dixit led Congress government in Delhi.
The beginning of the financial crisis
A senior official in the Finance Department of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), on the condition of anonymity, said, “The financial crisis for the bodies began when the trifurcation happened.” If the distribution of assets, area, and revenue sources are analysed post trifurcation, one can easily see an apparent disparity, he added.
For instance, post trifurcation, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) got areas that are quite urban and posh, resulting in a higher house tax collection for the body. The NDMC and the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) got areas with many slums and unauthorised colonies. Moreover, the NDMC got six hospitals, and the SDMC got none, implying that NDMC has a greater number of employees to pay.
Above that, since trifurcation, the sources of revenue over the years have remained the same. The three corporations’ internal sources of revenue include toll collection, registry, stamp duty, trade licences, property tax, conversion charges, parking charges, advertisement charges, etc. External sources include grants from the Delhi government. This is where one can understand how the distribution of zones resulted in a higher revenue collection for the SDMC than the NDMC and EDMC.
On the impact of the pandemic on the finances of the three bodies, the official said, “Before the pandemic, the NDMC and EDMC were able to manage somehow, and since trifurcation, they have been in hand to mouth situation whereas the SDMC with greater sources of revenue was able to stay above the survival line, but after the pandemic, even the SDMC is creeping towards a financial crisis.”
Delays in payment of salaries
The employees in the corporation ranging from sanitation workers to doctors and teachers have been on regular strikes every 3-4 months since August 2020 due to delays in payment of their salaries, sometimes for as long as three months. The employees approached the Delhi High Court in January 2021. The court expressed dismay and wondered how the Delhi government had the money for full-page advertisements in all newspapers but not enough to pay salaries. “Grievances of employees have been reduced to a political slugfest. There was no real sense of concern or sympathy for the employees; all of you are behaving completely irresponsibly towards these employees and pensioners,” the bench of Justice Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli observed.
Moreover, the poor finances have weakened the local infrastructure in the capital, and the corporations’ registered contractors have not been paid since 2015 for the public works they completed.
The politics over devolution of finances
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has problems with the way these municipal bodies are supposed to be funded. For instance, in October 2020, while inaugurating a waste to energy plant in the capital, he said that the Central government gives grants to all local bodies across the country; only in Delhi, the three local bodies are not getting any of these grants by the central government. He also has time and again accused the BJP, which runs the three civic bodies, of indulging in corruption and misappropriation of funds.
"Today, Kejriwal held a presser (on MCD polls delay in Delhi). I want to ask him... Does he know that Nagar Nigam had sought reforms last year? Delhi government has purposely deprived MCD employees of Rs 13000 crores. Kejriwal chooses to empty the Nagar Nigam treasury," Irani said while addressing a press conference.
Reunification to solve the financial crisis?
Trifurcation seems to be the root of the financial mess for these three local bodies, and reunification holds the key to improving the state of their finances. Local politicians in Delhi often say that trifurcation in 2012 had more to do with politics than “better administration.” According to some local leaders, before-trifurcation, Delhi used to have just one Mayor who often acted more powerful than the Chief Minister.
“Even if unification is not possible, at least the finances should be unified, and a concrete formula for devolution should be laid out,” said the senior official.
Last year in February, the AAP won 4 out of 5 seats in by-polls to the three local bodies, and the Congress bagged one. However, with the results declared on March 10 being fresh in public memory, both the AAP and the BJP will look to capitalise on the momentum in the upcoming civic polls. With the central government getting involved in this, the stakes will get higher, yet again signifying the political value of MCD elections in India's electoral politics.