Friday, November 6, 2015

Role of the Mayor- Moving Beyond a Figurehead

By Jayati Narain*

The Mayor of Kochi, is not only the head of the Cochin Corporation, but is also the representative and face of the city. Unfortunately, this is a position that is merely become a token one, coming to the forefront only at times of election. Local urban bodies rather than actually leading development and growth in cities have become an extension of the state government. Thus, the elections that took place over the past week are actually more critical to political parties from a state perspective, rather than a local one.
The sidelining of the Corporation is the result of a failure to implement existing provisions, rather than a weak structural framework. The mandates and laws governing decentralisation in India at the Centre and state level do provide a wide scope for local governments to work at a grassroots level and develop according to the needs of the area. This is critical, especially in urban areas in Kerala, as the state has a growing urban- rural continuum and the significance of cities feeds in to that of the state. Unfortunately it is this developmental and economic overlap that seems to be working against the urban local bodies.

While it is difficult for any mayor to change the rules concerning their finances and political power, they should at least be able to address the issues relating to administrative power. This would not be demanding any extra powers, rather asserting the powers already guaranteed to them. A strong mayor would thus be one that is not just planning for the development of the city or addressing existing civic issues, but who understands the system that they will be working within. It is only with a clear understanding of the system that the mayor and her council will be able to maximise their level of influence and control in city development project.
The functions of the mayor and the Corporation are often unclear, even to those in office. This may be attributed to the fact that often, political parties do not invest much in the candidates standing for local bodies. Thus, generally local government is not a stepping-stone for a longer political career, rather these candidates act as placeholders for the party. Thus, the lack of experience and practical knowledge about the post is not something that is given much importance by the party. Often, rather than being oriented to their roles and responsibilities (beyond the week long sessions held by KILA) candidates operate as low level bureaucrats for the state.
In order to have a strong local government, candidates must be clear about the extant of their power and jurisdiction. It is only when they have a clear understanding of the system can they work within it effectively. The process of making urban local bodies more efficient and autonomous is cyclical one. Once the corporation begins taking advantage of all its powers, and limiting the power of the state it will be given greater importance, which may in turn lead to it being able to demand a greater degree of autonomy.

Kochi, the commercial capital, and the only city in the state shortlisted in the 2nd round of the smart city project, obviously holds much political significance. This has led to some of the provisions in the Kerala Municipal Act getting overshadowed by larger political interests. Even when the ruling party at the state and local level are the same, a friendly political climate, the powers of the corporation have constantly been undermined by the state and parastatal agencies.
According to the 12th schedule of the constitution, article 243 W, ‘Public amenities including street lighting, parking lots, bus stops and public conveniences’, come under the purview of urban local bodies. However, bus stops constructed by the town planning commission of the Cochin Corporation were demolished by PWD, based on the grounds that the roads were maintained by the PWD thus they have authority over construction along it. Similar examples of parastatal agencies over stepping their jurisdiction are present in the case of several provisions set in place to empower urban local bodies. In the case of  ‘roads and bridges’, and ‘water supply for domestic, industrial and commercial purposes’, agencies such as the Kerala Metro Rail Limited and the Kerala State Water Board have played a much larger role, than constitutionally mandated. This is due to the lack of coordination and overlapping responsibilities that come up between these agencies and the corporation. While these agencies are working for the city, it is at the cost of the city administration. The benefits of such projects are thus geared towards the state government rather than the city government.

The first step towards avoiding such situations, or planning them better would be for the role of the mayor to be clear. The mayor presides over all the standing committees of the council, and is supposed to have regular meetings with them. She/he is a representative of the city to the state and Central government. Thus, the work done by them is principally for the city, and the socio-economic development of the city is in their hands.

A strong mayor need not be a charismatic personality or a strong willed individual. They should be able to work within their existing administrative structure, and understand it well enough to reap maximum benefits from it. Looking at the growth and structure of cities around the world, this is definitely something that is achievable.
The last 15 years have seen the city of London grow and develop at a massive pace. The last 2 mayors of London, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, are actually the only two official mayors of the city. It was due to Livingstone that the position of the head of the Greater London Council was officially given the post of the mayor. While the current mayor Boris Johnson is credited with many the reforms the city is taking towards sustainability and being more environmentally friendly, many of these reforms were initiated by Livingstone. The congestion tax as well the bicycle rental scheme now known as Boris Bikes, were developed under the tenure of Livingstone. Without getting into the arguments of London city politics, and the assigning of blame and responsibility, the examples of Johnson and Livingstone exemplify how a political structure can be used to the fullest by a city mayor. Even though the two represent different political parties, they both followed and implemented similar policies as mayor of London. Johnson, known for being more vocal and theatrical may have been able to garner more publicity, but the alone does not qualify him as a strong and successful leader. Rather it was the decisions and outcomes of his policies that qualify him as being effective.

While the concerns and priorities of the mayor of London are very different from those of the mayor Cochin, they may serve as examples. The key point being that regardless of the political system being worked within, there is always room for the mayor to assert their power.

Currently in Kochi the state government and parastatal agencies are subsuming this power. Thus, an important part of the agenda of the next mayor should be how to take back some of their power, and tip back the scales in favour of city government. This would be useful not just in making the corporation more effective, but also prepare them to deal with challenges that are sure to come if Kochi is selected as one of the city’s to be funded by the smart cities mission.

* Author is the managing associate of CPPR- Centre for Urban Studies. Views are personal.