News reports indicate that political parties in Karnataka are actively considering merging 8 municipalities around Bangalore with the city's municipality itself, to form one massive jurisdiction. This is inexplicable. The recently launched National Urban Renewal Mission speaks the language of increasing citizen participation in local governance, and the Constitution's decentralisation and self-governance amendments are clearly opposed to such centralisation of authority. The state's politicians, however, appear blind to these.
It is undisputed the world over that centralisation of government power stifles civic culture and progressive consensus on public affairs. Cities in developed nations with populations of a few hundred thousand taxpayers have a hard enough task of electing scrupulous politicians, weeding out corruption, keeping public expenditure in check and accounted for, and making sure that decision-making is in front of the public, robust and trustworthy. These challenges exist despite the fact that local bodies in developed nations are far more transparent, allow public participation, and are more accessible to citizens. And yet, in our largest cities, we imagine that oversized, under-trained, and inaccessible administrations are the way forward.
Sidestepping the Constitution
The urban public sphere in India is where the Constitution's promise to citizens on local self-governance remains broken deeply, despite all the hoopla over India's economic surge and rising 'superpower' status at the national level. The Constitution's expectation that politicians should clear up the local government mess once and for all is crystal clear. Substantive decentralisation of powers was mandated years ago; cities are required by law to create citizens' committees that will have much greater public oversight on local matters. But city and state governments have mostly ignored this. With a few exceptions - Kolkota, Chennai - our major metros do not even have popularly elected mayors, let alone the ward-level committees required by the Constitution. Citizens groups and NGOs have been continually pressing for more local reforms, but thus far to little avail.
Bangalore, of all places!
The metropolis at the heart of the proposed merger has rapidly fallen from grace during the last two years. Bangalore is a particularly stark example of much that ails local infrastructure in the country. The simplest road cuttings and bridge ramps are left unfinished, as if intending to be citizen-unfriendly on purpose, and the recent rains showed how much worse the city's water management systems are than those of Chennai or Kolkota. City administrators are quick to blame the city's woes on its explosive growth in population, but this defense would be more acceptable if they had alongside made earnest attempts to manage the growth and its consequences. Population isn't the reason it takes 2-3 years to build an overpass at an intersection.
Even in its current size, Bangalore does not welcome public participation in its planning and administration. The city's latest Comprehensive Development Plan was drafted with very little input from the broad majority of citizens, and even during the post-publication phase - when public input on the draft was sought - important parts of the Plan have been kept away from citizens' eyes, despite laws that clearly mandate otherwise. Merging more municipalities into this highly compromised setup can only further distance administrators from the citizens whose interests they are supposed to serve.
It is telling, also, that politicians are not bringing their plans for consolidation to the citizens for a vote. Citizens' views for or against such a merger are not sought in a referendum, as they would be in democracies elsewhere. Premised in the very idea of local-self government is local sovereignty, but this has been given a complete go-by in the politicians' race to consolidate power.
The Constitutional standard as well as Bangalore's abysmal record of administering even the core metropolis both argue against consolidation and centralisation. Merging municipalities to create a larger and more monolithic apparatus instead of implementing pro-citizen reforms in all the existing municipalities will be a clear case of cure being worse than the disease.