For urban residents, ward committees are the constitutionally mandated arm of local government that is closest. The States have amended their municipal laws in conformity with the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (1992), but they have done this in a manner politically expedient to themselves and not truly in the spirit of the amendment. States were given a lot of freedom to write laws based on principles of autonomy, decentralisation, etc, Instead some States allowed MLAs voting rights in Municipal councils (e.g. Karnataka), and some did not hand over important functions of the 12th schedule to municipalties.

It seems clear, therefore, that a well-thought-out set of concepts in decentralisation of governance will give ward committees a chance to blossom into the roles envisaged when the constitution was amended.

The NDA govt (1999-2004) set up the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC); its Panel on Decentralisation and Local Government made recommendations on further amending the process of formation and nomination of members to ward committees in urban local governments. These were contained in the Final Report and Recommendations of NCRWC in 2001-2. The legal changes suggested by the NCRWC were:

    Principle of subsidiarity

    Functions shall be carried out closest to citizens at the smallest unit of governance possible, delegated upwards only when the local unit cannot perform the task. The citizen delegates those functions she cannot perform to the community, functions that the community cannot discharge are passed on to the local governments in the smallest tiers, and so on, from smaller tiers to larger tiers, from local government to the State governments, and from the States to the Union. In this scheme, the citizen and the community are the center of governance. In place of traditional hierarchies, we will have ever enlarging concentric circles of government, and delegation is outward depending on necessity.
  1. Wards Committees should be mandatory for each of the ward in all Municipal Corporations with a population of three lakhs or more, to comprise of persons chosen by direct election from the territorial area of the Ward. The Chairman of the Committee will be the Councillor elected from the Ward.

  2. The State laws may determine the number of persons to be so elected but there should be parity, within the city in the ratio between that number and population of a ward.

  3. State laws may also enable Wards Committees to co-opt such residents of a ward who are knowledgeable and can assist the work of the Committee.

  4. In all Corporations with a population of six lakhs and more, Zonal Committees at a level between the Wards Committees and the Corporation Council should be formed. State laws may determine the number and area of such Zonal Committees. The Councillors of all the municipal wards represented in that area shall be members. In addition, one other person from each of the Wards Committees elected by and from amongst the elected members of that Committee shall be a member of the Zonal Committee.

  5. State laws may determine the manner in which elections to the Ward and Zonal Committees are to be held, their functions and responsibilities and the allocation of funds to carry out the same.

The NAC makes further recommendations

Subsequently, the National Advisory Council established by the UPA government took up the issue of ward committees and local government in March 2005, with a discussion paper on Empowerment of Local Governments, Stakeholders and Citizens. An important recommendation from the council is the "subsidiarity" principle, which states that local governments must provide all services and functions required by citizens at the grassroots level, and only those that cannot be provided locally must be handed up to higher levels of government. The broad principles of devolution outlined by the NAC are as follows:

  • Every ward shall have a ward committee, as opposed to a committee for multiple wards. The committee shall be chaired by the elected Councilor from that ward. The committee shall consist of representatives from the citizens of the ward, and a transparent and equitable mechanism should be adopted to ensure fair representation of women, weaker sections and civil society in these committees.

  • The ward committee shall be empowered to control all such issues, which could be handled at the ward level such as street lighting, sanitation, water supply, drainage, road maintenance, maintenance of school buildings, maintenance of local hospitals / dispensaries, local markets, parks, playgrounds, etc.

  • The employees, in respect of all functions entrusted to the ward committee, shall function under the committee and shall be held accountable by the committee. The salaries to all such employees shall be paid by the committee only after satisfactory performance.

  • The funds allocated to those functions entrusted to the ward committee shall be transferred en-bloc to the ward committee.

  • The budget adopted by the ward committee in respect to the functions allotted to it shall be taken into account in formulating the overall municipal budget. The meetings of the ward committee shall be widely publicised to ensure maximum citizen participation.

  • Ward committee will be given a share of the property taxes collected from the ward, depending on the locality. eg: Poor areas will retain 100% taxes. Middle income areas will get 2/3rd of all residential property taxes (non-commercial). Affluent areas will get 1/3rd of all residential property taxes (non-commercial).

  • The balance tax amount will go to the central pool for the municipal budget.

  • The ward committee shall also have the power to levy local taxes, but subject to the guidelines set by the municipality. In effect, the ward committee shall function as a de facto Gram Panchayat.

  • The ward committee may raise other resources through donations and other contributions.

Source: NAC discussion paper on Empowerment of Local Govts, Stakeholders and Citizens 4th March 2005
(These recommendations have also been forwarded for consideration to the Government of India and to the National Development Council, which met on 27th and 28th June 2005, in New Delhi.)

Organisations campaigning for good local governance in municipalities must support both sets of recommendations, from the NAC as well as the NCRWC, and not just one or the other.
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With the two sets of recommendations now before us - on the manner in which ward committees are to be formed, as well as the particular roles they are to play through a properly funded mechanism - there is now a good opportunity to bring these ideas together and derive better, functional ward committees. These committees can then be much more democratic, financially buoyant and functionally robust - which can then provide transparent accountable governance at the urban grassroots level. Amendments to the proposals will be drafted and will have to be part of the National Urban Renewal Mission. Organisations campaigning for good local governance in municipalities must support both sets of recommendations, and not just one or the other.