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In India’s most urbanised state, fresh elections to urban local bodies should be a cause for great excitement. The January 28 notification from the State Election Commission announcing elections to Corporations of Greater Chennai, Suburban Tambaram, Kancheepuram and Avadi, and Corporations of other big cities such as Coimbatore, Madurai, Tiruchirapalli, Salem and Erode on February 19 has raised expectations among citizens. They have not had elected councils to hold accountable when it comes to urban issues such as the Chennai floods, waste management, water management and so on, for a few years now. The last urban local body polls were held in 2012.
Local bodies, by definition, may have a restricted footprint in electoral terms, with local issues and personalities influencing the outcomes. But megacities such as Chennai provide visibility to those who occupy the mayor’s chair, which then typically becomes a stepping stone to bigger political roles in the state.
The municipal polls come after a long gap of 10 years, and considerable changes have been made to the local body framework this time. Mayoral positions of Chennai and Tambaram Corporations have been reserved for women belonging to Scheduled Castes, some other Mayoral positions for SCs in general and some for women in general.
In addition, mayoral polls have been made indirect this time. Urban voters will vote for councillors of corporations, municipalities and town panchayats, but not directly for the mayors.
Considerable changes have been made to the local body framework this time. Mayoral positions of Chennai and Tambaram Corporations have been reserved for women belonging to Scheduled Castes, some other Mayoral positions for SCs in general and some for women in general. In addition, mayoral polls have been made indirect this time.
The major political parties are busy announcing their contests, and some have released their initial lists of candidates. The DMK, Congress and other allies are maintaining their formation, while the BJP announced that it would fight on its own, having failed to come to an understanding with the AIADMK. The saffron party is suddenly at odds with its regional ally in Western Tamil Nadu, where it views the electorate as supportive of its cause, especially in the Coimbatore belt.
Actor Kamal Hasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiaim (MNM) will also be in the fray, with perhaps a better chance of scoring than it did in the Assembly elections. As the mayor posts are to be filled indirectly, much of the excitement of a personality-based contest in the big cities such as Chennai has dissipated. The focus now is on the core supporters of the parties turning out to elect ward councillors.
Disenchanted middle class
It is in the big cities that the civic polls fail to enthuse many. The middle class, with its high consumption, purchasing power and investments that inflate urban real estate values, should ideally have a big stake in municipal polls, compared to other residents who form the base of political parties. Yet, the average middle-class resident is disenchanted with the elections in the absence of a singular vision, plan or a face for the city.
Chief Minister M K Stalin was once the mayor of Chennai and gave it the aspirational slogan of “Singara Chennai”, while Ma Subramaniam, who is now a minister, held the charge later. Saidai Duraiswamy of the AIADMK too came up from the mayor’s chair. Their profiles were burnished by the visibility that the job brought, although they did not have much practical or financial power, which has always been held by the chief minister and the state bureaucracy.
A lot of water may have flown in the Cooum (especially during annual floods) in this long hiatus since 2016 when the last elected council served the city. Public expectations of local bodies have grown. Urban quality of life has been severely disrupted by floods, bad waste management and unplanned urbanization. The picture painted of cities is that they are turning “smart” but when it rains, or equally when it fails to rain, life grinds to a halt.
Chennai has expanded across a 50 km radius along key arteries such as GST Road, Old Mamallapuram Road, Porur-Poonamallee-Avadi belt and East Coast Road, with dense suburban communities coming up within town panchayats and municipalities, some of which have now been upgraded into Corporations. Still, most of these suburban residential localities, including its gated communities, do not have access to piped water, sewerage, drainage and modern access roads.
Chief Minister M K Stalin was once the mayor of Chennai and gave it the aspirational slogan of “Singara Chennai”, while Ma. Subramaniam, who is now a minister, held the charge later. Saidai Duraiswamy of the AIADMK too came up from the mayor’s chair. Their profiles were burnished by the visibility that the job brought.
Even after the elevation of many suburbs to municipal corporation status, thousands of urbanized residents in other areas will have only municipalities and town panchayats to turn to. Kundrathur and Mangadu are two examples of town panchayats-turned-municipalities hosting several posh and expensive gated communities, besides CMDA-approved layouts where the local body has provided no facilities.
Wanted: A service delivery law
That is because these local bodies have small bureaucracies, poor capacity to manage solid waste, modest plans for road laying and street lighting and low transparency. They also have an unhealthy dependence on special schemes run on funding from the Centre’s Swachh Bharat Mission on cleanliness and AMRUT on urban renewal. Meanwhile, road traffic has grown and mushrooming housing development in the city’s peripheries has aggravated the problem. The Chennai Metro will take another three years to reach these suburbs, such as Sholinganallur, Poonamallee and Madhavaram.
On the other hand, the relationship between municipal councilors and residents, who pay civic taxes but get little on-ground support, is also fraught. Just a few years ago, things were at a low ebb because many municipal councilors were accused of extortion and bribery. Jayalalithaa threatened to dissolve the Chennai Corporation Council in June 2012, as complaints against councilors poured in. Will things be different this time? The DMK government can ensure they are by enacting its promised service delivery law at all levels. It can also fix responsibility on officials including those in local bodies, with a time-bound schedule for each service. Good councilors need to be rewarded.
The decade-long gap in civic elections stems from the attitude of many leaders and the bureaucracy in Tamil Nadu who treat the entire exercise as a necessary nuisance, one compelled by constitutional requirements. Tamil Nadu was among the tail-enders in enacting the State laws mandated by the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments to form three-tier panchayat governments and urban municipalities under Jayalalithaa in the 1990s. It avoided holding polls to these local bodies as long as legally feasible. Ironically, the DMK government too found itself appealing for more time in the courts after coming to power in 2021, to conduct elections to urban local bodies and in newly formed districts, citing administrative requirements.
Many observers hold the view that state governments in India avoid empowering city councils and municipalities because that would produce charismatic local politicians who could threaten the existing order. New chief minister material could emerge. One example given is that of the mayor of Paris, who has often become the French President later. The Mayor of New York too is a globally known figure.
But are people of stature in our cities such a bad thing for Tamil Nadu politics? Obviously not. If Chief Minister Stalin is convinced of his unassailable position, he should give Chennai a prominent mayor and empower her to truly put the city on the global map.
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