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The Tamil Nadu Rules on Ward Committees and Area Sabha, to be set up to empower citizens under the Municipal Corporation Acts for Chennai and other cities, fall severely short on transparency and democratisation norms, reinforcing the criticism that State governments are unwilling to give real autonomy and authority to local bodies.
Delayed for years, the Tamil Nadu Urban Local Bodies (Ward Committee and Area Sabha) Rules, 2022, have left voters dismayed. The Rules came into force on June 24, 2022, and can be traced to the 74th Constitutional Amendment, the amended Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act and the model Community Participation Law mooted by the Centre as early as 2006. Section 243(S) of the Constitution Amendment requires States to set up Ward Committees (WCs) and the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act provides for WCs and Area Sabhas (ASs), while the conditionalities of the erstwhile JNNURM scheme for upgrading urban infrastructure stipulate the creation of WCs and ASs.
Rule 8 of the new Tamil Nadu rules underpins the scope of the WC and AS, both of which are envisaged as an additional mechanism for direct participation of the community in planning local affairs, and performing a watchdog role.
Under the recently issued rules, the provision limits the number of Areas that can form part of a Corporation Ward to 10, where the population is over 10 lakh. For a population of up to 5 lakh, the provision vaguely stipulates “4 to 5” Areas to a Ward. Since the number of members for a WC is determined by the number of Areas that form part of it, this puts a limitation on the strength of the panels. In the case of Municipalities and Town Panchayats, there is a flat stipulation of four and three Areas per ward, respectively.
The rules are also silent on the criteria by which the Corporation Council will nominate a member to the WC, more so if there are multiple nominations. Such vague provisions have led to a charge that the rules have been left deliberately diffuse to help nominate politically-connected individuals to the posts, including those who did not win the polls.
Rule 8 of the new Tamil Nadu rules underpins the scope of the Ward Committee and Area Sabha, both of which are envisaged as an additional mechanism for direct participation of the community in planning local affairs, and performing a watchdog role
Area Sabhas, which enable the residents to participate in the process of preparing plans for their localities and to highlight pressing needs, and WCs, which are a higher layer of public participation with the Councillor as chairperson, were reinforced by the model Community Participation Law (CPL) – also known as the Model Nagara Raj Bill – circulated by the Union Urban Development Ministry. But what has been incorporated by Tamil Nadu after a long gap falls well short of the intent.
One of the original proposals under the CPL for the AS was to give it powers to “Decide the priorities of development and welfare and prepare proposals accordingly, and forward the same to the Ward Committee.” Another was to identify beneficiaries of welfare schemes, a powerful function that could be better performed at the local level since the people in the ward could be identified accurately.
In their present form, the rules give the AS nothing more than weak recommendatory functions. “The Area Sabha shall make suggestions and submit projects for the area or part thereof, to the council. [It] can make representation about grievances and suggestions on civic amenities, to the council,” says the G.O. The WC also has identical functions as the AS as per the order.
The rules include a caveat, stating that the Ward Committee or Area Sabha “shall perform such other functions as may be assigned to it by the Executive Authority of the Corporation or Municipal Council concerned.”
Agenda-setting left out
Although Information Technology and the internet are ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu and the DMK was committed to full transparency in its poll manifesto, the rules have missed key opportunities to widen the scope of public participation.
Glaringly, the rules do not specifically mandate the publication of venue and schedule of meetings and the details of the deliberations. To many observers, the deliberations of the WC and the AS offer the opportunity for the media to cover the proceedings, cutting through opaque functioning of local body representatives, which was witnessed in erstwhile committees handling lucrative contracts and tenders.
Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, who spearheaded the holding of gram sabhas during the AIADMK regime early in 2021, could now steer the decentralisation of powers to local bodies in the right direction, with an updated set of rules that reflect the spirit of the constitutional amendments on democratic municipal governance
The vast distance between what was intended in the constitutional scheme and the actual rules also comes to the fore in the case of the rights of the AS. The original idea, articulated by the CPL, says the AS should be empowered to:
- Get information from officials about the works/schemes to be implemented.
- WC to inform AS about every decision concerning AS, the rationale of the decision and follow-up actions.
- Impart awareness on matters of public interest and promote harmony and unity among various groups.
In the case of the WC, among the crucial functions in the model CPL was a mandate to prepare an annual ward plan, a ward budget to match it, to map the ward infrastructure, and encourage local level initiatives.
These are missing in the Tamil Nadu rules.
Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, who spearheaded the holding of gram sabhas during the AIADMK regime early in 2021, could now steer the decentralisation of powers to local bodies in the right direction, with an updated set of rules that reflect the spirit of the constitutional amendments on democratic municipal governance. Capacity building and financial autonomy could follow.
Urgent reforms are needed to ensure that the Area Sabha remains open to more residents for which the definition of Areas in a Ward should be expanded. All aspects of a municipal ward’s functioning need to be made transparent and available on the internet, and rules updated to enable people with experience and skill to contribute to the Areas Sabha and the Ward Committee proceedings.
These reforms do not curb the powers of Councillors. On the other hand, they would bring them closer to the voters and ward residents, who look to the elected representative to provide high civic leadership.
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