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What if India’s cities gave mayors the power to tackle pandemic? Time for a new urban model

Imagine if mayors gave city-specific daily briefings on coronavirus, and not a joint secretary sitting in New Delhi. India needs to give more powers to its mayors.

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The coronavirus outbreak started in India’s cities, and the best people to handle it would have been its mayors. But India’s mayors are stuck between the CM and the DMs. The chief ministers are too political and the district magistrate too servile to adequately tackle a pandemic — which needs fast, customised and tailored responses. The problem is, Indians hardly know their mayors or reach out to them, because they don’t have the flair, popularity or teeth.

The Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to change that by showcasing a new model of urban governance and building smart, self-reliant, innovative cities.

Imagine a scenario where mayors from all major Indian cities hold daily 4 pm press briefings and give local updates, as opposed to overarching and unclear data from a joint secretary of the Union health ministry, sitting hundreds of miles away in New Delhi. The mayor would have the power to decide the scale and the nature of the lockdown. She would come up with a precise strategy to ‘trace and test’ and determine which city hospitals need Covid wards and how to deal with containment zones. The mayor would be the city’s eyes and ears and talk to residents regularly. Finally, given the number of daily infections and the condition of the economy, she would come up with a detailed plan on how to ‘unlock’ the city. And in case the mayor failed to save her city from the pandemic, the local electorate would vote her out. Which is also why India needs directly elected mayors.

Also read: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai account for nearly 50% of nationwide Covid-19 cases

A local chaos

India’s largest cities, from Mumbai and Ahmedabad to Chennai and Delhi, have been the worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic. While this has been the trend across the globe, from Bogota to Barcelona, mayors have been at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19. They have run in predatory landlords – putting a freeze on rent hikes – or opened free-for-all soup kitchens.

Unlike many other countries – both developed and developing – mayors in India are powerless de jure chiefs of urban local bodies (ULB). Meanwhile, our cities are run by a combination of district magistrates and municipal commissioners, who are appointed to these positions for very short durations.

Between these short-term bureaucratic appointments and each city divided among several haphazard municipal jurisdictions – Indian cities have never been run by local innovative administrators who understand the city.

The pandemic provides us with an opportunity to reform India’s urban governance by introducing true democracy at the local level that gives mayors real power and a strong ULB. The aim must be to ensure that a mayor with real teeth can stay in power long enough to enforce lasting reforms in her city.

Also read: Mumbai civic body introduces ‘war rooms’ in every administrative ward to manage Covid beds

Mayors bring change

 Across the Western world and Southeast Asia, several mayors have left a lasting imprint on the cities they helped govern and some even leveraged their experience to go on to become major national-level political figures.

So, on the one hand, there is a lot of focus on politicians such as Boris Johnson – former mayor of London – and Michael Bloomberg – who was mayor of New York City after 9/11. While Johnson went on to become the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Bloomberg has continued to seriously impact the presidential race in the US with his successive bids.

This is important because their ability to run key global cities such as London and New York were essential to the formation of their political image as able administrators.

Other mayors like Leoluca Orlando in Palermo, Italy ended the mafia’s control over the city’s economy, and Lee Kuan Yew, the first modern mayor of Singapore, not only turned it into an island of prosperity but gave a successful developmental model to all of East Asia.

Even during Covid, from several mayors in the Italian province of Lombardy – the country’s epicentre – to Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City, mayors have handled the bulk of the government’s response to the pandemic. By contrast, how many Indians in cities can even name their mayors?

Also read: Virus hands world leaders sweeping powers they may never give up

India needs its mayors

While the idea of having strong local governments in India has been around for a long time, the pandemic has especially emphasised why we must have powerful and accountable mayors.

Mayors understand their cities well and provide tailor-made, implementable responses. In India, however, the response to the pandemic was first centralised and then left to the states.

India never had the option of having mayors as local chiefs – backed by strong ULBs – who the central and state governments could ask to manage the crisis at the local level.

Instead, India has had turf wars between the municipal commissioner and the DMs, with the mayor left on the sidelines.

The pandemic provides us with an opportunity to turn things around. Every Indian city is at a different developmental stage and has its own unique cultural, political, and economic characteristics. Therefore, each one of them deserves to have institutions of local governance that can bring about lasting change.

“Mayors are shaped more by what cities are and need than by factors inherent in a constitutional or political system but extraneous to the city,” writes Benjamin R Barber, the author of If Mayors Ruled the World.

A mayor who understands her city, can be the only one who can effectively govern it. Unless we free our mayors, India would struggle to develop even a single smart city, let alone one that can efficiently deal with crises.

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  1. Writing comment straightaway because I know article will be wishy washy without any logic.

    Here is my soln: end all taxes on labour.! Let rich property holders pay their taxes. Why labour is subsidizing rich property holders? Everybody will pay taxes as per their properties. What is wrong in this model and why the h eLL nobody ever talks about correcting Nehru blunder of taxing labour? (1961 with income tax + 1997 for service tax+2016 for hefty increase in service tax and renaming it gst)

    Unless this is corrected nothing ever will happen except wishy washy articles.

  2. I am all in for more empowerment of local governments in normal times for the benefita already listed above. But, allowing mayor of all cities of India to take a call on technical aspects like testing and tracing strategy, would be counter productive. Barring few big cities, others don’t have such technically skilled mayor’s for pandemic

  3. This is a great idea, but how do citizens get the system to change? The current set up is increasingly centralising everything. States administrations are losing their power, how can we convince that city administrations be given more power?
    A good example of what this idea implies would be the present state of the NCR. It is massive urban agglomeration spanning 4 different states. Common sense would dictate that it is better managed as a single entity and yet it is not.

    The question really is how do we citizens bring the necessary changes?

    • Ask for ending all taxes on labour. Most of it goes to center and thus they will never share it with states.

      Only property taxes. Right now it is subsidized by 99% by the poor working people.! Why are we subsidizing rich property holders?

  4. Very brilliant idea.Mayors in India come together working on this pandemic will get better and reach out people about covid-19 awareness much more.

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