Swaraj for Mumbai?

If Mumbai has to become like Singapore, it must become a separate province/state ”. I recently came across this fascinating statement made by Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father and three-decade-long Prime Minister of Singapore. While the idea of elevating Mumbai to statehood or even making it a union territory may be a bit much, he does raise an interesting question. How can we expect Mumbai to keep pace with the massive influx of migrants and develop into a world class city, if it has absolutely no self governance?

A photo that captures the vast inequalities of Mumbai. source

In a way, India is unique among nations as elected urban bodies completely lack autonomy and authority. France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and nearly all European nations provide their cities with elected governments. The United States, like India, places the legislative authority over local government in the hands of the states. But unlike Indian states, all fifty of the US states grant full autonomy and a vast variety of devolved powers to local governments. This presence of autonomous   urban government is not just limited to representative democracies. In China for instance, the four largest municipalities are not part of any province, and these municipalities answer directly to Beijing. Moreover, another fifteen cities have a high degree of autonomy, while still being part of a province.

One may of course argue that Mumbai has an elected government: it has a mayor and a 227 member corporation council. 

However,  the most important figure in the administration of Mumbai is the municipal commissioner, who wields all the executive power. The commissioner, an unelected bureaucrat appointed by the chief minister, is not accountable to the elected councilors. While the mayor elected by the corporation council is a ceremonial figure, who has no powers and exists only to preside over the sessions of the corporation council. Even the corporation council has very little authority and serves more as a consultative assembly for the commissioner. So in essence the elected bodies have no influence in the governance of the city. After all quite a few Mumbaikers could name the municipal commissioner but I doubt anyone would be able to name their corporator (I can’t name my corporator either)   

This lack of democracy at the city level is not unique to Mumbai but rather an issue in every state. In the early nineties, the Union government passed the 74th amendment to strengthen Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). Unfortunately the amendment has not really reformed ULBs or made them more electorally accountable. The amendment grants the states a great degree of discretion with regards to ULBs. The states have used this discretion to stifle the financial autonomy of the ULBs and devolve as few powers as possible to the ULBs. The most important issue though lies in the undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the ULBs. In the words of the Local government report– “This dilution of the role of the Mayor is clearly violative of the spirit of self-governance and local empowerment”.

On this front, some progress has occurred, the Administrative Reforms Commission report recommends that a directly elected mayor be the chief executive of the ULBs as “basic democratic legitimacy requires that power be exercised by the elected”. The report also recommends that Mumbai, a Megacity, should be run by a “metropolitan corporation” (rather than a municipal corporation) and that a greater extent of power should be devolved to Megacities. Unfortunately the central government has done little till now to implement the recommendations of its own inquiry commission. However it is important to note that an act of parliament can make the recommendations of this report a reality. Therefore for Mumbai to achieve self governance something as dramatic as creating a “Union Territory of Mumbai” is not needed. 

Interestingly, while the idea of Mumbai as a union territory sounds far-fetched today, Bombay (as it was known then) almost ended up as a union territory. In the ‘50s, when India was being reorganized into states, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Bombay would be a part of Maharashtra. As Gujarati and Marathi mass movements butted heads in a messy divorce of the bilingual Bombay state, an organisation named the Bombay Citizens Committee (composed of the leading industrialists of the city including J.R.D Tata)  called for the city to be placed directly under central control. In 1956, Nehru announced a plan to grant statehood to Maharashtra and Gujarat, and make the city of Bombay into a union territory. This plan sparked violent clashes in Bombay between Marathi and Gujarati communities in which 80 people died. Finally, in 1960, Maharashtra was created with Bombay as its capital. I am sure many people (including me) find the idea of Mumbai not being a part of Maharashtra very odd. However, it is important to remember that people from a plethora of different communities have  played a major role in shaping this city. 

Arguably, the most impactful of these was Pherozshah Mehta, a Parsi businessman, who was in his time called the “uncrowned king of Bombay”. Mehta, a lawyer educated in London, returned to Bombay in 1868. He would go on to become a great advocate for reforms in the city administration. 

The British parliament in 1872 enacted a bill that Mehta had drafted for the reorganization of the BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation today known as the MCGM). Under this law, the BMC would be run by a council, 3/4ths of whose members were to be elected by the public. This of course meant that half a century before India had anything resembling a parliament, Bombay was run in part by elected officials. This was remarkably progressive for its time and stands in marked contrast to the post-independence status of Bombay’s municipal government.

The Republic of India, born from a bloody partition, was afraid of further division, to the extent that it attempted to avoid the creation of linguistic states. Furthermore, for the first few decades, India was a command economy and its leaders did not see a place for local autonomy in their centrally planned India. However liberalisation is now three decades old and linguistic states have on the whole been a success. Seventy-five years on from independence, India is rapidly urbanizing and more than ever needs city governments accountable to the people . Self governance for Indian cities is an idea whose time has come. It is therefore not hyperbole to call for swaraj for Mumbai


  1. The unfinished business of decentralised urban governance in India
  1. Bombay: The cities within  

                                                                                                                -Ashwath Damle

                                                                                                                 FY. Bsc.Economics

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