Who manages Delhi? How central govts balance their capitals?

Excellent article by Ashok Lahiri reflecting on the tussle between State government and LG over Delhi.

Who should run Delhi? The elected Delhi government? Or, in some matters, the central government-appointed Lieutenant Governor? The controversy has heated up with the coming to power in February 2015.

Delhi does not have full statehood. The does not have jurisdiction over matters relating to public order, police and land. After the capital shifted from Calcutta, Delhi was initially a Chief Commissioner’s Province. Post-independence, it was a Part C State, with a chief minister, between 1952 and 1956. As per the recommendations of the 1955 State Reorganisation Commission, from November 1, 1956, Delhi became a Union Territory under the direct administration of the President. By the 69th Constitution Amendment of 1991, the Union Territory of Delhi became the National Capital Territory with a and a chief minister. But it still suffers from a democratic deficit. The powers devolved to the elected government of Delhi are less than what is devolved to states such as Manipur or Maharashtra.

Delhi is different. Its democratic set-up cannot be the same as of Dahod, Dhenkanal, or Dindigul. The legitimate national interests in the country’s capital cannot be subordinated to local interests of the capital’s citizens. Decentralisation or devolution of powers from the Centre to the elected local government of the capital territory is no easy matter.

Even in France, a unitary state, the administrative subdivisions – regions, departments and communes – have autonomy in various legal functions. The national government is prohibited from intruding in them. But the independence of the capital region of Paris in formulating its policies and implementing them is circumscribed by special powers of the president of the French Republic.

In federal structures, such as Australia, the United States, or India, the limitations of the capital region vis-à-vis other self-governing provinces become more pronounced. There are obvious limitations to the powers of the elected representatives of the capital region of a country with a federal structure. For example, the territory of the capital city of Canberra was transferred by the state of New South Wales to the Commonwealth of Australia in 1911, two years before Canberra became the national capital. Canberra does not have the same legislative independence as the other Australian states, and Australia’s governor-general is the head of Australia’s Capital Territory.

The US Constitution provided for a federal district under the exclusive jurisdiction of the US Congress, and land was donated for this purpose by the states of Maryland and Virginia. US citizens of this land, now Washington District of Columbia (DC), elect a non-voting, at-large congressional delegate to the US House of Representatives, but the District has no representation in the US Senate.

Fascinating. Didn’t know many of these cases.

On to China:

goes a step further than other countries. Because of its one-party rule and the strong control of the over the leadership at various levels, China faces much less of a policy coordination problem at multiple levels of government than do countries with multi-party democracy. Yet the central government exercises more control not only over the city of Beijing, the capital, but also the important cities of Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing. These four municipalities are directly under the central government, which also appoints the mayors.

Not parts of any province, these four major cities in China are technically at the same level of hierarchy as the provinces and autonomous regions themselves. The central government has the power to decide on the division of power and functions between itself and state administrative organs of these municipalities, and also the power to alter or annul decisions and orders made by the governments of these municipalities. The central government does not need to go through any intermediate level of government, such as a bigger province in which a city is situated. For example, faced with a possible housing-bubble, the central government unexpectedly approved the Shanghai and Chongqing trial-phase residential property tax on January 28, 2011.

The Chinese model of is a widely-acclaimed success story. Of course, while India failed in controlling unplanned migration to the cities, unauthorised encroachments on government land and mushrooming of slums, China implemented the “hukou”, the residential permit system, to manage urban issues. China’s urban population increased from about 211 million in 1982 to almost 750 million at the end of 2014. As a proportion of the total population, the increase was from about 21 per cent to 55 per cent. China, according to many experts, is well on its way to becoming a nation of megapolises. To see a modern city, one should head not for Europe or North America, but catch a flight to Shanghai.

The advantages of delegating powers of deciding local issues to locally elected bodies are many. What and how much of local public goods, such as schools, parks, and sanitation or street lights, are needed in a particular location is best known to the local people and their elected representatives. But in a fast growing developing country such as China or India, with rapid urbanisation, even people living outside the cities have a critical stake in the city’s planning and implementation of the plans.

Is urbanisation too important a matter to leave to the outcomes of local level elections? The “democratic deficit” at the local level in China’s urban planning process is well-known. China followed two models – often parallel – of urban planning: the “emperor ruling” classical top-down approach and the socialist “big government” centralised planning approach. Major issues were decided at the central level; municipal officials had little role to play. Town planning in China was, and even now is, a highly technocratic affair, a technical matter to be decided by experts and the top political leadership. China followed the rational model of town planning using a spatial approach, regulating land use, and harnessing scientific knowledge and expertise regarding cartographic and statistical information.

A purely instrumental view of democracy is difficult to justify. Democratic elections endow political legitimacy to governments. The consent of the ruled is critical. However, there are some limits to democratic practices as well, such as the oversight of an independent judiciary and the “fundamental structure” of the Constitution. The question of subordinating local level governments to duly elected higher-level governments to the extent necessary for the sake of efficient urban planning and development, as China has done, merits some consideration.


These are highly important and relevant issues which demand immediate attention to the huge urban crisis we are facing. It can no more be left to drawing/dining rooms discussions and several committees. How do we govern our cities and make things accountable going forward is a huge issue. Should state government be asked to let go off the capital cities which have become mega cities and need seperate governance? Does our democracy all such a thing? Do we then put a technocratic team or an elected govt to manage these urban hells?

One cannot even say these are ticking time bombs. The bomb has already exploded waiting for public anger to explode as well..

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