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The MCD bill is an assault on democracy

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Last week, Union home minister Amit Shah introduced a new bill in the Lok Sabha to unify the three municipal corporations of Delhi (MCDs). While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says that the bill was brought to rid the MCD of its perennial financial crisis, the contents of the bill and the circumstances in which it was drafted and tabled in Parliament, in a tearing hurry, is a cause of concern. They spell the death of democracy in Delhi’s local bodies.

First, let’s understand the scale of the financial crisis in MCD. The combined annual income of the three corporations from its revenue sources is 6,725 crore; whereas the total annual salary and pension bill is 8,940 crore — a difference of 2,200 crore. By its own account, the BJP has projected a financial gain from the unification of the MCDs at 200 crore a year — by largely reducing staff and establishment costs. But the numbers simply do not add up.

It was always evident that to improve their financial condition, MCDs need a top-to-bottom reform. While the Delhi government’s revenues have soared two-and-a-half times in the last seven years of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, the incomes of MCD have either stayed static or decreased. Take the case of property tax — of the 1.2 million properties in North MCD, only 400,000 are under the tax net after 15 years of BJP rule. Revenue collections from hoardings and advertisements have declined steadily, inversely proportional to the number of hoardings displaying the BJP’s campaign slogans for free.

It is clear that the drama around presenting the new MCD bill in Parliament as a panacea is nothing but a grand lie. An attempt to cover the unchecked corruption and financial mismanagement of the MCD under 15 years of BJP rule that has left Delhi with the legacy of the tallest garbage mountains in India, the lowest scores in the Centre’s Swachh Bharat city rankings, and a reputation of perhaps being the most corrupt municipal body. The writing on the wall is clear — the people of Delhi are fed up and the BJP was staring at yet another AAP tsunami in MCD polls. The BJP’s subsequent steps take away any semblance of doubt that it is ready to launch a full-fledged assault on the idea of democracy to avoid an electoral wipe-out.

For the first time, the Union home ministry wrote to the State Election Commissioner one hour before the election schedule was to be announced, asking the body to postpone the elections indefinitely. For the first time, the Election Commissioner decided to “comply” with the direction unilaterally and without consulting opposition parties. For the first time, the central government rushed into drafting a bill to amend a local body Act, which constitutionally falls under the state legislature’s mandate, without any consultation with the state government. And for the first time, the central government has sought to replace all the functions of the state government in the revised MCD bill with the central government, leaving no role or participation of the state government in the smooth functioning of the municipal body.

If this bill is approved, the relationship of the Delhi government with MCD will be the same as that of the Tamil Nadu government — a constitutional travesty that only the BJP can conceive.

The MCD bill tabled by the Centre in the Lok Sabha makes no mention of any reform or road map for financial recovery. It was expected that the Centre would finally put the MCD on a par with all other municipal bodies in India, which get a direct grant from the Central Finance Commission of 488 per person per annum, which adds up to a significant 4,087 crore per year for MCD. But the BJP continued to deny the people of Delhi this right. So instead, the bill’s only substantive amendment is to reduce the number of wards from 272 to 250. There is no logic or explanation for this except that it forces MCD to undergo a delimitation process, pushing MCD elections by at least a year.

This series of undemocratic steps is nothing but a continuation of the Centre’s assault on the democratic mandate of the AAP government in Delhi. From forcibly taking away the anti-corruption bureau and services department in 2015 to stalling key schemes such as mohalla clinics, CCTVs and the doorstep delivery of ration scheme for years, and passing the blatantly unconstitutional Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021, declaring the lieutenant-governor as the “government”, the BJP has left no stone unturned in the last seven years to stop the AAP government from exercising its democratic mandate.

It is in this light that the introduction of the MCD unification bill must be seen. For the first time since the Emergency, a party has made a brazen attempt to cancel elections and snatch powers from opposition governments to avoid an electoral defeat. The BJP is trying to get away with the murder of democracy in Delhi’s local bodies in broad daylight. The judiciary and the people of Delhi shouldn’t allow this.

Jasmine Shah is the vice-chairperson, Dialogue & Development Commission of Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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