London has a new Mayor in Sadiq Khan. And it has made international news. Not just because he happens to be a Muslim and belongs to an immigrant minority community in Britain but mainly because he is expected to lead the transformation of London during the next five years.

In most western and several other cities across the world, the mayor is recognised as an important political leader who plays a key role in guiding the destiny of his or her city. Ken Livingstone who was mayor of London from 2000 to 2008 became famous for shaping a new transport policy and introducing the ‘congestion charge’ which has helped reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the central area of London.

Bloomberg who was elected mayor of New York for three consecutive terms from 2001 came out with a new plan to transform the city through “PlaNYC – a Greener and Greater New York” to fight global warming and protect the environment. His “Million Trees NYC” initiative reduced greenhouse gases by nearly 20%.

Can we think of any such examples in India? There might be some commissioners of the city corporations who tried to bring about some changes in their brief tenure before they are transferred out but it is difficult to identify mayors who made name. Not because we have no individuals who can measure up to the task but because the system does not provide the environment for city leadership to flourish. The Indian mayor is a powerless entity with a tenure of office ranging from one year in cities like Bengaluru to two and half years in Mumbai and five years in Lucknow and Bhopal.

The mayor’s duties are confined to presiding over Council meetings and participating in ceremonial functions. Even where the term is five years, the mayor lacks authority except to some extent in Kolkata where there is a Mayor-in-Council system. The city administrative structure in India is fragmented and works in silos. Urban public services are provided by multiple authorities and there is no focal point of leadership and accountability.
Although the 74th constitutional amendment aimed at decentralisation of powers to the urban local bodies, the state government still plays a dominant role in city administration. You often find it is the chief minister or the minister for urban development who takes major decisions pertaining to cities. May be because wealth is concentrated in large metropolitan cities and urban resources, particularly land command high value. The fact remains that the state leaders are reluctant to share their ‘urban’ power.

One of the important questions facing the country today is how to make our burgeoning cities liveable by ensuring at least the minimum civic services like safe water, sanitation, good quality roads, public transport and housing. The central government has launched ambitious schemes such as Swacch Bharat Mission, AMRUT and Smart Cities Mission aimed at urban transformation.

Though well intentioned, their succe-ssful execution requires able leadership, apart from enormous resources and institutional capacity. Besides money and manpower, what we need is a set of governance reforms which will put in place a unified city administrative structure, ensure transparency and accountability, facilitate public participation and catalyse efficient delivery of urban services.

5-year term

In the first place, we must have a system of directly elected mayor which is prevalent in most metropolises in the world-London, New York and Paris in the west or Jakarta, Bangkok and Tokyo in Asia etc. He must have a term of five years and executive powers with appropriate checks and balances and assisted by a small committee, somewhat like a cabinet. Secondly, the city planning function must be brought under the mayor who must set the vision for the growth of the city.

The mayor must also be made the coordinating authority of all the city level functions performed by different agencies like the water supply and sewerage board, the electricity company, the public transport corporations etc. Third, it is absolutely essential to introduce professionalism in city management. Urban planning, infrastructure development, environmental protection, financial management and application of technology require well qualified professionals and recruitment rules must provide for inducting them.

In his recent thought provoking book, If Mayors Ruled the World, Benjamin R Barber says that cities and mayors who run them are the best forces of good governance. He further argues that cities which are not burdened with issues of borders and sovereignty are better equipped to meet the challenges of our times like terrorism, climate change, drug trafficking and poverty than nation-states which are becoming dysfunctional.

City to city collaborations and continent spanning urban networks “constitute a layer of global governance with a transformative impact on urban and global problems”. The author cites the example of C-40 network of global cities addressing the issue of climate change and how it is on track to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 248 million tonnes by 2020.

With urban population projected to reach 500 million by 2031 and urban areas contributing over 60% to our GDP, visionary leadership is crucial to the task of fixing our cities-from potholes and sewers to traffic and garbage. We need leaders who can inspire confidence among the people. They must of course be empowered to deliver goods and also be held accountable. Power and responsibility must go together.

The mayor should be recognised as the leader of the city. He must head the Vision Group for the city, not the chief minister who will have no time even to chair its meetings. Isn’t it strange that the recently constituted Vision Group for Bengaluru did not include the mayor first? The entire elected body of 198 members has no representation and even the commissioner has been made only an invitee.

In all major cities of the world, it is the mayor who represents the city in all important events and activities. It is time the Indian mayor gets her due.

This article was published by “Deccan Herald” , on 23rd May 2016.

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