The High Court is getting more and more impatient. And who can blame that august body for losing its cool? There are no signs of any elections to civic bodies in the entire State, leave alone the Corporation of Chennai. Come October, we will have completed two years of civic administration sans an elected body. It appears that not many in the city have really noticed. The State Government too is pretty much relaxed over the delay. The Opposition is the one that is crying foul.
Strangely enough, two years ago, when the elections fell due, it was the Opposition that did not want elections. This despite the local administrations under the present party in power not having performed much and therefore standing very little chance of a re-election. The Opposition took the matter to court, querying the hurried announcement of dates, irregularities and law & order problems. The Courts had obligingly stayed the elections.
Since then, it is the State Government that has hummed and hawed. It has cited a delimitation exercise, to be in place following the 2011 census, as the principal stumbling block. It is however not clear as to what has really held up this exercise for over seven years now. In September 2017, the Court had ordered that the elections had to be completed by November that year. There was no action and when summoned and asked to explain what amounted to contempt of court, the Election Commissioner of the State was quick to apologise. He also cited certain changes in the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act that placed legal hurdles in the conduct of the elections.
In August this year, the High Court expressed its annoyance once again. The TN Government’s self-imposed deadline of January 2018 for completion of the delimitation exercise had come and gone and there was no news. The Election Commission has responded by stating that it can issue an election notification within three months of the State Government notifying the newly delimited wards and constituencies.
The EC has said it needs a minimum of 90 days to finalise electoral rolls as per the new bounds. That is quite understandable. What is not is the State Government’s delaying the notifying of the delimitation exercise. Clearly, it is not keen on holding civic polls. In the meanwhile, it has been quite content, through a series of Bills, to extend the tenures of special officers administering the various civic bodies in the State. The present extension takes the tenure to end December 2018.
How does all this delay affect us? It may not be so apparent and many go around claiming that they would rather have a bureaucrat in charge of the city than a bunch of corrupt councillors. Sadly, not many know that the release of funds from the Finance Commission for various civic projects is dependent on their being an elected body in place. The laws forbid the Finance Commission from funding States where laws for electing local bodies are not in place.
The State Government is arguing that the stipulation is only that laws ought to be in place and it is not mandated that election to local bodies ought to held as well. The Finance Commission has however begged to differ. The result? Around Rs 3,800 crores has been withheld from the State for various municipal and rural projects.
And so, the next time you notice that the roads in your area have not been laid for long or that the parks are collapsing for want of maintenance, or that the local health centre lacks basic medicine, you know where the problem is – lack of an elected body. And no seasoned bureaucrat can do anything about it.
[This article was first published in Madras Musings, issue dated October 1 2018, and has been republished with permission.]