Legislation and Government Policy

Empowering City Administration: Addressing India’s Problem with its Urban Local Leadership

Sharun Salvi & Lokesh Soni

Local government

This article analyses the issues plaguing India’s local urban governance, abstracting from the wider context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and proposes a new model to re-conceptualize how our cities and towns are governed. To this effect, the piece identifies the difference between the offices of the municipal commissioner and the mayor – to endorse the mayoral office as the linchpin to autonomous urban governance.


The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the impuissance of our municipal institutions and demonstrated the crucial role the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) play in our daily lives. The crisis highlighted how lower-tier administrations, without the power to act autonomously, fail to maintain public health infrastructure, resulting in the worsening of the present urban outbreak. Conversely, Kerala’s autonomous and responsive third tier institutions had emerged as models for other states to follow, due in large part to their reliance on active community engagement. This has showcased the need to empower the third-tier in all cities across the country.

This article presents the current state and structure of ULBs in India. Moreover, it discusses whether the mayor or the commissioner should be in charge. It also examines different mayoral election methods and attempts to determine which best suits India. Finally, the article looks into the major developments that have taken place in recent years.

What is the Indian model of urban local leadership?

The 74th Amendment Act guarantees a constitutional status to the ULBs in part IX A of the Constitution, read with the Twelfth Schedule. The Amendment, through its usage of the term “shall” in some places and “may” in others, allows the States the discretion to determine the functioning of ULBs, undermining consistency across the ad-hoc working of different bodies. This gives each state the power to subjectively interpret this amendment. Such discretionary delegation of subject matter has caused structural problems in their functioning. This can be better understood by looking at the provisions of the 74thCAA. Article 243W devolves18 functions under the Twelfth Schedule to the City Governments. However, even 25 years later, these functions have not been fully delegated in all cities. Furthermore, States have established special bodies to handle functions that have not been allocated to the city administration, causing even more confusion. Demonstrably, in Jaipur, according to 74th CAA, the Municipalities should work towards providing water supply. But the overlap between different entities has led to questions over the responsibility of planning and maintaining urban water supply in the state. Due to such commixing, the ULBs have suffered blows to their autonomy.

Figure 1 - LSPR

An ideal administrative model must be in accordance with democratic decentralisation, have the capacity to bring about long-term changes efficiently, and must provide more authority to citizens and citizen-elected representatives while being inclusive to all stakeholders.

The byzantine diarchal structure in India, of having both the commissioner and mayor as heads of administration, has led to power tussles between the mayor and the commissioner. These disputes have led to poor coordination and functional relations, highlighted by Mussoorie, leading to inefficient decisions. A possible solution is to have empowered mayors in charge. But how will having a mayor in power better the administration?

Who should be in charge – Mayor or Commissioner?

Currently, ULBs in India follow the ‘Commissioner as Chief Executive’ model, where the executive-appointed commissioner discharges decision making powers and the mayor is relegated to ceremonial functions without any autonomy. This has resulted in the mayor being portrayed as a toothless tiger and overshadowed by the municipal commissioner. Such functioning of the State Government through the Commissioner is in violation of the constitutional intent behind democratizing the mayoral office; the political whims of the State may undermine the citizen interests represented by the mayor.

Firstly, the current system reflects a lack of public participation, transparency, and accountability throughout the policy making process. This can be changed by the mayor and directly elected model, which creates opportunities for citizens to have a hands-on approach and be more involved. Furthermore, this leads to a more accountable system of governance, as the mayor is directly answerable to the citizens.

Secondly, a municipal commissioner is accountable to the state government while mayors are accountable to their voters. In light of this, the mayor has an incentive to work for the growth of the city while commissioners focus simply on implementing the policies and keeping the papers straight. As a result, personnel capacities and outcomes are inferior, and they typically do not match local preferences. Additionally, commissioners have higher chances of being transferred, reducing the stability of the leadership, while mayors serve fixed terms.

Figure 2 - LSPR

Thirdly, at the moment, the balance of power is inclined in the favour of bureaucracy, which goes against the principles of the 74th CAA. Empowerment of the mayoral position by incentivising the ‘elected seat’ can potentially cut down on the dominance of the bureaucratic red-tape. Limiting routes to power can motivate candidates to work hard for the public to get elected.

Lastly, often during disputes between the commissioner and mayor, executive decisions are taken as a show of strength. During such clashes of offices, the commissioner resorts to the State Government to assert his authority, delaying the process. This will not be the case with the mayor, as the municipal council has powers to keep a check on him.

This analysis shows that it is beneficial if Indian cities transition to this paradigm. Moreover, most developed nations already follow this system and have shown that having this presidentialization can ensure good governance. Demonstrably, Xavier Trias, the former Mayor of Barcelona, undertook the ‘Smart City Barcelona’ initiative and converted it into one of the world’s smartest cities. Yuriko Koike, Tokyo’s first female Mayor, recently brought about a multitude of changes in her city for the 2020 Olympics in furtherance of implementing the desirable health and safety measures.

The suggested empowered mayoral model satisfies the aforementioned requirements of democratic decentralisation, effectiveness, and inclusiveness. While the existing model is not ostensibly flawed and the importance of the commissioner on local governance is to be acknowledged, shifting to the mayoral model will mitigate a number of inherent problems. While this model does not call for nor expect a complete transfer of power to the mayor, it certainly takes a step towards better democratic decentralisation.

Should the mayor be elected directly or indirectly?

The mayoral election process is still a work in progress. Continuous experiments are still being made across States to determine which model is best suited. Currently in India, there are six states that follow the directly elected mayor system.

While considering factors such as internal party politics, state government conflicts and local pressure groups, directly elected mayors have a better chance of taking efficient decisionsas indirectly elected mayors necessarily require a consensus. This approach ensures that the mayor is held to a higher standard of accountability. It has, in a sense, established an “ask-the-mayor” system, with the mayor being responsible for all socio-political concerns in the region. It empowers the citizens as they become more involved in the elections. Moreover, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission Report states that the entire rationale behind empowering local governments is to enable people’s involvement and democratic governance as close as possible. People will understand the relationship between their vote and the implications of that decision only when the elected government exerts actual authority. Furthermore, direct electionsprovide guaranteed terms which give stability that will not be hindered by urban problems and address long-term goals by promoting vision and good governance. One major drawback of this system is that it may undermine the municipal council, limiting their function to one of formal approval.

The indirect election method allows for a holistic decision-making process. As a result, deliberative decisions are made in each case, giving merit to all opinions.When there is an existing, working relationship between the mayor and the council that elects, it nurtures clear communication between them, increasing the chances of achieving a majority. On the other hand, this means that the indirectly elected mayor is in power as long as they enjoy a majority in the council. The perennial problem with this approach is that it creates a political majority in the administration, which substantially increases the possibility of political influence over decisions made. Moreover, indirectly elected mayors tend to prefer their ward members who vote for them as compared to the rest of the city. As a result, their administration is limited to their ward or locality rather than extending to the entire civic area.However, it is important to note that the empowerment of the ULBs not only depends on how the mayor is chosen, but also on how power is distributed between the mayor and the council.

This comparative analysis highlights the key features of each model that will help improve local governance. But neither method is perfect. The model should be structured around an empowered mayor in control, with the council having the ability to keep a check on them and scrutinize the decisions taken. Furthermore, this necessitates a clear separation of powers amongst the mayor, the municipal commissioner and the council members, with each of these three acting as a supervisory check on the others.There are various strategies to sustain cohesiveness, including constitutional modifications that provide clear separation of powers between the mayor and the council.


The present ULB governance paradigm is commissioner centric which has been trapped in its archaic ways and is actively disempowered and depoliticised . This mechanism can be changed by having a directly elected Mayor in charge, which can provide added stability, accountable governance, and greater public participation to the ULBs. It counters the issues raised by having a state parastatal in charge, reducing potential conflicts between offices and mitigates the overlap of various entities, furthering the idea of democratic decentralisation. Proactive actions must be undertaken in the correct direction by enacting legitimate reforms to genuinely democratise and decentralise governance in local areas

Sharun Salvi and Lokesh Soni are undergraduate students at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) University, Hyderabad.