Published in Mumbai Mirror as “Happy Birthday, Mr MC” on 2 July 2015.
It is a year of missed anniversaries in Mumbai. The downpour which shut down the city on 19 June 2015 not only forced the Shiv Sena to cancel its Golden Jubilee celebrations, but to answer for more than two decades running a municipality larger than many state governments. While the ruling party must indeed be held to account, another, much older, anniversary that passed unnoticed should help explain why India’s oldest and wealthiest civic body remains such a mess. In 150 years there has been hardly any structural change in the institutions of municipal government in Mumbai.
On 1 July 1865, the first “Municipal Commissioner for the Town and Island of Bombay”, Arthur Trawers Crawford, was appointed by the Government of Bombay, along with the predecessor to today’s municipal Corporators – a body of “Justices of the Peace”. The city until then was a swampy archipelago focussed on trading, where government was minimal and ad-hoc. JPs had scant powers over policing and conservancy, to collect taxes, or keep the streets drained and swept. Funds were vested in three commissioners answering directly to government, a “triumvirate” which often worked at cross-purposes.
While moving the new Act of 1865 for a single “Chief Executive” for Mumbai along with Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy in the Governor’s Council, its co-sponsor Walter Cassels commented that “the town does not want municipal officers with the pen of a ready writer, but with brooms that sweep clean”. Crawford set about his task with zeal – laying out streets and markets, improving sanitation and water supply. The JPs soon complained they had no power over his purse strings. Much like today’s appointees, Crawford was then transferred, the “man at the top” whose “head must roll”.
Indian landlords and merchants also demanded their say in civic affairs proportionate to Crawford’s hiked property taxes. It was in the wake of this agitation against hiked rates that a young Pherozeshah Mehta returned from England in 1869 to take up their cause of “no taxation without representation”, and with K.T. Telang helped create the “local self-government” we know in Mumbai today. With the liberal Viceroy Lord Ripon – who laid the founding stone for the BMC Head Office where his statue now stands – Sir Pherozeshah authored the 1888 BMC Act, still the city’s current constitution. This trod a wise path between a colonial executive and the few wealthy Indians who qualified to vote or be elected to the corporation.
By the time “Sir PM” passed away in 1915, Gandhi had just returned to discover his “real India” in the villages, not colonial cities like Bombay. As he toured the countryside to mobilise the masses, by 1922, the British began opening voting to rent-payers, not just property tax-payers. In 1936 the minimum qualification to vote was further reduced from Rs 10 to Rs 5 rent. But beyond expanding the voter franchise and the extending the city limits in 1950 and 1956, by Independence, reforms to urban governance remained stillborn. Even as “Greater Mumbai” grew in size and scale, it was and remains governed by the same 1888 Act, based on the 1865 idea of vesting all executive power in a single, unelected MC.
While Independence did little to transform urban governance, globalisation has now made cities pivotal to the development of their regional and national economies. Today most of Mumbai’s municipal wards are now more populous than most US or European cities, but are still overseen by a single Assistant Commissioner. In Britain – where Lord Ripon’s reforms originated – the Corporator-Commissioner system was replaced with Town Councils in the 70s, though elected urban bodies have made a comeback, especially in London. In the US, popular elected government – especially for city Mayor – has long been a fact of urban life.
In the past decade national laws such as the 74th Amendment and RTI have helped transform urban instititions through slow and constant citizen pressure. Even as “Smart Cities” are being planned all over India, and new cities like Vasai-Virar are created on the same old Victorian model, serious proposals for urban reform remain absent.
India has had an elected Prime Minister under a democratic Constitution for more than sixty years, and the State of Maharashtra its own Assembly and Chief Minister for more than fifty years. Though the Sena briefly experimented with Calcutta’s Mayor-in-Council system in Mumbai in 1989, Mumbai’s Mayor has since 1931 been a ceremonial leader of the House. While Commissioners may come and go, a popular Mayor elected by and responsible to all citizens of Greater Mumbai would be a belated birthday gift for the old Urbs Prima in Indis.