Ripon Building
Ripon Building, from A Book on South India by JC Molony

Elections for the post of mayor of London have just concluded and received worldwide publicity. Chennai’s municipal body is said to be the second oldest after London’s in the former British domains. Of course, we don’t expect elections here to attract the same attention but will our civic body begin to emulate some of the good features of the Corporation of London, at least some time in the future?
To be sure, the Corporation of Greater Chennai has been ahead of its London counterpart in having a directly elected mayor. The practice began here in 1996 while in London it came about only in 2000 after a referendum decided to this ­effect. Since the time the post of mayor became a matter of public contest both in Chennai and London, candidates have been fielded from the dominant political parties and the results have gone in the way of one or the other. The similarity, however, ends there.

In London, though Mayors may have come from a particular political ideology, they begin to represent the city’s interests once elected. This is not to say that they become independent of their Party’s influence, but they do have the freedom to think about their city’s priorities and put those ahead of Party considerations. Thus, we have had occasions when both Conservative-and Labour-backed mayors have taken a line markedly deviant from the stance of the Prime Minister of the country. In Chennai, this would be unthinkable. Mayors here, and for that matter our elected municipal councillors as well, view the civic body to be an extension of the Legislative Assembly and carry forward the same conflicts into their chamber. Most often than not, the city’s priorities are given the go-by. If you look at the records of our Corporation’s council meetings, you will invariably find that most bills are passed in the absence of any opposition. The latter inevitably invite eviction on the grounds of unruly behaviour as soon as the Council meets. How then is any debate on civic issues possible?

London’s Mayors have in the past decade and a half had a history of implementing what were feared to be unpopular decisions. There was the matter of congestion tax, to restrict the influx of cars into the city. A public backlash was feared, but the proposal went ahead nevertheless. It not only contributed to the reduction of vehicle population that entered the city each day, but it also made people use public transport to a greater degree. Another Mayor threw his weight behind exclusive lanes for cycles. This too was received with a hue and cry about how the idea was reducing road space for vehicles. The plan has, however, since been implemented.

In Chennai, Mayors have tended to be populist. Chennai’s Corporation has in the last two decades been more a vehicle for implementing the schemes of the Party in power. If at all any civic amenity, such as widening sidewalks or doing away with large outdoor advertising, has come about it is because of public interest litigation and not due to any enlightened leadership. Our Mayors have generally been happier approving schemes that never take off or spending time renaming roads. You need to just look at the plan to segregate garbage at source to get the idea. It has been hanging fire since 1996! It is no wonder then that the city is forever on the brink of disaster – being it in the matter of infrastructure or quality of living.

With the State Assembly elections getting over in Tamil Nadu, it will soon be time for civic body polls. Will the new incumbents be any different?