Ripon Buildings

At long last, we are to have elections to the Council of the Greater Chennai Corporation. The oldest civic body in India has 200 wards all of which will go to the polls on February 19. Newspaper reports have it that as many as 3,546 nominations have been received for the 200 council seats. Of course, the bulk of the hopefuls are political party nominees – the city, and for that matter, all local body elections in our country – fights elections on political lines. Each election is a referendum on one party or the other. In the process, local issues are invariably side lined. It is high time the city wakes up and demands that people with concern for local issues are fielded.

But has this ever been under the control of the citizens? Perhaps there was a time, till the early 1900s when ward elections were out of the purview of politics but that has since changed. And since the mid 1960s at least, the results of local body elections have been considered a barometer for assembly polls. The reverse too holds good. Chennai’s citizens have been canny enough to realise that it is best that the party in power in the Legislative Assembly is also voted for in the civic polls. That way, there is no danger of the former conflicting with the latter, thereby squeezing funds. That by the way is not something new – the first instance of this is from the 1680s, when Elihu Yale as Governor cut off funds to the Madras Corporation as it questioned some of his decisions! 

How many hopefuls really see the councillor’s post to be a civic responsibility? Hardly any. To most it is yet another rung on the political ladder by standing on which it is possible to aim for bigger prospects – a seat in the legislature, or maybe a ministership or who knows, maybe even something higher? Which is why corruption has been endemic in the corporation council. To aim higher it is necessary to fill one’s coffers and that of the party as well, and also hold out better income prospects to those who decide on matters such as tickets for elections. Chennai Corporation’s record when it comes to councillor probity is abysmal. For a start we had the Muster Roll scandal in the 1970s and then, as late as in 2012, the then CM, J Jayalalithaa had to castigate her party councillors in view of serious allegations of graft. A couple of years later, some contractors actually put up posters naming corrupt councillors. 

The divide of the council along party lines also necessarily means the conduct of council meetings is more or less modelled on the legislature. Slogan-shouting, rushing to the well of the house, prevention of even routine matters being decided on, evictions, walkouts and even acts of violence are all regular features. How can political considerations enter the administration of a city? Well, it does happen – you only need to read the newspaper reports on Corporation council meetings. In 2013, the longest meeting of the Chennai Corporation was held – it lasted seven hours because all the ADMK ward councillors wanted to be given an opportunity to speak so that they could felicitate the then CM on her birthday. In 2014, we had the shortest session – 25 mins – because the same councillors were saddened over the CM’s arrest. Not one matter concerning the city was taken up in either session. 

Why then do we have Corporation elections? Because the law mandates this and the law is formulated with hope – hope that at some stage councillors and citizens will realise their responsibilities. Just because the voting public and those being voted in are not mature enough does not mean the law has to be diluted. Getting the city to be run by administrators in the absence of a council is not the answer. It is time we as residents of the city stand up and specify our expectations from our ward candidates. That in turn may percolate upward to a better run council. As a first step, let us get to know the names in the fray and not just their party symbols.