The importance of civic polls and urban local bodies in Sikkim's pre and post corona scenario

The importance of civic polls and urban local bodies in Sikkim's pre and post corona scenario
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With Gangtok Municipal Corporation (GMC) being dissolved in 15th of October, 2020. GMC and other urban local bodies in Sikkim await the municipal election in the next few months.

The 74th Amendment Act, 1992 institutionalised the setting up of urban local bodies under 12th schedule of the Indian constitution through elected representatives at the local level to ensure democratic decentralisation, citizen centricity, devolution of power and delineation of functions. Sikkim’s rapid urbanisation which stands at 24.97% as per 2011 census, a replication of urbanisation pan India which grew to 31% in the same census.

A rise in rural to urban migration over the last few decades prompted the previous government ruled by Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) introduced two more municipal councils in the state namely Jorethang and Gyalshing in addition to the Namchi Municipal Council (NMC). Gangtok on the other hand is a municipal corporation with the presence of more functionaries as it caters to a higher population.

On November 30, it was announced that the civic polls were postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. At the onset of this news, has to be seen how these urban centres have been faring over the past few years, since its inception in meeting with the Ease of Living parameters, which in recent times have been a matter of debate.

Since the poll plank for the civic election has yet to set in, two important agencies are under the focus for their role in urban development and accountability - the horizontal and vertical agency. 

The horizontal agency constitutes elected bodies like the municipal corporation, councils and Nagar Panchayats and the vertical agency is headed by the state government through which its parallel agencies such as UDHD implements schemes such as Smart cities, special purpose vehicle, AMRUT, Housing for All (HFA) and City Development Plan (CDP).

While schemes such as AMRUT gives greater flexibility to urban local bodies in terms of generating revenues for themselves by creating assets and other infrastructure, it has to be seen how this finds success in upcoming fiscals. In the recent amendment to the Sikkim Municipalities Act, the government introduced the removal of the party system in the election process at local bodies thus further institutionalising the concept of direct democracy as the candidates will not be bound by party whips and fancies -- the functionaries will be the direct choice of the people.

While the 12th schedule of the Indian constitution mandates the provision of 18 subjects to the Local bodies: 

  1. Regulation of land use and construction of land buildings.
  2. Urban planning including the town planning.
  3. Planning for economic and social development
  4. Urban poverty alleviation
  5. Water supply for domestic, industrial and commercial purposes
  6. Fire services
  7. Public health sanitation, conservancy and solid waste management
  8. Slum improvement and up-gradation
  9. Safeguarding the interests of the weaker sections of society, including the physically handicapped and mentally unsound
  1. Urban forestry, protection of environment and promotion of ecological aspects
  2. Construction of roads and bridges
  3. Provision of urban amenities and facilities such as parks, gardens and playgrounds
  4. Promotion of cultural, educational and aesthetic aspects
  5. Burials and burials grounds, cremation and cremation grounds and electric crematoriums
  6. Cattle ponds, prevention of cruelty to animals
  7. Regulation of slaughterhouses and tanneries
  8. Public amenities including street lighting, parking spaces, bus stops and public conveniences
  9. Vital statistics including registration of births and deaths to enable them to function as a unit of self-governance 

However, for some subjects devolution is mandatory while some are under the discretion of the state government. In the GMC only two subjects (town planning and solid waste management) are devolved to let them function as a centre of municipal governance. Thus, Sikkim needs to take a cue from South Indian states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu which have provided greater devolution to local bodies, which met its benchmark when Kerala fared better in terms of fighting covid at local levels.

The new government nearing two years in the office needs to build consensus on amending Article 243W giving greater power to local bodies as recommended by 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission’s 6th report.

With urban areas resulting in more positive cases (larger cases are reported in Gangtok and other towns such as Singtam and Rangpo) the GMC has had success in ensuring timely lockdown and following protocols as per the centreʼs directives.

Hem Kumar Chettri, the GMC Commissioner says that the achievements of the GMC administration (2015-20) have been in building a Futsal sports arena for sportspeople in the town, taking measures to necessitate e-waste management with a collection centre, ensuring lockdown and sanitisation of public places and of institutions on request during the pandemic.

“I want deserving candidates to win through the civic polls,” he shares. “GMC has achieved a lot despite limited functions and funds.”

While Gangtok and Namchi have attained the distinction of being the cleanest towns under annual Swachh Surveksha Abhiyan a couple of times, it has been serving as an example for numerous capital cities in the Northeast as well as mainland India in terms of cleanliness and safety of pedestrians, leading to attracting various tourists from across the country as well as foreigners.

With final dates yet to be announced for the next civic polls 2021, it is to be seen how the people of urban Sikkim elect their representative to the economic units of the state.

By Karma Lendup Sherpa.