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Neighbourhood Associations and Local Democracy: Delhi Municipal Elections 2007

A study of municipal elections in Delhi in 2007 shows that there are institutional limitations in realising local democracy. Democratisation of local bodies has been hindered because of the nature of neighbourhood associations. However, neighbourhood associations are themselves being democratised and are therefore bound to strengthen local democracy.

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly November 24, 200751Neighbourhood Associations and Local Democracy: Delhi Municipal Elections 2007Stéphanie Tawa Lama-RewalA study of municipal elections in Delhi in 2007 shows that there are institutional limitations in realising local democracy. Democratisation of local bodies has been hindered because of the nature of neighbourhood associations. However, neighbourhood associations are themselves being democratised and are therefore bound to strengthen local democracy.Delhi went through municipal elections in April 2007, for the third time since the implementation in the capital city of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act(CAA), which defines democratic decentralisation in the urban context. But for the first time, a substantial number of neighbourhood as-sociations engaged in different ways with the electoral process. This paper1 describes the modalities and implications of such en-gagement, which it considers as an analyser of the relationship between the representative and participative dimensions of local democracy. Considering that municipal councillors embody the representative dimension of local democracy and that neighbour-hood associations embody its participative dimension, I argue (i) that the democratisation of local government aimed at in the 74thCAA– i e, the democratic part of decentralisation – is severely limited by a series of institutional and social factors; (ii) that neighbourhood associations, by their nature and their action, contribute to containing the democratisation of local governance; but that (iii) these associations have recently engaged into a democratisation process of their own, and may ultimately strengthen local democracy rather than undermine it. 1 Democratisation of Urban Local BodiesThe 74thCAA, adopted in 1992 by the Indian Parliament, is a historic piece of legislation which promotes the democratisa-tion of urban local bodies(ULBs) in a double sense: as extension, and as inclusion.First, the 74thCAA democratisesULBs by extending the princi-ple of electoral representation to the level of the city council. Up to 1992, local self-government (a subject on the states’ list in the Indian federal system) was diversely developed in the Indian states.2 For instance, while West Bengal and Maharashtra have organised local elections at regular intervals since the mid-1980s, this was not the case in many other states, where elected assem-blies at the local level could be superseded sine die. Thus the municipal corporation of Delhi (MCD) was superseded in 1987, and new elections were held only 10 years later. Giving ULBsa constitutional status and making local elections compulsory3 are therefore crucial features of the 74thCAA. Second, the 74thCAA promotes the democratisation of ULBs by the inclusion of social categories hitherto politically marginal-ised, through electoral quotas or reservations. The act makes it mandatory for all elected assemblies at the local level to include one-third women, and scheduled castes(SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) in proportion to their respective demographic importance in the cities.4This paper was first presented in the context of a collective research pro-gramme of the French Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi, called “India’s Democratic Renewal in Question”. The very valuable comments which I received from Claire Bénit-Gbaffou, Véronique Dupont, Marie-Hélène Zérah and Bruno Jobert, helped me in giving it a new dimension. I also want to deeply thank Bertrand Lefebvre who realised all the maps and shared his intimate knowledge of Delhi’s geography with me.Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal ( is a research fellow in political science at the National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris, cur-rently on deputation to the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.
Ward 118-Janakpuri South Ward 192-Greater Kailash I Ward 49 Rohini North Ward 191 Shahpur Jat Abstention % 27 40 50 55 60 65 77 Ward 163-Safdarjung Enclave Information not available 14 km DCA Luyten’s Delhi Yamunariver Mayur Vihar Civil Lines Dwarka

14 km

Number of RWA Per Locality 44 13

5 MCD Ward 1

Abstention (%) for MCD 2007 Elections Low Income Group Medium Income Group High Income Group Main roads Ward boundar es 89 24 81 43 73.63 65 82 58.02 50.22 1 km Panchsheel Vihar Kh rki Shekh Sarai Savitri Nagar Soami Nagar Panchsheel Enclave Panchshila Park South Siri Fort Panchshila Park North Asian Games Village Complex Shahpur Jat MasjidMoth Greater Kailash Enclave 1 DDA F ats Masjid Moth Phase I Hauz Khas Mayfair Garden Malviya Nagar Chirag Delhi Phase I Greater Kailash II Greater Ka ash I Sadiq Nagar
Total Number of Votes for the JPM candidate 194 33 11 km Panchsheel Vihar Kh rki Shekh Sarai Savitri Nagar Soami Nagar Panchsheel Enclave Panchshila Park South Siri Fort Panchshila Park North Asian Games Village Complex Shahpur Jat MasjidMoth Greater Kailash Enclave 1 DDA F ats Masjid Moth Phase I Hauz Khas Mayfair Garden Malviya Nagar Chirag Delhi Phase I Greater Kailash II Greater Ka ash I Sadiq Nagar Main roads Ward boundar es
SPECIAL ARTICLENovember 24, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly54[Nair 2006] and Chennai [Coelho 2005; Harriss 2005], they are a feature of residential colonies and are absent from slums (where their equivalent would be community based organisations, or CBOs, which are also local associations active on local issues).Just like NGOs andCBOs, however, neighbourhood associa-tions have been promoted through the implementation of partici-pative schemes, in the context of a political discourse favouring participation as one of the defining virtues of good governance. Thus, even though neighbourhood associations are not new in Indian cities, over the past decade they have multiplied, taken up a new role, and acquired a new visibility.In Delhi,RWAs have existed at least since the 1970s, but assess-ing their number today proves particularly difficult, considering that they can exist without being registered. Even if one consid-ers only registered associations, there is a systematic discrepancy between the number of associations found on official lists and the figures orally provided by registration authorities. Thus the registrar of societies estimates that several thousand RWAs exist in Delhi,14 but the data provided by his web site show a list of 870 associations only. Another registration authority is the bhagidari cell of the chief minister’s office, which is concerned only with thoseRWAS that are members of the bhagidari scheme (for which they have to prove that they are registered, that they hold yearly elections, and that they have existed for a number of years). The list provided by the bhagidari cell in 2006 includes 1096RWAs15 – but one can estimate that several hundredsRWAs are not included in it. Map 2 (p 52), based on this listing,16 shows the distribution of RWAsover the city. It highlights the strong presence of RWAs in middle-middle class areas such as Dwarka, Rohini and Mayur Vihar, and shows that these associations are not confined to the posh colonies of south Delhi only. RWAs are largely absent (i) from the territories administered by the New Delhi municipal council(NDMC), that is, Lutyens’ Delhi, and by the Delhi canton-ment board (DCB), that is, the Delhi cantonment area(DCA); and (ii) from the fringes. Concerning the first two areas, one can see three explanations: (i) the residential space is limited by the pres-ence of administrative buildings, airports and military zones; (ii)most residents (be they Indian bureaucrats, foreign diplo-mats or military personnel) are not the owners of the buildings they live in – whereas RWAs involve a majority of owners; and (iii) they live in areas whose special status ensure that those is-sues taken up byRWAs, such as the bad maintenance of roads, parks etc, are not relevant. Concerning the outer border of Delhi, one can see another two reasons for the relative absence of RWAs: (i) the west fringe is largely rural; and (ii) both the west and north fringes are the site of a number of slums – where RWAs do not exist – and of unauthorised, non regularised colonies, where RWAs exist but cannot be registered.17 The “bhagidari” (citizen-government partnership) scheme, initiated by the Delhi government in 2000, was certainly a deci-sive factor in the new visibility of RWAs. This scheme associates neighbourhood associations (RWAs, but also senior citizens associations, market traders associations, etc) to the manage-ment of local affairs by consulting them on specific schemes; by promoting their interaction with municipal officials concerning the maintenance of civic infrastructure; and by entitling them to a role of supervision of local public works. The bhagidari scheme ensures its own visibility through regular announcements in the press.But RWAs themselves have shown, over the past six years, a remarkable ability to assert their presence through the media. Their visibility stems in part from the fact that they have formedlarge federations, two of which are headed by people with a professional experience in public relations: the Delhi joint front of resident welfare associations, created in 2002, claims today a membership of 253 RWAs; while the united residents joint association (URJA), created in 2004, claims a membership of over 700 associations. These two federations are distinct, both in size and in ambition, from many smaller federations, based on the territorial contiguity of a series of RWAs: they gatherRWAs from all over the city, and they claim to speak on behalf of the city residents as a whole. In this perspective, they interact regularly with journalists in charge of city affairs, be it in national dailies or in local, free newsletters; they frequently issue press statements; they call press conferences – and they meet with a favourable response from press editors: the Hindustan Times, for instance, calls RWAsthe “residents voice”, thus contributing to asserting their legitimacy as the spokes-persons of “local people”.4 Neighbourhood Associations: An Obstacle to Democratisation?What is the impact of neighbourhood associations on local democracy? This question evokes two possible, non exclusive answers: (i) neighbourhood associations may provide an answer tothe weakness of the representative dimension of urban democracy as they promote the participation of local people in the management of local affairs, and embody the relevance of proximity; or (ii) they may constitute the means through which the upper strata of society attempt to regain their influence over local affairs, threatened by the inclusive dimension of the democratisation of local government. The first interpretation is congruent with the fact that neigh-bourhood associations have become an important actor in all cit-ies but Kolkata, where representative democracy is certainly stronger than elsewhere, for several reasons. One, the mayor-in-council system empowers councillors in a unique way, and voting participation in municipal elections (as in other elections) is higher in Kolkata than in other megacities. Two, the CPI(M), a major component of the left front which has been ruling the state ever since 1977, is characterised by a strong network of local cells, called “nagarik committees” in Kolkata, which tend to play the role of local forums [Ghosh 2007: 21]. Three, on the whole, “civil society was not encouraged [to play an important role in] city governance” [Ghosh 2007: 1]. But the second interpretation is supported by a number of features of neighbourhood associations, suggesting that they are essentially undemocratic institutions. A qualitative study conducted on a sample of 16RWAs in different areas of the city in 2004-06 suggests that beyond variations in terms of the socio-economic category to which they belong and cater,
1 km Abstention for MCD 2007 E Low Income Group Medium Income Group High Income GroupMain roads Ward boundaries Sector 16 Sector 15 Sector 18 Sector 13 Samaipur Badli Suraj Park Raja Vihar Badli Indl Area JJC
Samaipur Raja Vihar Badli Indl Area Main roads Ward boundaries 1 km Sector 13 Badli Sector 15 Sector 18 JJC Suraj Park Sector 16 55 10 1 Total number of votes fo URJA candidate
SPECIAL ARTICLENovember 24, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly562006:12). But does this different type of local democracy comple-ment or threaten the other one? In Indian megacities, the differ-ent avenues of political participation provided by local elections on the one hand, and by neighbourhood activism on the other hand, are overwhelmingly informed by class: the essentially “mid-dle class” nature of neighbourhood associations gives them access to resources – money, contacts, information, and communication skills – which allow them to compete with elected councillors as bearers of people’s concerns in local affairs.20 Their ability to form fronts and federations manifests their capacity to aggregate inter-ests, and therefore to lobby in an effective way, as was evident in the cases of the regulation of cable operators or the rise in electric-ity tariffs in Delhi. As visible spokespersons and efficient lobbyists, neighbourhood associations can bypass local councillors to inter-act directly with decision-makers – municipal bureaucrats, the state government – thereby undermining the already fragile legiti-macy of elected representatives. One could therefore fear that the relative effectiveness of neighbourhood associations may convert representative local democracy into a relegated democracy – of the poor (voters), by the poor (councillors), for the poor (users of municipal services – schools, dispensaries…), to put it in an over-simplified way. A series of recent initiatives however suggest that neighbourhood activism and local elections actually need each other, that they interact with, and complement each other.5 Democratisation of Neighbourhood AssociationsNeighbourhood associations seem to have engaged into a demo-cratisation process of their own: (i) they try to conform to demo-cratic norms; (ii) they aspire to a democratic type of legitimacy; and (iii) they took an active part in recent local elections.Firstly, then, some neighbourhood associations impose on themselves the submission to a number of democratic norms, practices and values. Thus many of the RWA office-bearers I inter-viewed in Delhi emphasised procedures such as elections at regu-lar intervals (from one to three years); the impossibility for an office-bearer to occupy the same position for more than two terms in a row; the keeping of minutes of the monthly meetings, which can be consulted by any RWA member at any time, and are presented to the public once a year, during the annual general body meeting; and the auditing of the RWA accounts. The Delhi joint front of resident welfare associations even created a women’s wing to promote the inclusion of women among office-bearers.These initiatives are significant because registration authori-ties do not impose such rules.21 They are also recent: my first series of interviews, two years ago, revealed that many RWAs held elections very irregularly if at all; that elections were often un-contested; and that when there was a contest, it would take place in an open way, by hand raising.This evolution is doubtlessly encouraged, in Delhi, by the bhagidari scheme, which attractsRWAs with a number of incentives: being part of the scheme means being associated to consultation workshops on civic issues; being granted a supervis-ing role concerning the maintenance of local civic amenities; having opportunities to interact with top level bureaucrats and with political leaders – including the chief minister; and most recently, having access to (modest) public funds for developing local projects. But to be part of this scheme,RWAs have to submit to a small number of conditions – including yearly elections. Secondly, this self-imposed compliance with democratic pro-cedures pertains to the aspiration to a democratic type of legiti-macy. Indeed neighbourhood associations need to fend off delegitimising criticisms,22 if only because these weaken their in-fluence, as was evident in the opposition between trader associa-tions and RWAs over the issue of mixed land use in Delhi in 2006. ThusRWAs, in association withNGOs working on urban gover-nance, have been advocating the creation of “area sabhas”, com-posed of all the voters registered in one polling station (i e, 1,500 to 3,000 persons in Delhi); the idea being that area sabhas would elect two representatives, who then would be statutory members of the local ward committee.23 Thirdly, neighbourhood associations have actively engaged with the municipal elections which took place in April 2007 in Delhi – just as they did in February 2007 in Mumbai.24 In the capital city, where I could observe the electoral campaign directly, RWAs engaged with the electoral process in three different ways.One, just like other local organisations, they tried to pressurise political parties through their role as relays of candidates in the mobilisation of local voters: candidates were eager to get the sup-port ofRWAs’ leaders to organise their “corner meetings” – which were an opportunity for RWAs to voice their demands, or simply to assert their importance in the area.Two, someRWAs organised “meet your candidate” events, whereby all the candidates contesting in a ward were invited to a meeting in which they were subjected to questions by local voters. It seems however that these events were rare and con-fined to the upper-middle class areas of south Delhi.25Three,RWAs proved to be a rich pool of candidates – of three different types: (i) a number of RWA office bearers got the ticket from a political party; (ii) some of them were denied a ticket andcon-tested as independents, but in the classical, “party” style; (iii) lastly, about 35 “RWA candidates”26 contested as such, that is, as inde-pendent candidates claiming to represent civil society in general andRWAs in particular.27 I will now focus on the latter category. 6 “People’s Candidates” in MCD Elections 2007Most of the “RWA candidates” were supported by two federations of associations:28URJA, which selected and supported 21 candidates; and the Jan Pratinidhi Manch (Front of People’s Representatives), a federation of about 20 associations with various constituencies, which supported 11 candidates. These 32 “people’s candidates”, as they liked to call themselves, were differently distributed over the city: the JPM candidates were confined to south Delhi and Dwarka, while URJA candidates were more evenly spread, since they were present in north and west Delhi as well as in trans-Yamuna areas.The two initiatives were similar in many ways. Concerning their raison d’être, both initiatives justified themselves on a double argument: (i) proximity to local people and local issues should be the decisive factor in selecting your councillor; and (ii) the selec-tion methods of political parties are inadequate. In this regard, the methods used by the two federations to select candidates were also largely similar: local committees were formed, gathering a number of associations active in the area, and these committees
Abstention (% for MCD 2007 Election 65.9 60.54 55 1 49.7 44.3 Low Income Group Medium Income Group Main roads Ward boundaries 500 m Janakpuri C2 Janakpuri C3 Janakpuri C4 Janakpuri C6 Tihar Jail Maya Enclave Hari Nagar Poshangipur © Bertrand Lefebvre, Map done with Philic ht // hilge club.f
Main roads Ward boundaries 500 m Maya Enclave Hari Nagar Tihar JailJanakpuri C2 Janakpuri C3 Janakpuri C4 Janakpuri C6 Poshangipur Total number of votes for the INC candidate 178 80 22
1 km Bhim Nagri Green Park Arjun Nagar Hauz Khas Village Humayunpur Safdarjung Enclave Green Park Ext Safdarjung Hospital Hauz Khas Yusuf Sarai AIIMS JJC Mohammadpur Hauz Khas Enclave Main roads ??? for M
Total number of vote the independent candidat Main roads Ward boundar Hauz Khas Yusuf Sarai AIIMS Green Park Bhim Nagri Hauz Khas Enclave Green Park Ext Safdarjung Hospital JJC Arjun Nagar Hauz Khas Village Humayunpur Safdarjung Enclave Mohammadpur 1 km 24 76 2
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly November 24, 200759candidates in local elections, as shown in the table: they make upabout half the total number of candidates, but their success rate is extremely low.ConclusionFinally, the engagement of neighbourhood associations with local elections was revealing in many ways. One, it confirmed thatRWAs aspire to a status giving them the legitimacy and means to act beyond the neighbourhood level. At the same time the inability of “people’s candidates” to attract a substantial number of votes in all or most areas of the ward high-lights the inherent contradiction inRWAs’ endeavour to play a role beyond the neighbourhood they belong and cater to – which is due to the socio- economic heterogeneity of most wards, but also to the very pa-rochial nature ofRWAs’ con-cerns. Thus “people’s candi-dates” are bound to be defeated by party candidates who can rely on the long established, widespread network of local party cells. Two, the campaign offered an opportunity for RWAs to express critical but constructive views on local democracy. Most candidates underlined their difference41 with party candidates, and tried to convert their relative lack of political resources into an advantage: they emphasised their refusal to buy votes with money or goods as a first proof of their commitment to an anti-corruption agenda; they promised to be accountable, to report to their constituents once a year about the implementation of their projects; and they offered to step down if their constituents expressed this wish. The very method adopted to select “people’s candidates”, relying on the election by (admittedly ad hoc) “ward committees”, underlines the crying need for a participative structure offering avenues of participation to neighbourhood associations on the ward level.Three, the bad electoral results of “people’s candidates” pro-vide a reality check to the RWAs’ claim that they represent local people – for local people hardly bothered to vote, and when they did, they voted for party candidates. In fact amateurishness was glaring in the campaign of some candidates, who did not bother to assert their presence in front of polling stations on the voting day, as is the custom. This betrayed at worst a complete igno-rance of the materiality of the electoral process, and at best a naive idealism. More importantly, this revealed that for all their media visibility, “people’s candidates” did not appear credible as an alternative to party candidates. Also the mobilisation of RWAs, be it before or during the electoral campaign, did not seem to have made much of an impact on political parties. Neither the manifesto of the Congress (I) nor that of the BJP mentioned them; in this regard, the fact that the Congress did not even mention the bhagidari scheme, while the BJP evoked it in positive terms,42 is rather surprising. Lastly, the overall low rate of participation (43 per cent) suggests that RWAs failed to get the “middle classes” to vote, even though the ban on the use of ration cards as a proof of identity is certainly another explanation.Yet the engagement of neighbourhood associations with local elections suggests that their impact on local democracy is, on the whole, positive. This experience proves that the essentially micro-local nature of neighbourhood associations prevents them from competing with political parties when it comes to mobil-ising the majority of a ward’s voters, even while it helps mo-tivating the largely apathetic “middle classes” to vote. The method they adopted to select their candidates supports the demand for ward committees in the spirit of the 74thCAA. Their vocal demands for more trans-parency, accountability and participation can only improve the functioning of representative democracy. And last but not least, the assertion of the political nature of their initiative testifies to their belief that politics can be a respectable activity. Indeed the self-imposed democratisation of neighbourhood as-sociations testifies to the resilience of democracy as a source of legitimacy in the Indian society. This process also supports the idea that these associations pertain to the sphere of “counter- democracy”, consisting in a “democratic organisation of distrust”, meant to ensure that those who govern keep “serving the com-mon good” [Rosanvallon 2006: 15]. The notion of “common good”, however, reminds us that the positive impact of neigh-bourhood associations on local democracy is limited to its proce-dural dimension, as opposed to its substantive dimension. Indeed these associations, promoting the political participation of the “middle classes”, end up empowering the already powerful. John Harriss recently underlined “the paradox that increasing oppor-tunities for participation may go to increase political inequality” [Harriss 2007: 2719]. The “paradox” actually stems from the as-sumption that participation is necessarily progressive, that it is always a factor of greater social justice. Despite the limited scale of their action, neighbourhood associations, as a rare case of “conservative participation” (Bénit-Gbaffou), thus raise a major issue: what is the essence of democracy? What does it ultimately stand for? Notes 1 This paper is based on a detailed, qualitative study of 16 resident welfare associations (RWAs) located allover the city (in the south: Kalkaji, Khirki Exten-sion, Gulmohar Park, Safdarjang Enclave, Shahpur Jat, Haus Khas, Sarvodaya Enclave; in the north: Churi Walan, Jama Masjid, Karol Bagh, Rohini; in the east: New Seemapuri, Mayur Vihar; in the West: Janakpuri, Dwarka, Shyam Vihar). The metho-dologyrelied on in-depth interviews completed by the perusal of the directories, newsletters and (whenever possible) minutes of the meetings held by RWAs. In addition I directly observed Bhagidari workshops and the campaigning in March-April 2007 of four candidates coming from RWAs. 2 On the history of local self-government in indepen-dent India, see Kumar 2006. 3 Local elections now have to be held every five years, under the supervision of state election commissions, and the gap between the dissolution of the previous assembly and the first convening of the next one can-not exceed six months. 4 In addition to reservations for women, SCs and STs (all three are mandatory under the act), nine states have provided, in their conformity legislations, reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) as well. 5 But in Chennai the mayor is directly elected by voters, for a five-year period. 6 Kolkata is an exception among Indian megacities: the municipal corporation of that city functions under the “mayor-in-council system” (present only in West Bengal and in Madhya Pradesh) whereby the mayor heads the executive wing of the municipal corpora-tion, in the manner of the prime minister in a parlia-mentary democracy. 7 Only in Mumbai (and only since 2000) do these wards committees include representatives of civil society, in the form of three NGOs selected every year by the councillors from the wards.8 In Delhi, until 2007, there were on an average 1,00,000 people in each of the 134 municipal wards, and wards committees covered an average population Table: Independent Candidates and Participation in MCD ElectionsYear Number Number of Number of Number of Elected Voting ofSeatsCandidatesIndipendentIndependentParticipation CandidatesCandidates(PerCent)1997 134 1,421 811 (57%) 13 (2%) 372002 134 1,169 574 (49%) 5 (0.9%) 452007 272 2,575 1,216 (47%) 15 (1.2%) 43Source: Delhi State Election Commission.


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