The Telangana Governor E S L Narasimhan’s unusual decision to return a bill, seeking amendments to the Municipalities Act, has come as a major embarrassment to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government and triggered speculation over the possible role of BJP in the turn of developments.
It is well known in the political circles that Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and Governor Narasimhan enjoy great personal rapport and warmth. Given this equation, it came as surprise that the Governor chose to return the Municipalities (amendment) bill which was passed by a special session of the Assembly last week.
The new legislation sought to reduce the powers of the State Election Commission (SEC). The Governor raised objections over a clause which vested the powers to the state government to fix the election dates for 128 municipalities and 12 municipal corporations in the state.
The Governor wanted this clause to be modified to allow the SEC to fix the election dates like in the past, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
The legislation provides a wide range of powers to the government in matters pertaining to elections in urban local bodies. The Governor also objected to the powers given to the district collectors to remove elected representatives in municipal bodies if they fail to protect 85 per cent of trees and plants in municipal nurseries.
Incidentally, KCR, as the Chief Minister is popularly known, holds the Municipal Administration portfolio. He had termed the bill as a “role model” for the country and got it passed in a special session of the Assembly.
Interestingly, the Governor’s decision to return the bill came after a delegation of BJP leaders met him and sought his intervention in the matter.
As per the Telangana Municipalities Bill (2019), the state government will have full powers over the municipal corporations and municipal councils. The state government can cancel any resolution passed by the civic body, suspend the chairperson, vice-chairperson and even the ward member. The government can wield total control over the civic bodies through the district collectors.
For instance, section 65 of the bill says, “The government may, suo-moto or on representation by chairperson, vice-chairperson, district collector and commissioner may cancel any resolution passed or order issued, licence or permission granted by the municipality.”
The district collector will also have powers to suspend the chairperson or vice-chairperson or any member for “wilful misbehaviour, manhandling or destruction of property.”
Any person removed from the position of chairperson, vice-chairperson or ward member shall not be eligible for election for a period of six years from the date of removal.
Section 68 of the bill says, “If, in the opinion of the government, the municipality is not competent to perform or its financial stability is threatened, the government may direct that the municipality is dissolved. The government may reconstitute the municipality not later than six months from the date of dissolution.”
The new legislation has drawn flak from the opposition parties.
“It violates the spirit of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, tramples upon the independence of the State Election Commission and intends to suppress the freedom of the local bodies, besides enhancing the powers of the officials,” state BJP spokesperson Krishna Sagar Rao said.
Congress and BJP leaders argued that the legislation would provide sweeping powers to the government to undermine the authorities of civic bodies.
Following the Governor’s disapproval, the TRS government went into a huddle and incorporated the changes he suggested. The powers of the SEC have now been restored.
State chief secretary SK Joshi, municipal administration principal secretary Arvind Kumar and law secretary V Niranjan Rao had a marathon meeting and amended the clause as per the suggestions made by the Governor.
The Chief Minister then obtained consent from the Council of Ministers for the amended clause. Later, the amended bill was sent to the Governor, who finally gave his assent.
The government will now have to go back to the Assembly to get the amended version of the bill passed within six months.
“We welcome the constructive, pro-people decision of the Governor in returning the Bill and safeguarding the Constitutional spirit. We appreciate the action taken by him,” the BJP spokesperson said.
The other highlights of the new legislation include the provision for demolition of illegal constructions without notice and self-certification facility for house owners for paying property tax.
The urban poor can construct a house (ground plus one floor) on a small plot without having to apply for permission from the municipality. They will have to pay a house tax of Rs 100 per year. Such beneficiaries, however, must register with the municipality at a nominal charge of Re 1 so that they can get civic facilities.
“The bill aims at promoting transparency in the system and rooting out corruption,” the Chief Minister had said while piloting the bill.