The differences underlying the demand for statehood for Delhi and the counter-stance that the character of the country’s capital must be maintained need to be viewed contextually. India, like the US, Canada, Germany and Mexico, is a federation. In such countries, the capital city is an amalgam of the provinces that create the federation. The capital’s monuments, emblematic buildings and landscape reflect the country’s diversity as well as its unity. Host to the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the national government, these capitals are their respective country’s pride.
Political analysts liken Delhi to Abuja, Addis Ababa, Canberra, Mexico City and Washington, D.C. The commonality shared by these capitals is that the seat of the federal government is not under the jurisdiction of any state or province. The extent of federal control ranges from inflexible to largely autonomous but everywhere issues of local democratic participation and accountability deficit seem to be inherent. Public protests are more vociferous and largely aimed at the policies and decisions of the national government. The city government has too little role.
Linked to the demand for statehood, successive Delhi governments have demanded control over the national capital’s land, which has been debarred for them because Delhi is the capital of the country. Even the union territories of Puducherry and the Andaman and Nicobar islands have control over land. But Delhi is different because as the nation’s capital, it must reflect the best that the country offers. And that is only possible if land-use, zoning plans and building regulations are managed in consonance with the standards expected of a capital city. Parallels cannot be drawn with state capitals like Mumbai, Bangalore or Chennai (although that is constantly being done). Delhi is hemmed in by other states and cannot create a Navi Mumbai or a Greater Delhi, nor can the federal government be confined to the island called NDMC. Located in a seismic zone, the scope for high-rise construction is limited. Statehood would bring land allocation under the city government, whose concern for the country’s capital would yield to satiating local demands.
Statehood raises the subjects of police and public order. The constitution allots these as state subjects. In many states, political influence has been pervasive in police postings. Often, the force is used for framing false cases and going slow on serious ones. Delhi Police not being under the state government has, by and large, remained immune from political manipulation. Not getting direct inputs from elected representatives pales compared to what will happen if local politicians begin exercising superintendence. In the national capital, the protection of dignitaries and the maintenance of public order are the highest priorities much as we denigrate those efforts. Not because day-to-day policing is unimportant. But because the upkeep of maximum standards of security is how the safety of the capital is judged. An attack on an Union minister or diplomat would guarantee an ‘unsafe’ tag not just for Delhi but the country.
A seemingly mundane yet important point against the grant of statehood to the Delhi is the inability of its city government to bear the cost of police salaries and the pension liabilities of all city government employees, which are today borne entirely by the Centre. The budget of the Delhi government would implode if that bill were laid at its door—a predicament which would flow from the mantle of statehood.
Finally, there is the question of political consensus. Whereas the local units of both the Congress and the BJP have demanded statehood for Delhi for over two decades now, the articulation has been confined to the local level. No government at the Centre has shown much enthusiasm, whatever may have been its political complexion, over the last twenty-two years.
Therefore, keeping in mind international practice, the fact that Delhi’s governance structure is akin to many federal country capitals and the fact that the city government is being heavily subsidised, it would be prudent not to press for statehood. That would weaken the case for delegation of authority under various statutes which is feasible and a necessity.
From the point of view of the citizens of Delhi, what matters is that systems are transparent and day-to-day work is attended to. This does not need statehood—only good governance.
By Shailaja ChAndra
The author is a former secretary to the government of India and former chief secretary, Delhi