The city's decrepit roads are choking.

Mumbai Needs a Real Mayor

Dhiraj Nayyar is a journalist in New Delhi. Trained as an economist, he has worked at the Financial Express, India Today and Firstpost.com. He is editor of "Surviving the Storm: India and the Global Financial Crisis."
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Today, the nearly 20 million residents of Mumbai, India's largest and richest city, will vote to elect a new government -- not for their city but for the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Mumbai's economy is the main reason the state is India's richest: At $90 billion, the city's annual gross domestic product accounts for half of the state's.

Yet Mumbai's municipal corporation, the chief local government body, has an annual budget of just $5 billion. The effects of the shortfall are obvious to the naked eye: choked roads and sewers, crumbling tenements and general decrepitude. By some measures the city -- which is the state capital as well as India's commercial and financial engine -- has more in common with Lagos than London. More than half its population still lives in slums.

On the one hand, Mumbai's problem is a familiar one. For state-level politicians, the 100 million people who live outside the confines of Mumbai represent more votes than the city's relatively well-heeled citizens. (Just ask legislators in upstate New York about their own political calculations.) Prosperous regions should finance needy ones in any functioning political union, and much of the Maharashtra countryside remains quite poor. But the real problem isn't that Mumbai doesn't receive its fair share of state revenue. It's that the city can't govern itself.

While New York City has to battle constantly to have its interests secured in Albany, the fact remains that all of the city's important agencies report to a directly elected mayor: the police, transportation and education departments, and so on. This is an eminently sensible arrangement for a huge and wealthy metropolis, whose interests do not always converge with those of the state. The personnel who manage the city's affairs are accountable to its citizens alone. Empowered by that mandate, New York's mayors have been successful in recent decades at reducing crime, increasing cleanliness and making public transport systems more efficient. Some like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg -- the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News -- have become nationally important figures.

In India, only Delhi controls its own destiny, and that's because the nation's capital counts as a state unto itself, with an elected legislature and chief minister. What Mumbai really needs is a fully empowered mayor and city government. Right now local councilors elect a token mayor from among their ranks. The police are run by Maharashtra's interior minister; the urban development authority by the state's urban development minister; its trains and buses by the transportation minister; the schools by the education minister. The list goes on.

A majority of these officials do not hail from Mumbai; the city elects only 36 legislators out of the 288 from which ministers are chosen. And the city's needs form only a small subset of those ministers' responsibilities. That leads to neglect. Mumbai is an island choked for space. The government's plan to construct an infrastructure of roads over the sea -- a brilliant idea to decongest traffic -- has suffered because of apathy. The first of three proposed "Sea Links" was completed in 2010 five years behind schedule at a cost overrun estimated at $13 billion. The other two links are stuck at the planning stage.

Only a city government that has the power to oversee large infrastructure projects like roads and schools, or to control the city's police, can hope to implement urgent reforms. "We need a directly elected mayor or a CEO (call it what you will)," Milind Deora, a two-time member of parliament from Mumbai, argued in a recent op-ed. "Mumbai needs one elected person to administer and coordinate its affairs and be held accountable after five years." There's much at stake in today's polls, including whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party can assume control of Maharashtra for the first time. But it's not the vote Mumbai really needs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Dhiraj Nayyar at dhiraj.nayyar@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net