The Union Cabinet on Tuesday gave its nod to a bill to merge the three municipal corporations in Delhi, a move that is likely to escalate the ongoing power struggle between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Aadmi Party ahead of the high-stakes civic polls.
The Delhi Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill is expected to be introduced in the Budget session of Parliament underway, sources in the union government said. The amendment provides for a unified municipal corporation of Delhi by subsuming the existing three corporations where the BJP is in power since 2012. The BJP was also in power from 2007 to 2012 in the erstwhile unified MCD.
The politically-significant decision was described by Delhi's ruling Aam Aadmi Party as "tactics" to delay civic elections, but it asserted that the merger move will not make any difference to its poll prospects, claiming Delhiites have made up their mind to oust the BJP from power in the civic bodies.
Delhi state BJP leaders believed that the merger will help the party attempt an image make-over and tackle anti-incumbency when the civic polls are held.
Sources in the Union government said the unified municipal corporation will be a well-equipped entity for optimum and even utilisation of financial resources which will reduce mounting liabilities, expenditure on the functioning of the three municipal corporations and improve the civic services of the national capital.
The erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi was trifurcated into three municipal corporations -- South Delhi Municipal Corporation, North Delhi Municipal Corporation, and East Delhi Municipal Corporation in 2011.
At the Union Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, some more amendments were also cleared in the principal Act of 1957 to ensure more robust delivery architecture for greater transparency, improved governance and more efficient delivery of civic services for the people of Delhi, sources said.
The sources said the trifurcation of the corporation was uneven in terms of the territorial divisions and revenue generating potential of each corporation and as a result there was a huge gap in the resources available to the three corporations, vis-a-vis their obligations.
The gap widened over a period of time, increasing the financial difficulties of the three municipal corporations, leaving them incapacitated to make timely payment of salaries and retirement benefits to their employees, creating serious impediments in maintaining civic services in Delhi, the sources said, citing the reasons behind the move.
The AAP-led Delhi government and the BJP-ruled municipal corporations have been at loggerheads over funding issues on several occasions in the past.
The polls for the 272 wards of the three civic bodies are due in April this year but there is no clarity from the State Election Commission(SEC) yet whether the dates for the municipal elections would be deferred.
The SEC had deferred the announcement of the election schedule for the civic bodies. The schedule was to have been announced on March 9.
Since the deferment, a bitter war of words has ensued between the BJP and the Arvind Kejriwal-headed AAP.
Slamming the Centre over the merger move, AAP's Delhi unit convenor and Environment Minister Gopal Rai alleged that the Centre has brought the bill to delay the civic polls as BJP was facing imminent defeat. The BJP should "give up" its efforts to keep municipal elections on hold as this tactic would not change its fate, he added.
Several BJP leaders, however, indicated that the reunification will delay the civic body polls and provide a chance to the party to fight anti-incumbency that was largely due to "failure" in service delivery to the people following a financial crunch.
Delhi BJP president Adesh Gupta said the trifurcation had weakened the financial health of the MCDs. Delhi government was also not helping it, adding that unification of civic bodies will help in financial stability of the municipality.
"Unification of municipalities will strengthen the corporation and ensure better development in Delhi. The Delhi government was not clearing dues of the civic bodies. It has to pay dues of over Rs 13,000 to the three corporations.
"Unification of MCDs will also help in better development works, timely disbursal of salaries of employees," Gupta claimed.
However, Delhi Congress president Anil Chaudhary slammed the BJP-led Central government, saying that the merger of civic bodies is a "scripted move" by the BJP and the AAP to postpone the MCD elections. He also said the MCDs required funds and not the merger.
Many serving and former mayors said the unified municipal body will be "stronger", development projects will get "fast-tracked" and position of mayor will receive a boost.
"The new unified civic body will be a stronger one and the position of mayor will rise significantly, and it will be equivalent to that of a CM, as it was when it was when we had a unified MCD. Also, we are hopeful that financial condition would also be enhanced through appropriate measures," former South Delhi mayor Subhash Arya told PTI.
South Delhi Mayor Mukesh Suryan said the step was "much-needed" and it will spell a "better fortune" for the civic bodies, once they all become one municipal corporation again.