Governing the nation’s capital

The name ‘New Delhi’ was given in 1927, and the official inauguration of the capital took place on February 13, 1931. Also called ‘Lutyens Delhi’ after the architect who designed Raisina Hill and surrounding buildings , he continued to be a Province of Chief Commissioner and his status (along with that of Ajmer Merwara and Coorg) was discussed in the Constituent Assembly where Deshbandhu Gupta and BK Sidhwa raised the issue of the people’s government in Delhi. In July 1947, the Pattabhi Sitaramayya Committee – set up to study the territorial and administrative structures of the Chief Commissioners’ Provinces – singled out Delhi as a special case to formulate a roadmap for its autonomy and governance as a territory of the national capital. Given its complex and overlapping jurisdictions, the committee has given considerable attention to studying the administrative systems of various federal capitals such as Canberra in Australia, Washington DC in the United States (USA) and London UK. Considering the circumstances which led to the formation of the province of Delhi in 1912, the committee concluded that “the province which contains the metropolis of India should not be deprived of the right of self-government enjoyed by the rest of their compatriots living in the smallest of villages.”

The recommendations of the Sitaramayya Committee included the following: the “province” should operate under the leadership of a lieutenant governor (appointed by the president); there should be a council of ministers headed by a chief minister to assist and advise the lieutenant governor; concurrent legislative powers should be given to the Parliament of the Union, even in matters on the “provincial list”. The central government was also vested with specific responsibilities for “good governance” and the financial solvency of the province.

However, Nehru and Ambedkar had serious reservations about the recommendations of the Sitaramayya Committee. They considered that being the national capital of India, it could not be placed under the administration of a local government. Opposing the committee’s recommendations, Jawaharlal Nehru observed, “Since the committee was appointed, the world has changed; India has changed and Delhi has changed in vital ways.” Delhi had indeed changed after the partition. The infrastructure and resources needed for the rehabilitation of the refugees from Punjab and Sindh, as well as for the new institutions of governance, required “the resources of the whole nation”.

As Véronique Dupont writes, “the demographic evolution of the city of Delhi during the 20th century is closely linked to the country’s history. Following Delhi’s announcement as the capital of the British Empire in 1911, the population grew from 2,38,000 to 6,96,000 in 1941. Just after partition, the demography of Delhi changed forever – over 4,70 000 refugees came from West Punjab and Sindh, while more than three lakh Muslims left for Pakistan”.

As such, Delhi became part of the Part C (Union Territory) state and it was made clear that the national capital would be administered by the President through a Lieutenant Governor. (LG) to be appointed by him in the territory. Delhi lost its right to have a legislative assembly or a council of ministers. Subsequently, Sections 239 and 240 were added to provide more layers to Delhi’s governance space.

Following this, the States Government Act Part C (1951) was passed, under which provision was made for a Council of Ministers in Delhi, albeit with a limited tenure. Key topics such as public order; Police (including railway police); Municipal Corporation and Land were left with central authorities. Accordingly, Delhi, for the first time, had a legislative assembly, a council of ministers and a chief minister to govern. Delhi’s first Legislative Assembly was constituted in March 1952 and Chaudhary Brahm Prakash took over as the first CM, albeit with limited powers, and in an advisory role to the then Chief Commissioner. It was a short-lived experience – as in accordance with the recommendations of the States Reorganization Commission which came into effect from November 1956, Delhi became a Union Territory under the Direct Administration of the Government of India (MHA) . The majority opinion within the Commission (President Fazal Ali and HN Kunzru) was that the dual control over the national capital had led to a “marked deterioration in administrative standards”. Citing the examples of Paris and London, the Commission observed that “…the capitals possess or come to possess a certain degree of political and social predominance” and went further by asserting that “…any constitutional division of powers, applicable to units operating in the seats of national governments, can only create embarrassing situations.” The commission noted, however, that the need for a self-governing municipality to provide “greater local autonomy than is the case in some important federal capitals, is the correct and, indeed, the only solution to the problem of the state of Delhi”. Thus, Delhi was classified as a “union territory” and lost its right to have an assembly legislature and a council of ministers.

Opinions expressed are personal