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Delhi statehood issue: Solution may lie in devolving some powers to state

India on 24 January 2014
Location : Delhi, India | Source : Economic Times. Image Source: Economic Times

Ever since the Delhi assembly came into existence in 1993, both Congress and BJP have been clamouring for full statehood for the national capital. Arvind Kejriwal's dharna and his partial success on Tuesday in pushing the Centre to yield to some of his demands against the police have served to highlight a constitutional anomaly about Delhi.

In their political rhetoric, Congress, BJP and AAP all agree on doing away with the anomaly of Delhi Police being outside the administrative control of the capital's elected government.

This lacuna in the jurisdiction of the national capital's government is why Delhi is not considered a state despite having an assembly and a CM. The stalemate has remained unresolved despite different models available in other national capitals to balance democratic and security exigencies (see graphic).

Unlike its counterparts in states, the Delhi assembly is barred by Article 239AA(3)(a) of the Constitution from making laws on three of the 66 state list entries. The three subjects that do not apply to the Delhi assembly — and therefore the Delhi government — are Entries 1, 2 and 18 dealing with public order, police and land.

The sensitivity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that even when the NDA government made an abortive bid in 2003 to confer statehood on Delhi, the Bill introduced by L K Advani steered clear of Entries 1 and 2 that deal with the city's security.

As a corollary, the Delhi Police commissioner reports to the Lt Governor, who in turn discharges functions relating to public order and police with Union home ministry's concurrence. This means that when there is a law and order breakdown, the Delhi CM can only demand action against errant police officials, as Kejriwal did through his dharna. However grave the provocation, the CM cannot suspend or transfer any policeman.

In the event, the Centre's decision to send a couple of policemen on leave ended the AAP dharna and averted a crisis ahead of Republic Day. It also set a precedent for Delhi government to have its way even in matters beyond its remit. This threatens to cause greater friction between the two governments as and when there is any fresh crime-related controversy. Sooner or later, Parliament must find a solution to this recurring federal issue. It may lie in the devolution of police powers to Delhi government, at least in localities not in the immediate proximity of the Central government.

Indeed, the peculiarity of Delhi is evident from the special exemption enjoyed by Lutyens Delhi, the seat of India's government, from the constitutional obligation of having an elected municipality. In this prime area where Kejriwal held his dharna and which constitutes 3% of Delhi, the centre owns most of the land and 80% of buildings. Hence, the conventional pattern of representative local self-government was found unworkable. The New Delhi Municipal Council is essentially nominated by the Union government.

There was a general factor of police accountability underlying Kejriwal's dharna. The larger context in which the Delhi government took to the streets was the failure across the country to implement the 2006 SC judgment mandating reforms to insulate police from illegal political interference and to make them accountable to independent watchdog bodies. While most states have disregarded the verdict, the Centre has not so far enacted a fresh law which would have introduced police reforms in Delhi. This is despite a model Bill proposed by the Soli Sorabjee Committee seven years ago.

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