Top down process meets bottom up democracy: Kochi’s Smart City Mission

By Morgan Campbell

Constitutional attempts at decentralization

India’s 74th constitutional amendment remains the country’s strongest attempt to decentralize decision-making powers to city authorities. Enacted in 1992, we can imagine the amendment as a clairvoyant anticipation of future urban growth and the need for a third tier of public representation and accountability. The schedule’s 12th amendment outlined 18 specific tasks for the municipal corporation, including regulation of land use and urban planning and development.

Many academics have pointed out that while tasks are devolved to the third tier of government, decision-making ‘power’ still sits with the state (e.g. Ahluwalia 2019; Idiculla 2018; Mookherjee 2014; Nath 2015). There are several reasons for this but two key factors are a) that the state government has the most control over the municipal budget and b) the leadership of the Municipal Corporation. As Ahluwalia (2017: 4) states:

Political empowerment is also weakened by infrequent elections and limited tenures of mayors. More important, the executive power by and large is vested in municipal commissioners, who are appointees of state government

A key element of Under Reform is the aim of understanding whether and how creating a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to deliver infrastructure projects changes existing institutional arrangements and powers, particularly those at local level.

Preliminary research suggests there is an interface between the city’s Municipal Corporation and the SPV. Documents such as the Faridabad Government Order and media reports such as eGov and Times of India articles state that the CEO of the SPV will be a state-appointed ISA officer. In many cases, the Municipal Commissioner of the Municipal Corporation becomes the CEO of the SPV. An article from the Economic Times found this to be the case in Jaipur, and our interviews in Bangalore suggest this will also be the case there, once the city’s SPV is established.

The same has not been true in Kochi, however: this is because that city does not have a Municipal Commissioner.


The Kerala case

The Kerala state – where Kochi is located – is well known in planning circles for its Kerala Model of Development and People’s Plan Campaign (PPC), two unique initiatives thought to correlate with Kerala’s high Human Development Index – the highest in the country with many rankings on par with industrialized countries (e.g. literacy or infant mortality)[1]. But perhaps most significant for Under Reform is what these initiatives have done for institutional arrangements.

Kerala’s path to decentralization began long before the 74th constitutional amendment; one example of this is the structure of the Municipal Corporation. There are a total of seven Municipal Corporations in Kerala, all headed by a locally-elected mayor, rather than a state-appointed Municipal Commissioner. A key feature of the 1996 PPC was the devolution of financial power from the state to the municipality (see Economic & Political Weekly and Transnational Institute).

Kerala’s Municipal Corporations are comprised of technical staff and the council; the council is made up of representatives elected from each municipal ward. In Kochi there are 74 council members. These come together to form various committees for areas such as Health, Town Planning, and Roads. These committees can be understood as task forces—they are tasked with thinking beyond their individual ward to how these issues are being addressed across the city. Like the mayor, council members hold their appointment for five years, after which a new election cycle begins.

Under the mayor sits the secretary. This is a state-appointed legal advisor who ensures that all decisions taken by the council and mayor are in line with state laws. His or her salary is paid for by the state, as opposed to corporation funds. Although the secretary is not locally elected, he or she is not given the same kind of city decision-making power as the mayor or the council members.


SPV structures: any different?

If we were to follow the logic of the SPV structure from other Smart City Mission cities, wherein the head of the Municipal Corporation becomes the CEO, we would assume that the mayor of Kochi is currently the head of the SPV as well. However, the current CEO of Kochi’s SPV is the Managing Director (MD) of Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL).

While this is indeed a different organisation of the SPV, it in fact still follows a similar structural logic to our other case studies. KMRL is a state-led undertaking and the MD is a state-level employee (i.e. appointed by the state). And so, despite having a different structure of local government, Kochi is similar to the other SPVs, in that the CEO is still a state-level employee and not an elected representative of the people of Kochi. However, in this case the CEO does not have the same direct relation with the Municipal Corporation because he is not affiliated with it.

While it is too soon to speculate if and how this institutional arrangement affects the SPV’s ability to work with the Municipal Corporation, the Kochi case study throws up new findings. It suggests that despite a strong history of decentralization and municipalities maintaining direct accountability to their constituents, the Smart City Mission and the desired SPV structure bypass this localised governance structure. It remains unclear whether the CEO’s being a state-level employee was central government mandate, or whether Kochi adopted this structure in order to fit in with other SPVs. Our next stage of research will explore the extent to which this affects what happens regarding implementation, and how it compares in the cases of Jaipur, Bengaluru, and Indore.


Works cited:

Ahluwalia, I. J. (2019). Urban Governance in India. Journal of Urban Affairs. Vol 41 (1): pp 83-102.

Idiculla, M. (2018). City Plights: Indian states’ tight leash on urban governance. The Caravan. Published 01 November 2018. Available at: [Accessed 12.3.2019].

Mookherjee, D. (2014). Accountability of local and state governments in India: An overview of recent research. Indian Growth and Development Review. Vol 7(1): pp 12-41.

Nath, M.B. (2015). Crises of Urban Governance in India. The Hindu: Centre for Politics and Public Policy. Policy Report No. 10. pp 1-169.


[1] There are several counter studies suggesting Kerala isn’t as ‘progressive’ as initially imagined, but that is not the focus of this post.


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