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Kolkata - A Municipal History
 
 

Kolkata finds mention in the Ain-E-Akbari, an encyclopaedic work compiled by Abdul Fazl, Prime Minister of Akbar. It was a Khas Mahal or imperial jagir. The zamindari rights of Kolkata and the adjoining lands from Barisha to Halisahar were conferred upon the Savarna Ray Chowdhuri family of Barisha by Emperor Janhangir.

Sutanati, Kolkatta and Gobindapur, covering roughly the area along the banks of the Hooghly from Baghbazar to Barabazar, thence to Esplanade and from there up to Hastings, were three insignificant villages, when the East India Company raised their banner, On his return journey from Madras following rapprochement with the Mogul Fouzdar, Job Charnock landed at Sutanati on 24th August, 1690, at a place now known as Hatkhola. The Savarna Ray Chowdhuri family was persuaded by Prince Azim-us-Shan, grandson of Aurangzeb to transfer the zamindari rights of the three villages of Sutanati, Kolkatta and Gobindapur to the East India Company for Rs. 1300/- on November 8, 1698. Work on the first Fort William was begun in 1697 and completed in phases.

Though Siraj-ud-Dowla ransacked the English Settlement in 1756, Kolkata was retaken by Robert Clive in 1757. The battle of Plassey followed by the grant of Dewani to the Company in 1768 enabled the English to establish suzerainty over the province of Bengal. Kolkata was made a separate presidency as early as 1707, the administration being entrusted to a council of four members headed by the President. There was, however, a zamindar (Collector of Kolkata) who was directly responsible for collection of taxes and settlement of disputes. Steady growth of the city resulted in the acquisition of 38 neighbouring villages by the Company in 1717.

By a royal charter, the first Corporation was set up on 4th September, 1726, consisting of a Mayor and 9 Aldermen. Somehow, they were mainly concerned with discharging judicial functions as Mayor's Court. The administration continued to be in the hands of the Zamindar, assisted by a deputy known as black zamindar.

Another royal charter in 1763 redefined the powers and responsibilities of the civic body, marginally to cope with additional demands made on it. Expansion of the lighting and conservancy services, laying of roads and drains and excavation of tanks for supply of drinking water were the direct outcome of the growth the city. Clearance of the Maidan, construction of Fort William in the present site and the spread of European quarters at Chowringhee were the significant developments between 1757 and 1800.

The management of the town was placed in the hands of Justice of Peace under Charter of 1793. From 1794 to 1876, the Chairman of the Justices discharged the duties of the Police Commissioner as well as the Chief Executive of the Municipality, Assessment department, executive department and judicial department constituted the broad functional area. However, lack of resources combined with absence of adequate statutory powers made their tasks far from happy. At the intervention of Lord Wellesley a Town Improvement Committee was formed in 1804 with thirty members.

Since 1793, it had been the practice to raise money for town development by means of lotteries. As long as the Town Improvement Committee existed, parts of these funds were channelised for their activities. In 1817 the Lottery Committee was formed. To them we owe the Town Hall, the Beliaghata Canal and a large number of roads.

An Act was passed in 1840 to involve the rate payers in the assessment of taxes. However, the move was almost still-born. So, a fresh enactment came in 1847 providing for a Board of seven members, four of whom were to be elected. In 1852 their number was reduced to four by an Act : two being appointed by the Government and the other two elected. In 1856, their number was further reduced to three, all of whom were appointed by the Lieutenant Governor.

In 1863 the Municipal Government was vested in a body composed of all the Justices of Peace for Kolkata together with all the Justices for the province who happened to be resident in the town. This body elected its own Vice-Chairman and had a regular Health Officer, Engineer, Surveyor, Tax Collector and Assessor. A water rate was imposed and the house tax was raised to a maximum of ten per cent. Apart from developing the water supply and drainage system they contributed New Market (1874) and Municipal Slaughter Houses (1866).

With the passing of the Calcutta Municipal Consolidation Act, 1876, a Corporation was created consisting of 72 Commissioners with a Chairman and Vice-Chairman; 48 Commissioners were elected by the rate-payers and 24 appointed by the Government. In 1888 the Municipal boundaries were extended by the inclusion of suburbs lying east and south of Lower Circular Road. Seven wards were brought within the fold and additions were made to three other wards in the north of the town. The number of Municipal Commissioners was raised to 75, of whom 50 were elected, 15 appointed by the Government and the other 10 nominated by the Chambers of Commerce, the Trades Association and the Port Commissioners.

Great changes in the system were effected by the Mackenzie Act of 1899. The administration of Kolkata was vested in the hands of three Co-ordinate Authorities - the Corporation, the General Committee and the Chairman. Of these, the Corporation consisted of the Chairman (appointed by the Government) and 50 Commissioners of whom 25 were elected and appointed from bodies like Chambers of Commerce and Port Commissioners. The entire executive power was vested in the Chairman and real authority concentrated in a General Committee dominated by European community. In protest against this retrograde step, the elected native commissioners resigned in a body.

Democracy was ushered into the Municipal Government of Kolkata by making provision for election of a Mayor annually, by Sir Surendranath Banerjee, who as the first Minister of Local Self-Government in Bengal was the architect of Calcutta Municipal Act of 1923. A major reform was the enfranchisement of women. The adjacent municipalities of Cossipore, Manicktola, Chitpore and Garden Reach were amalgamated with Kolkata. Garden Reach was later separated. C. R. Das was the first elected Mayor and Subhas Chandra Bose his Chief Executive Officer. The city was ruled under the Act till March 1948 when the State Government superseded the Corporation.

A new chapter was opened on 1st May, 1952 when the Calcutta Municipal Act, 1951 came into force. The Corporation was envisaged as a policy-making, directive and rule-making body, the executive side being left as much as possible in the hands of the Commissioner. 76 Councillors were returned from the General territorial constituencies. The Chairman of the Kolkata Improvement Trust was made an ex-officio Councillor. In 1962 adult franchise was introduced in the municipal elections. The number of wards later increased from 75 to 100. Tollygunge was merged with effect from 1st April, 1953. The 1951 Act provided for an elected Mayor, a deputy Mayor and 5 Aldermen elected by the Councilors. The three Co-ordinate Authorities were (i) the Corporation (ii) the Standing Committees and (iii) the Commissioner.

Despite a series of amendments over two decades, the 1951 Act could not provide an effective framework for the governance of a problem-ridden metropolis. The focus of authority was fragmented and the Mayor largely remained a figure head. The Corporation was superseded by the State Government in 1972.

During the long interlude of 13 years of rule by Administrators, lot of thought went into devising a model legislation suited to the genius of city government. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation Act of 1980, which came into effect in January, 1984 marked a bold departure from the beaten track in shaping a Corporation that is truly autonomous and directly responsible to the electorate. In combined features of a "Strong Mayoral" concept with a cabinet form of Government in the Mayor-in-Council. Apart from the provision of full-time political executive, the Act created three authorities in keeping with the widely accepted democratic norms (i) the Corporation, (ii) the Mayor-in-Council and (iii) the Mayor.

With the amalgamation of erstwhile Municipalities of Jadavpur, South Suburban,Garden Reach and Joka, the strength of the elected Councillors has been fixed at 144. From time to time the Act has been amended as per requirements for the betterment of the rate-payers.

At present the mayor of Kolkata is Sri Sovan Chatterjee, deputy mayor is Iqbal Ahmed and chairperson is Smt Mala Roy.

 
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