Municipal Act, 1864
Municipal Act, 1864 heralded the beginning of local government or rather local-self government in Bengal. The principle of local government under the behest of British Rule was accepted long ago by allowing charters to the three Presidency towns of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay under which these were administered and civic services provided by the representatives of the inhabitants. But no such permission was given to other urban or rural areas for a long time. The apprehension of loosening central authority and the concern over raising local taxes for such purposes which the inhabitants hardly appreciated were the reasons for this long delay.
However, as local development activities suffered much from lack of funds, the Government of India specifically passed Act X of 1842 for the establishment of municipalities in the country. Under it local tax, which was a direct imposition, could be raised for municipal purposes. It was an enabling act allowing 'the inhabitants of any place of public resorts or residence to make better provision for purposes connected with public health and convenience'. Unfortunately, the law could only be implemented if two-thirds of the householders of a particular town applied to the government. Moreover, as the taxation introduced was of a direct nature, the people showed no willingness to pay. It remained virtually inoperative. Obviously, the people did not like to be taxed for such activities as cleaning of roads nor did they realize the need for such an institution.
To overcome the problem the government in 1850 passed another municipal law namely Act XXVI of 1850 which repealed the 1842 Act and envisaged that the government machinery itself under special circumstances would take the initiative at the local level to found a municipality. As before, when instituted, the municipalities would discharge the responsibilities of conservancy, road repairs and lighting etc, the framing of bye-laws and their enforcement by fines. Moreover, the provision for taxation was made by indirect methods. According to the Act, there would be a Municipal Council comprising the Magistrate and some other commissioners, with very little government control, the 'people themselves deciding in every instance the mode of levying assessments on houses, or by town duties, or otherwise'. It also for various reasons remained virtually inoperative.
In 1856 the government passed the Town Police Act imposing upon the householders of a town the levy of a maximum rate of 5% of the value of the holding for the town police. The Act was immediately enforced in many towns of Bengal. Though it was not a municipal law, it had some relevance to the next municipal act.
The sepoy revolt of 1857-58 severely shook the financial foundations of the Government of India. Financial embarrassment of the government led to the imposition of local taxes for local purposes as the best means of relieving the central exchequer. James Wilson, the Finance Member of the Governor General's Council emphasised local responsibility in his budget speech of 1861. He proposed that the responsibility for roads and public works be referred to local bodies. The abolition of the income tax due to the opposition of the European business community made it urgent to relieve the burden upon government funds. It was, therefore, resolved by the government that 'the cost of town police forces in the future be directly borne by the townsfolk themselves'. All towns laid under this burden were, as a compensation, permitted to enjoy municipal institutions and authorised to raise, within the framework of government rules, the necessary revenues as they desired for town improvement, education and other local objects. The manner in which these municipal institutions should be set up was left to the provincial governments.
The Government of Bengal quickly took up the resolution. In March 1864, it passed the Municipal Improvement Act or Act III of 1864. It was, however, only meant for larger towns and cities. The new Act did not repeal the Act XXVI of 1850, but instead of an application from the inhabitants of the town as an essential condition for the establishment of municipality, it empowered the government to establish one anywhere where it thought necessary without any previous application'. Under the act the newly established municipalities were empowered to raise funds for conservancy and other local objects by levying rates upon houses, lands, animals, vehicles and so on. The maximum house rate was fixed at 7% of the valuation.
The first liability of the municipal tax was the payment for the town police. After meeting this expenditure, the rest of the money could be spent upon other local developments. The municipalities were also allowed to frame bye-laws in order to successfully implement the given mandate. Under this act the municipalities of Dhaka, Chittagong, Comilla, Burdwan, Midnapur and Hughly were established.
The Act also allowed the formation of a Municipal Board for each municipality comprising ex-officio and nominated commissioners, the number varying from 17 to 21, of whom 7 must be local residents. But the chief feature of the act was that the District Magistrate was made the ex-officio Chairman of the Board. Any decision would, however, be decided upon by majority vote and in case of a tie the Chairman would have the casting vote.
The implementation of the Act started with great euphoria for having a local-self government and the eventual transfer of power to people's representatives. But this was not to be so. Soon complaints were made that the District Magistrates were running the municipalities as if these were another government organisation and that other members, especially Indian members, were given very little voice in the Board. Money collected from the ordinary Indians were spent on European quarters and where the commissioners themselves lived and in the interests of the wealthy and influential inhabitants. It is true that at this time the civil servants were mostly not willing to share any part of the administration with anybody, least with the Indian representatives.
Soon the emerging western educated middle class Indians raised their voice in public platforms and in the press against such injustice, terming the system a mockery of local self-government and demanding a true share of the government by the people. lord ripon realised the danger of allowing such discontent to grow and commented that the talents of the educated middle class Indians would be a sheer wastage if not properly utilised by the government especially in the running of the country. He would have liked to see them in' the interests of the Empire as a partner in government rather than bitter foes outside the pale of administration.
Thus in 1882 the famous 18 May resolution of Ripon's government embodied the general principles which were to govern the future development of local representative institutions. In 1884 the Government of Bengal allowed the municipalities to be run by elected representatives and chairmen, thereby paving the way for the democratisation of government. [Sharif uddin Ahmed]