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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 23, May 30, 2015

Nehru’s Chairmanship of Allahabad’s Municipality, 1925-1927 its relevance for Delhi’s governance

Saturday 30 May 2015

by Urvashi Dhamija

While the cityscape of Allahabad may be quite unremarkable today, the management of its municipality under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru from 1925 till 1927 is generally regarded as a bright patch in the city’s history. It is also a phase in India’s past which Delhi’s governing elite could consider reflecting upon because like Nehru in the early 1920s they face a double challenge of undertaking measures to improve the quality of life of ordinary citizens in the Capital while popularising their distinct perspective on politics at the national level. As in the case of Nehru in 1925, their own previous experience of public activity has largely been of the non-conformist variety. A Left-wing world view and suspicion of the police is another point which the AAP and Nehru have in common. When theekkawalas [drawers of horse carriages], approached him with complaints of harassment, Nehru had these investigated and was appalled on discovering that there had been as many as 1400 prosecutions initiated against them in a space of three months. Even though this mattter did not fall within the jurisdiction of the Municipal Board of which he was the chairperson, he persuaded its members to consider ways to help them.

In order ‘to make life a little more bearable, a little less painful to the inhabitants of Allahabad’, Nehru realised that he would have to secure the cooperation of the members of the Board and the bureaucrats posted with it. The 30-member Board consisted of men of wealth and status who either admired the British or were in turn admired by them for the influence they commanded in their communities. About permanent as civil servants, Nehru’s view was that they were “too wooden and utterly out of touch with the people and have no sense of proportion or vision”. Given the self-serving orientation of the colonial rule of which both institutions were a part, this was no cause for surprise to him. In due course, with advance towards self-rule, he believed, the recruitment base could be broadened and more liberal-minded persons would replace them. To him the most interesting aspect about the present was that these institutions, unlike the traditional ones based on caste and kinship, as Andre Beteille has pointed out, were ”modern”, ”open”, “secular” organisations which functioned on the basis of known rules and procedures. These could be worked with to achieve new goals in public interest.

Nehru insisted that the Board meet regularly at least twice a week and by setting an example by his own conduct, he demonstrated that members needed not only to arrive—when there was no quorum the meeting was simply postponed until the truants showed up—but also come well prepared. Members of Standing Committees, in addition to their other responsibilities, were required to inspect their Departments, initiate steps to ensure greater efficiency and also address public grievances. The method of making appointments and of contracts by the Board was made transparent and granting of favours was forbidden. In keeping with wishes of the majority of Board members who were Congress-men, wearing of khaddar by municipal employees and use of Hindi and Urdu for official transactions was introduced, but not made obligatory. A suggestion for banning the slaughter of cows was unanimously rejected. The Board’s limited resources were carefully spread across depart-ments to benefit maximum numbers. Thus in the case of the Education Department, additional funds were made available not for increasing teachers’ salaries or enrolling more members but for introducing scouting for boys and a monthly outing for all children for nature study. To increase its resources, the Board looked to efficiency in collection and measures to tax the rich. While houses with low rental value were spared water charges, train tickets were made more expensive and the Railways were charged for the number of times trains passed through the city.

Nehru believed that with good communi-cation with those who manned the senior positions in government departments and respect for bureaucratic hierarchy, officials could be relied upon to implement programmes they themselves did not believe in. He asked Department heads to be ruthless in disciplining lax subordinates and did not hesitate to rebuke his own colleagues for interfering in the routine functioning of Departments in their charge.

The end result of Nehru’s attitude of impartiality, moderation and energetic engagement in governance while pursuing his long term objectives was that colleagues who were initially very skeptical of him were completely won over. The Commissioner felt compelled to record his impression that in recent times there had been ‘an improvement in the administration largely due to the Chairman, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and a few public spirited members of the Board’. The UP Government did not contest the Board’s push towards autonomy when it maintained that it should be free to decide which person it will honour by presenting a civic address. It took no action when the Board decided to ignore the visit of the Viceroy to Allahabad. Lord Reading was the subject of much nationalist ire at that time for arresting Gandhi and crushing the Sikh agitation in Punjab.

It has been reported that Arvind Kejriwal’s first action the day after his spectacular electoral triumph in February 2015 was to meet with the Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, and the Urban Development Minister, M. Venkaiah Naidu. It seemed as if there had been some fresh thinking among the AAP’s leaders about the need for winning over the other political players in the Delhi’s space to mitigate the constraints imposed by the Delhi Government’s complex multi-institutional legal design. If Kejriwal had persisted and a consensus arrived at, for example, on making Delhi a show-case for the implementation of the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, the Aam Aadmi Party could have been very well set both from the point of view of the present and the future to consolidate its gains.


1. Gopal, S., Jawaharlal Nehru—A Biography, Vol. One, 1889-1947, OUP, Delhi [1975].

2. Beteille, A., “Institutions” in Nehru Revisited, Nehru Center, Mumbai [2003].

The author is a former Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Miranda House, University of Delhi.