The State Election Commission (SEC) informed the Bombay High Court on Tuesday that the rule –delimitation notification cannot be issued within six months prior to the elections – pertains to the outer boundaries of the corporation and not with regard to internal changes.
Apart from the outer boundaries rule, SEC counsel Sachin Shetye also told a division bench of Justices Amjad Sayed and Abhay Ahuja that the Commission did not have sufficient manpower and hence has been appointing state officers as its delegates for the election purpose.
The HC is hearing public interest litigation filed by Nitesh Rajhans of the BJP and Sagar Devre of MNS challenging the "legality and propriety" of the BMC notification of February 1 calling for suggestions and objections from the public. The number of electoral wards has been increased from 227 to 236 for the forthcoming corporation elections.
The plea had contended that BMC chief Iqbal Singh Chahal had issued the notification, which is “arbitrary” as Chahal is not authorised to do so.
However, Shetye said that the SEC had delegated the power to the BMC Commissioner for the purpose of the elections. The SEC is short-staffed and hence, since the beginning, it delegates powers to the officers in the state. The SEC is supposed to have a staff of 80 personnel. However, it has only 57 personnel as of date, said Shetye. “We dot officers or a team to conduct entire exercise (election) in the state,” said Shetye.
He further said: “When such powers are delegated, the officers act as delegates of the SEC and are answerable to the Commission for their conduct, act, etc. For the limited purpose, they do not act as an officer of the state government.”
After receiving objections from the public, a hearing is given by a senior officer who then submits a report to the SEC with his recommendations on the formation of wards.
However, the final decision regarding the formation of new wards rests with the State Election Commissioner, clarified Shetye.
The SEC has received 816 objections from the public as of February 14, the last date of sending objections.
On the boundary issue, Shetye said that no new area can be added in or deleted from the existing municipal boundaries within six months prior to the elections.
BMC counsel Anil Sakhare said that Chahal has issued the notification in his capacity as the delegatee of the SEC and not as BMC Commissioner. Accordingly, the state government then appointed an additional chief secretary, Finance, Manoj Sounik, to conduct the hearings in the objections received.
The SEC take help from the corporation since the civic body has the data and the machinery for conducting the process. “The BMC commissioner has to remain present at the hearings (of objections) along with the Collectors of Mumbai and Mumbai Suburban district as delegates of the SEC,” added Sakhare.
Petitioners’ advocate Vivek Shukla emphasised that the independent officer has to be given the charge, one who does not hold the state or central government’s post.
To this Shetye retorted that in such a scenario, the SEC will not be able to appoint any officer in any state as it proceeds on the presumption that “an officer of the state (government) is not an independent officer”.
The HC will pass the order in the PIL on February 17.