• Thursday, June 20, 2024


UK’s first Asian mayor, Jagdish Sharma, completes 50 years of his first poll victory

The veteran has held several responsible positions since then, including cabinet member, chief whip and deputy leader among others.

Jagdish Sharma

By: Shubham Ghosh

JAGDISH SHARMA, the councillor for Hounslow Council, completes a milestone this month as it was 50 years ago in May that he was elected as a councillor for the first time.

The veteran has held several responsible positions since then, including cabinet member, chief whip, deputy leader, leader of the council and the leader of the opposition in the council, among others. He also became the mayor of Hounslow in 1979, becoming the first Asian in the UK to achieve the feat.

In 1995, Cllr Sharma received an MBE for his services to local government and five years later, he was given the Freedom of the Borough to celebrate his 25 years of service. He has also appeared in the renowned ‘TIME’ magazine.

Throughout his tenure as a councillor, Sharma has worked for numerous initiatives aimed at improving the lives of the residents of Hounslow. From advocating for the London Living Wage for Council employees to opposing attempts to relocate Heathrow Airport, his dedication to the well-being of the community has been solid. He retired as a leader of the Hounslow Council in 2014.

The councillor, who will be felicitated at an event organised by Hounslow Council at India Gymkhana for completing his ‘half century’ as a councillor on Friday (10), was born in India before he migrated to the UK in 1965. He studied Master’s in economics at Punjab University in India. Over the years, he has made important contributions to the community, both in the capacity of an educator and public servant.

Speaking about his inspiration to become a councillor, Sharma said one of the factors was the backlash against immigrants in the UK in the early seventies and while his initial aim was to work in the new country, he eventually wanted to contribute to the local community to help people live more cohesive lives and share ideas and grow different perspectives in life. He believed that if he could make a difference in people’s lives, the immigrants’ contribution would be recognised and the society would be a more harmonious place to live.

Jagdish Sharma with Tony Blair
Councillor Jagdish Sharma with former British PM Tony Blair (Picture: London Borough of Hounslow)

A lot has changed in the way the council operates now compared to what it was half a century ago. Reflecting on that, Sharma said the council had a committee system in the beginning and there were bodies on finance, leisure, education, planning and others. The councillors could choose the committees they wanted to serve on. Each committee had a chair and each member had a voting right. Calling that system “very democratic”, he added that things had changed under former prime minister Tony Blair.

After a visit to the United States, Blair felt that councils should follow a strong-leader model as decision-making consumed time under the previous arrangement. However, Sharma said while decisions could be taken faster in the new model, it saw less participation from all members.

Sharma felt that on one hand, faster decision-making because of a more powerful leader and cabinet had made the system better, but the lesser participation often left some members frustrated since they could not air their viewpoints.

However, he feels Hounslow is overall a better place to live now with a more efficient council which provides better services. While he conceded there are problems and citizens have rights to feel disappointed, he certified the council and its staff as dedicated, conscientious and hard-working to take great pride in what they do.

As a councillor, Sharma himself has enjoyed every minute of his public life. He said he has got immense pleasure in serving the community and helping people to live a better life. Professional challenges also boosted him and the appreciation he and his colleagues have received over the years leaves him fulfilled.

Cllr Sharma has had quite a few happy experiences during his stint. Among them were the music concerts that his department had organised when he was the chair of the leisure services committee. Many well-known singers had come and he had thoroughly enjoyed the performances, Sharma said.

The councillor also took interest in attending the London Youth Games almost every year. He felt the event spoke highly about the excellence of the younger generation and he felt very proud to hand out the certificates to the achievers.

He also vividly remembers his days as the mayor (1979-80). He had attended about 600 events in that year and was witness to many amazing occasions and met many people who he called ‘wonderful’, including members of the royal family. He found the garden party at Buckingham Palace to be something special.

Queen felicitates Jagdish Sharma
The late Queen Elizabeth II felicitates councillor Jagdish Sharma (Picture: London Borough of Hounslow)

Sharma has served on many committees and bodies in his 50 years as a councillor and has made several achievements. But one thing that stands close to his heart is setting up the Wellington Day Centre — a purpose-built day centre for the elderly people. He said the arrangements at the centre are only getting better and attracting more people from the neighbourhood.

“It gives me immense satisfaction,” he said, according to London Borough of Hounslow.

Sharma’s work has, however, not remained limited to that of the councillor, however. He has also worked as a teacher in the Inner London Education Authority for more than three decades. He later was in charge of mathematics at Lady Margaret School in Southall. He also became the deputy head teacher and head teacher in the later years. He managed both the work, carrying out the council responsibilities after the school hours – from Mondays to Thursdays.

Besides, he also worked as the chair of the governing body of Hounslow Heath Junior School, Hounslow Manor Secondary School, Lampton Secondary School and Cranford Community School. The councillor also worked in many voluntary posts such as magistrate and tax inspector for several years and found great satisfaction in all his roles.

Sharma, who does meditation and yoga after being encouraged by his son and loves to watch cricket matches and talent and comedy shows on television, does not feel being someone from the ethnic minority background could be a challenge in becoming a councillor.

“I have seen over the passage of time people of different communities become councillors. So I do not think this is an issue in Hounslow,” he said, adding that a councillor needs to serve all communities and not just his/her own.

Sharma recommends the role of a councillor to the new generation saying the role gives a great opportunity to serve people and a sense of satisfaction to oneself and make people thankful. As a piece of advice to those who have been newly elected as councillors, the veteran said their actions should show that they generally want to serve people and they should pick an experienced person as a mentor who is also accessible.

Citing his own case, Sharma said he had gone to an experienced ward member as a councillor and got much help and guidance from him. He also advised the new generation of councillors to study books.

As someone who has been in the system of local governance for many decades, how does Sharma see its future and does anything need to change?

Jagdish Sharma with wife
Councillor Jagdish Sharma with his wife (Picture: London Borough of Hounslow)

According to him, the system needs to be reviewed for a fair distribution of money between the central government and local councils.

“Fair funding is very important if we want the system between central government and local authorities to work well,” he said.

Sharma added that some local authorities have had to announce bankruptcy because of the “unfair” system and they have to shut local projects if there is no funding. The councillor said such a system leaves not only the community but the democratic system itself at the mercy of trust breakdown.

He said the central government needs to be more generous with the local councils.

“With a fairer funding system councillors will then be able to perform their duties better and constituents will see real improvements in their lives. This to me is the purpose of politics,” the councillor added.

(With inputs from London Borough of Hounslow)

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