Millennium Post

Better politics for better cities

Better politics for better cities
Indian cities have been crying out for attention for a very long time. The danger, some believe, is that its cities are heading towards the point of no return. The municipal structure exists in most cities, albeit in a dysfunctional state. Elections are held in these municipalities out of deference to the democratic framework of our respected Constitution. Despite these electoral exercises, many municipal bodies continue to work without spirit and do not adhere to respectable norms of governance. Indeed, there is a gaping hole in our governance structure.

The Central government handles subjects under its jurisdiction. State governments are responsible for issues under their jurisdiction, and along with the Centre, handle concurrent subjects. But who handles governance in our cities? Yes, it is a serious question.

Defenders of the faith can argue that municipal bodies exist to provide governance in cities. But is that really the case? In one city after another, municipal bodies are in a decrepit state. They are barely staffed, short handed in requisite skills and forever under financial constraints, generally bordering between dire and insufficient, without adequate access to basic technology. Our state capitals are supposed to provide guidance in matters of governance, though that largely depends on the concurrence between the political colours of the ruling party in the state and municipal body, allied with the political weight of its legislator.

Of course, metropolitan areas have fared better, but only just. They have a framework for governance that functions with relative independence. In terms of their performance, however, they only serve 50-60 per cent of the population in their cities. Significant sections are outside their concern because of inadequate resources and deteriorating infrastructure. Our state capitals have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unsatisfied city residents, who have made their way in droves. The increasing number of people demanding civic services have stretched municipal structures beyond their very limits.

This sorry state of civic governance has created a sense of urgency among decision makers to try and resurrect, strengthen and enhance the municipal structure’s capacity to manage cities. Methods that have been sought to enhance its condition include creation of various revenue streams and access to financial resources based on its populations from the Central government, under a rationalised financial allocation methodology.

The Central government passed the 73rd and the 74th Constitutional amendments to empower States to create an effective third tier of governance in 1992 and 1993. On becoming effective, the constitutional framework mandated States to create reformed urban local bodies and initiate a series of steps to make them effective. Sadly, the State governments have not followed through on these steps. Efforts have been half hearted and the promised third tier of governance has failed to deliver on a sound and effective city governance paradigm.

Woefully short of capacity and resources, State governments were asked to navigate the health of these urban local bodies. While there were individual achievements at the official level, the political class failed to provide the vision and requisite leadership. It is the political leadership that anchors the ambitions of a city. Officials, however, negotiate these ambitions into real goals. And when this does not happen, we the people, are stranded at the cross roads.

How will this stalemate end? The Central government’s effort so far have been to incentivise reform through providing financial assistance to those municipal bodies that carry out structural reform in their property tax regimes, levy user charges on civic services and create greater transparency in their accounting practices. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) has been a quest in this direction. However, it is the politics of the State that has really come in the way of rapid and consistent reform in urban local bodies.

All state governments are driven by the chief minister’s office. The office is the essence of all power and nothing really can move without its incumbent’s express or tacit approval. Members of the legislature from the ruling party support this fulcrum of power. Since all politics is about eliminating competition, urban local bodies are kept under the thumb of its legislators, particularly those who form the government. The opposition is happy to go along with this idiom of state politics, as it suits their political future too. The city is thus bereft of any political leadership to carry India’s urban story forward.

It is all really in the hands of the state governments. Sooner the political class realises that they cannot manage cities from their capitals, the better it will be for urban development, including the management of civic amenities to acceptable levels. The Centre’s ‘Smart City’ program is a step in the right direction. It has created the Smart City Challenge, which rates municipal bodies based on management of its finances, institutional systems and capacities, existing service levels, track record of implementing reforms and quality of vision and planning.

These parameters would compel municipal bodies to reorganise themselves and consequently qualify for the Smart City project. Once it qualifies for the Centre’s initiative, urban municipal bodies can acquire a platform for increased and planned assistance from the Centre. Simultaneously, municipal commissioners have sought fixed tenures for Mayors and Commissioners. In addition, we need to create a strong municipal-service cadre to deliver on its vision.

Only the creation of such a platform will enhance sound civic governance. Such a system will also generate a viable political class. The mayor, who is at the centre of these municipal bodies, will have a greater incentive to perform. The Central government has created the enabling environment. It is now up to the states to capitalise and shed its political fears of being rendered irrelevant, if municipal bodies flourish.

Raj Liberhan

Raj Liberhan

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