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Empowering local bodies

Empowering local bodies
Governance does not happen over long distances by the mere issuance of <g data-gr-id="78">fiats</g> and directives. Certainly, not in a democratic system. The municipal body is the only agency that can anchor the city’s development in every aspect of its existence. That is why its other name is rather appropriate: local self-government. Sadly, over the years, representatives of the local residents have run down the functioning of the body that could give a quality life to citizens residing in the area. <g data-gr-id="81">Even</g> though, elections are not contested under political wings, but in reality they are totally party driven, from nomination to being an elected performer. 

Notwithstanding, the mode, the primary responsibility is to the electors for good service and making the city an inviting place to live which can only happen if the municipality is equipped with resources and competence. Does this ever happen? More importantly, will this ever happen?

The state of municipal capacity in our country is  pathetic. State politics and  local self-government politics intersect at many points. A well thought of leader at the municipal level is a possible threat to the incumbents in the state capital, as their electoral constituencies may share common populations. Over the years, there has been a steady decline in pan-state leadership image of the chief ministers, just as there are not many leaders with a pan-India image. This has intensified the competition for political space. One of the unfortunate consequences of this competition has been that the role of municipal bodies has waxed and waned in accordance with the political equations in the states. In turn, the sufferer, as always, is the citizen who has been deprived of basic civic amenities and continues to do so. Smaller municipal bodies, do not have the financial strength to recruit needed personnel, train them and assure them of a progressive career graph. 

The bigger municipalities are so ridden with internecine rivalries of the councillors that the personnel are divided alongside their favourite councillors to <g data-gr-id="86">milch</g> the citizen, who has to pay bribes to receive legitimate service from the municipality. They are unable to plan for the future, are repeatedly beaten by the volumes resulting in chaotic city development. Just imagine that, as per a study made of the municipal bodies in India, 50% of the local bodies spent one rupee per capita on public health! Why are we surprised that in our cities the only thing that is rampant is one kind of virus or the other in every season?

The situation in our cities is in the penultimate stages of degradation. It has to be retrieved now. Our cities must be given a chance to first survive and then make plans to expand and progress in consonance with the needs of the population. We have no other mode of repair for cities, except the municipal body. It needs rejuvenation. 

First and foremost, its resource base must be fortified. There is already a constitutional framework which contemplates the direct transfer of funds to these municipal bodies. Let us work out these provisions. Yes, there will be arguments that such local <g data-gr-id="89">self government</g> bodies do possess the requisite capacity to handle massive sums of money. Therefore, one must create and build that capacity. If we do not want to employ, then let us engage competent accountants to hold, manage and account for these finances till their internal capacity is created. Likewise, hire out specific agencies to operate and manage civic amenities. In South Africa, cities are engaging professional city managers to perform its functions. Of course, you have to put in place serious and stringent oversight protocols to ensure that deliveries happen. These are not the times when you have to employ permanent staff for every item of work which has to be performed by the municipal body.

Second, we have to revive trust in the municipal functioning through performance. We have a historical legacy going as far back as 1667 when the formation of the Madras Municipal Corporation, and later in 1726, the Bombay and  Calcutta local civic bodies. Since then, there have been a series of legislative reforms. We are at a stage, where the pace of urbanisation will see no stopping. Therefore, we have to meet the challenge of urbanisation. 

A respectable municipal cadre of appropriate categories of professionals <g data-gr-id="85">must to</g> be formed by each state. In fact, at the national level there is the Indian Defence Estates Service, which serves the needs of managing defence estates and the Cantonments. This is the only service which is trained to handle city management systems albeit in the restricted military environment. The scope of this service needs to be expanded to give it responsibilities in managing all municipal bodies in India. All that is needed is to increase the intake and professionalise its personnel in modern systems.

Third, we are now witnessing a massive surge in the use of ICT in all management platforms. The one big and urgent need is to get the city mapped through the GIS platform, which can be the basis of all administrative functions. The GPS assistance will help in monitoring performances throughout the city spread. Yes, these things cost money, but human beings in organisations cost even more due to their built-in inefficiencies. And machines do not demand pensions or leave from work. These investments have to be made, failing which municipal service delivery capacity will always be constrained. We already have successful models at work. What is needed is to deploy them across all local body networks.

We can argue endlessly about all that is wrong with India. Despite our problems, we have to work things out and impose the solutions diligently. The state of our local bodies is a symbol of most things wrong in the country. But it is also the symbol of where we need to start and succeed in changing things for the betterment of this country.
Raj Liberhan

Raj Liberhan

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