Wake up call for our City fathers
Structurally, our system of local governance is flawed
The political representatives in municipal corporations and municipal committees have failed to provide the needed leadership and vision to our cities. Almost without exception, our cities are in various degrees of decay - decay of the civic infrastructure, decay of the environment and a general deficit of facilities that can facilitate citizen's well-being and pursuit of prosperity. Even as mandated service providers, the municipalities have been indifferent, inadequate, and callous in quality. Statistics, such as they are, will tell a dismal story of the state of civic services across all states in our country. Water supply, power supply, waste management, air pollution levels, cleanliness of public spaces, public conveniences, pathways for pedestrians, indeed, take any point of reference, we are in deficit or decline or neglect.
It is true that the magnitude of the shift of the people from villages to cities has been quite large. In the post-colonial period of the last seventy years, has seen almost over 35 crore people move to the cities. While the census data suggests that 31 per cent of India is urban, but satellite images suggest that our urban population is twice that much of this figure. This is in conformity with world-wide trends as people are moving for economic, education, and healthcare reasons to cities. The burden of city management has thus hugely increased but our local bodies' competence diminished at an exponential rate, failing to match the needed professionalism and capacity for governance. Consequently, cities have got a bad name. While urbanisation has helped economic and social progress, it has led to socio-economic problems. The utter failure to anticipate, then plan and develop spaces and to establish municipal governance as the prime navigator and lead pilot of city's prosperity has been a lapse of monumental consequence and its mitigation will possibly take us half a century or more, were we to start now in right earnest.
It is true that if we want democracy as a preferred form of governance, we will also necessarily have politics that will need to engage with institutions of public policy and their performance. The division of powers in our federal polity, though conceived in pragmatism has in fact been worked in competitive applications, reserving every discretion for the state Chief Ministers and leaving the local self- governance system in the cities, at their mercy. Barring a few corporation towns in different states, the municipal bodies in all other cities were totally dependent on the state budgets for their survival and even human resources. The situation even today is no better despite 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution.
These two amendments gave Constitutional status to Panchayati Raj Institutions(PRIs) and Urban Local Bodies respectively, in both letter and spirit to bring about greater decentralisation and increase the involvement of the local community in planning and implementation of needed projects and developments. A number of programmes and initiatives were conceived and implemented to help create competence and capacity at the local institution levels, but the results have been mixed. The JNNURM and currently the modified clone in the shape of Smart Cities Initiative, have done their bit but not enough and not at a consistently impressive pace. Besides, in content, these programs are not total in approach. Many of them are partial or part answers to a vast array of issues.
There has been a predominant tendency to run the affairs of the state from the capital. The major part of the senior bureaucracy is housed in the capital as is the political power and the district level is still in the hands of the authority called collector/deputy commissioner/district magistrate, who is the fount of all developmental initiative. The consultative process is still only formal and fund flow is restricted. The municipal governance, even where there is a political representation, is dependent on the goodwill of the collector. Assuming that this one man possesses omnicompetence and has the time and inclination to resolve civic problems, his average tenure is less than a year in almost all states of India. No surprise, therefore, at the state of our cities without exception.
Structurally, our system of local governance is flawed. A district is a large enough entity and combined with its peri-urban areas, tehsils and villages, and, therefore, needs a competent set of institutions manned by professionals to guide the ambitions of the citizens of the district. The state capital cannot possibly manage the complex combination of planning, funding, and implementing the urban progress of the resident population. It is not about creating supply-side benefits, it is not only about revenues, it is not only about infrastructure, it is really about socio-economic equations that can bloom in a culture of aesthetics and ethics. This is what civic governance is actually about and this has been absent from our exhibited philosophy of governance of cities.
Obviously, something needs to change and change quickly as we are plumbing the depths of despair in so far as urban living is concerned. We cannot go on without restoring a fair system of providing services and obligating citizens to abide by an orderly framework of rules enforced by a compassionate and receptive managerial structure. The goal of all civic management has to be the welfare of the citizen and enabling their excellence to bloom. Given that worthy aspiration, who should change and who will instigate this trigger that can compel ethics of service and performance to replace the prevalent inertia in municipal attitudes all around the country?
It is a very tall order but it has to be fulfilled as it has become a question of survival of our cities and those who live in them. First and foremost, what is needed is a qualified municipal service cadre. Today, every municipality is an employer with varying service conditions but limited career growths. There is no incentive to deliver service as there is really no accountability. The political component uses the local elections to learn the ropes of politics and fighting elections for eventual success at state or national platforms. Even the voters are apathetic to local elections as the well-off residents rely on alternate sources to meet their civic needs. Generators supplemented power shortages, tankers and mineral water added to the municipal supply and so on. But matters have got out of hand now. Garbage removal, waste management, road maintenance, public transport, horticulture, safe access to public spaces, climate mitigation, and adaptation, it has all become multi-dimensional city management needing skills and technical skills. If the local bodies have to perform, they have to be populated with these skills and expertise and full scope for esteem and aspirations to be met in the career profiles. Some state governments have been thinking about this need, but the time has come to act on their thinking.
Management of volumes to achieve satisfaction is no longer possible through manual instruments. No matter how well-intentioned the personnel of any municipal body are, and truth be told, that they are not exactly motivated by work ethics, technology integration into management structures is badly needed. Each city municipality has to be an observatory, monitoring the state of civic services, anticipating population and economic growth into micro details and making provision for adequacy of supply-side ingredients. Easier said than done, no doubt, but there is no shortcut to these mandates that have to be embedded in the daily agenda of municipal governance. We have put so many satellites into orbit, their imaging capabilities have to be harnessed for spatial planning and traffic controls. Law enforcement is expensive and we have to make the expense to make it happen, otherwise, chaos will only multiply.
The fund flows to the third tier, ie, the municipal level was one of the prime motivations for the 74th amendment in 1992. The Union government has been acutely aware of the reluctance of the state governments to provide funds to municipalities. There have been various constraints, sometimes political and at other times, the financial health of the state itself is not good. Therefore, arrangements were contemplated to enable funds to flow to the third tier from the Union, but this has not been really institutionalised, at least not efficiently. At the same time, the internal capability of the local bodies is severely limited for various reasons. If they want to raise debt, then they do not have adequate guarantees or collaterals, if they want to raise taxes, they do not have enough range to meet all expenses. Worse, 99 per cent of them have no idea of their land assets and if they do, these are hugely encroached. Ultimately, they have to be and are dependent on state government grants and these are never enough nor timely. A crippled structure is what we have, in every which way. A way out of this impasse has to be found.
To start with, there has to be an independent municipal rating agency that will monitor and evaluate and grade municipalities on essential parameters. These ratings will be reviewed every six months for the first five years and then annually. The grades will help build the credentials of the municipal body and enhance its ability to access debts funds based on revenue streams and land assets. As these ratings are put into public domain, the pressure to improve will also build and we all know that transparency drives accountability. Of course, the shortfalls in resources will have to be met from state budgets but with diligent oversight on a real-time basis.
The larger and more difficult question is: who will or what can trigger these changes or for that matter, any performance-oriented transformation in municipal governance? The answer will surely fetch a fortune much bigger than the vaunted KBC- a popular TV quiz amongst our country's eager to earn and learn. There are success stories of local initiatives, somewhere a waste management enterprise prospers, somewhere a small community organizes sanitation and cleanliness change, somewhere an organised garbage collection but the scale is still evading our efforts. The challenge is to tackle volumes that are demanding services and infrastructure and housing.
A beginning must be made by restructuring the configuration of the municipal organisation, as well as the working of its functional relationships with the citizens, relationship with the parent state government too, as this is important for a well defined autonomous sphere of its mandates without let or hindrance. Above all, the prevailing politics has to come to terms with the compulsion to deliver effective service in cities across all segments, if India's urban story is not to reach a dismal conclusion.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)