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The municipal model is broken


R. SrinivasanJANUARY 27, 2019

We need to urgently rethink the way our cities are run

Tourists visiting Delhi don’t visit Ghazipur. They have no reason to. Ghazipur’s ‘attractions’ consist of abattoirs, dairy farms, a wholesale fruit and vegetable yard, and a flower market — and Delhi’s largest landfill, currently occupying 29 acres. The rubbish mountain is just eight metres shorter than another famous Delhi attraction, the Qutub Minar. It was declared “oversaturated” in 2002 but 17 years later, 2,500 tonnes of solid waste continue to be dumped there every day.

Exploding megacities

Cut to Chennai, the city where I live and work. According to Metrowater officials, the four lakes that supply water to the city have a storage level that is just 10% of their capacity. The water will run out in a month, according to a report in this paper. With nearly 10 long, hot months to go before the next rainy season, Chennai is set to handily beat its 2017 record, when it suffered its worst drought in 140 years.

Cut to Bengaluru, India’s IT capital. Almost two years ago, the city woke up to news that Bellandur lake, the largest in the city, was in flames yet again, its potent mix of domestic and industrial waste fuelling the fire. In 2015, the lake had frothed up in white foam, a few days before catching fire. The foam was photographed as it spilled onto the streets. It was reportedly so corrosive that it cracked windshields. That’s not all. According to a study by urbanemissions.info and researchers from the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, air pollution in the city is set to go up by 74% by 2030, led primarily by vehicle exhaust, construction and road dust.

Cut to Mumbai. The city’s bus services, arguably India’s finest, are just limping back to normalcy after a crippling strike by workers of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) over low wages and increasingly long duty hours. The estimated loss due to the strike was more than ₹20 crore.

A state of crisis

One could go on, but the short point is this: India’s exploding megacities are in a state of crisis. Officially, about a third of India’s population is urban but most contemporary estimates put the figure at closer to half. But the combined expenditure of all urban local bodies in India, according to NITI Aayog, is just 1% of the GDP. Worse, these city administrations generate only 44% of their finances from their own revenue sources like property taxes and user charges. The bulk of municipal expenditure (over 60%) goes towards paying wages and salaries.

Lord Ripon first specified the roles, responsibilities, and financial powers of local bodies in 1882, but it was the 74th Constitution Amendment of 1992 that specifically created a three-tier system of self-government in India, assigning 18 critical functions, including health care and education, to civic bodies.

All of them have failed to deliver. A crippling shortage of money is only part of the reason. Even where money is available, they have been unable to absorb it and execute plans. For instance, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) funds infrastructure projects, but with one year left for the programme to meet its target, it has completed just 20% of the projects utilising only 3% of the allocated funds. Since AMRUT was launched in 2015, Bihar and Assam have not managed to finish even a single project!

A wretched experience

India’s system of civic administration, with a permanent bureaucracy and a changing set of political representatives, is broken. Politically, civic representation is merely seen as a stepping stone to the real stuff. And the municipal administration is subordinate to the State and Central public services. The system is riddled with corruption, the functioning is opaque, and there is virtually no public scrutiny or accountability.

For the urban poor, who depend most on civic services, the experience is wretched. Municipal schools produce functional illiterates, the health services barely function, and “planned development” is hostage to the real estate lobby. As for quality of life, all you need to do is to take a deep breath in any of the cities to find out how poor it is. After all, India holds the world record for housing the maximum number of the most polluted cities in the world!

The municipal model is broken. India needs to radically rethink the model if its cities are not to become dystopian wastelands. Maybe doing away with guaranteed employment in municipal service, and having various civic service chiefs run directly for office, as is the case in the U.S., might be a start. It also needs to figure out a sustainable financial model for city governments — levying market-related charges for things like water, road usage and parking is a start. Above all, it needs a more aware citizenry, with a greater say in deciding how exactly its tax monies should be spent.

R. Srinivasan is Editor, The Hindu BusinessLine

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