Here’s the deal: A quarter of India is urban. If cities collect taxes better and get richer, they can give us better services. And if citizens have a say in how that money is used, your city could do the rope trick these two Karnataka towns did.
When P Manivannan began work in 2004, the twin Karnataka cities of Hubli-Dharward were an urban cliché.
The roads were full of potholes, illegal stalls and slums had taken over the pavements, the drains were clogged and water supply was a laughable once-in-four-days.
The HDMC earned about Rs 6 crore per annum — and owed nearly four times that much to vendors and contractors. “It was so bad, shopkeepers were unwilling to lend the municipality even Rs 100,” jokes Ashok Jadav, a corporat
Over the next three years, the new municipal commissioner — a 31-year-old engineering graduate and IAS officer — fixed the roads, cleared encroachments and helped set up a 24X7 water supply system in an eight-ward demo zone, a system that is now set to be replicated across Hubli-Dharwad.
The model he used was simple: A crackdown on civic tax collections to help raise funds to improve the city, and greater public participation through citizens' committees, to ensure that money was spent wisely.
In a country where simple civic services are a luxury across cities and day-to-day problems need bribes, cajoling, street protests and political pressure to be fixed, the dramatic civic turnaround in the north Karnataka cities is an example of what could be replicated across the country.
India’s cities currently house 28 per cent of the country’s 1 billion-plus population. By 2025, that number is expected to rise to 50 per cent. Yet urban areas remain starved of resources, their infrastructure crumbling as more people flood in every day.
Worse still, this huge chunk of the population — which contributes a whopping 90 per cent of government revenues nationwide — has very little say in what is done with their share of that revenue, beyond electing their municipal officials.
Even the municipalities seldom have much say in what they do, their agenda often being set by the state and Central governments — for reasons that have little to do with development and everything to do with votebank politics.
The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), a Centrally funded urban renewal mission, has begun to address this issue by demanding greater people’s participation in civic governance in all cities applying for funds. But the project is being implemented in just 93 cities — out of a total of 5,161 cities, towns and urban agglomerations in India.
So, Step 1 of the solution: Make citizens’ involvement mandatory in all municipal councils and corporations.
There is already a precedent: Enacting a community participation law and introducing the concept of ‘area sabhas’ in urban areas is one of the mandatory reforms for all cities applying for funds under the JNNURM.
For Step 2 of the urban renewal, the 74th amendment to the Constitution must be enforced in all states.
This amendment defines the powers, authority and functions of urban local bodies, and details how it is to access funds.
But all the clauses are currently optional. As a result most states have taken only a half-hearted approach to the reforms it suggests.
For instance, only 11 states have set up state finance commissions to sort out how best to split revenues with the local bodies.
“A federal dynamic of the sort played out between the Centre and state must now play out between the states and urban local bodies,” says Partho Mukhopadhyay, senior fellow at think tank Centre for Policy Research. “In the long term, it will lead to a government that will be more responsive to the people’s needs, simply because, under the new system, they can no longer be ignored.”
But there’s an important Step 3: Municipalities need to pull up their socks and fill up their treasuries — primarily by cracking down on tax evaders, especially in the hugely lucrative areas of property tax and octroi.
This is something Manivannan did in Hubli-Dharwad, to great effect.
By 2008, revenue had jumped from Rs 6 crore to Rs 20 crore.
But Manivannan’s most significant achievements were decentralising the administration and directly involving the people through a three-tier system of citizens’ committees — a model that could be used for Step 1.
A total of 654 citizens’ committees, each with six to nine members, were set up for the city’s population of 7.86 lakh. At the ground level, there was a citizens’ committee at the polling booth level, for a population of about 1,500 to 2,000 people.
At the next level was a zonal committee, one of each of the 12 zones. And finally, a Citizens’ Advisory Committee to the mayor and commissioner at the highest level.
Each committee sat in on local civic meetings, monitored implementation of various schemes and discussed and even advised officials on what was most urgently needed.
It had representation from all sections of society — each nine-member body would have three women, senior citizens, youngsters, lower castes and underprivileged members. The lowest tier (at the polling booth level) would meet once a month, on Sundays.
During Manivannan’s tenure, the municipal corporation also printed 6,000 booklets detailing who citizens could take their complaints to — with the official’s address, e-mail id and office, residence and cellphone numbers printed alongside.
And Manivannan set up a 24X7 control room to attend to public complaints.
“It is not easy to learn to work in a democracy,” says Manivannan. “It is like learning to ride a bicycle: There’s disbelief at first, then you learn to take control of the machine, balancing yourself and moving ahead. It is the same with citizens’ committees.”
In 2007, HDMC became the first municipality in India to get an ISO 9000 rating. Many of its initiatives have been included in the best practices put out by the National Centre for Urban Affairs.
But since Manivannan’s term ended, things have started to slide.
Garbage lies uncollected on the streets, citizens’ council meetings are sporadic, and some civic committees no longer have the mandatory residents’ representative.
You see, none of his reforms had made it to the rule books.
India’s cities are currently home to 28 per cent of the population, and expected to house 50 per cent by 2025. Yet public participation in urban local government is minimal. Rural India has panchayats. In the cities, your only direct role in governance is through the elections. The municipal corporations and councils, meanwhile, are themselves not empowered to allocate funds where they are most urgently needed. Urban India contributes 90 per cent of all government revenue, but the distant state and Central governments call most of the shots.
'We need a differentiated approach to urbanisation'CHETAN VAIDYA
Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs
Most states have made headway in handing over those aspects of governance assigned to urban local bodies, but they have not necessarily handed over the financial powers required for the latter to carry these functions out. Even the recommendations of the state finance commissions have not been carried out in full. Incentives built in could prod ULBs to improve performance. Also, we need a differentiated approach to urbanisation. The four metropolises have to be looked at separately, with an independent central project to focus on their problems.
'Focus should be on massive urbanisation'AMITABH KUNDU
Professor of Economics, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU
By 2050, the working population of India will grow from 450 million to 750 million. Cities will become the epicentre of economic activity. And this presents a huge opportunity for India. The Indian government should focus on massive urbanisation, mainly creating a number of small towns and big cities.
The JNNURM looks at only 63 cities and towns. If you look at official data, the number of small towns has actually gone down. In Andhra Pradesh, five towns were declassified in the last census. But access to resources, of course, is key. Without funds, municipal bodies simply cannot provide service to the people.
Secretary, Union Ministry of Urban Development
Financial autonomy can’t be seen in isolation. We would like the states to go by the recommendations of the state finance commissions. We have also pitched for a major devolution from states to urban bodies in the 13th Central Finance Commission.
Cities must also innovate, outsourcing work and exploring private partnership in some areas, like Nagpur has done in the case of water supply.
Institutionalising the power-sharing mechanism between the states and urban local bodies, is a bigger agenda requiring a political call since it touches a sensitive area for the states. It will have to be debated and worked out.
We did circulate the model municipal law, but I don’t think any state has adopted it. Many have taken parts of it — it’s a federal system, so you can’t really impose anything overnight.
JNNURM has been a big beginning. For example, we are laying down that any project taken up should have user charges built in, whether it is water supply or solid waste management. Also, we try to be strict with meeting milestones.
If they aren’t met, further release of funds is held up for that time. Other clauses, like community participation, transparency legislation and rent control modification are happening too, but not as per milestones. I am hopeful that by 2011-12 all the reform requirements will be met.