Conversations on cities and towns in India have traditionally focused on either physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges, metro rails, parks and sewerage systems or on quality of life outcomes such as safety and crime, pollution and garbage. But the systems that determine the ability of municipal corporations to deliver quality infrastructure and services — and thereby a good quality of life — have not found sufficient space in the public discourse. A recent study by Janaagraha, the Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems, points to why the conversation needs to move from outcomes to systems.
City systems refer to the laws, policies, institutions and institutional processes, and accountability mechanisms, that pervade the functioning of municipal corporations and which determine the quality of life of citizens. City systems are, therefore, root causes. The second annual survey evaluated 21 Indian cities and two global benchmarks on the city systems of urban planning and design, urban capacities and resources, empowered and legitimate political representation and transparency, accountability and participation. A key finding was that, on average, Indian cities scored between 2.5 and 4 out of 10, against London and New York, which scored 9.6 and 9.3 respectively. Clearly, India has emaciated city systems that need significant strengthening. But where do we begin?
Any attempt to reform city systems needs to begin with the municipal acts. Town and country planning acts that apply to most Indian cities are archaic. Twelve out of the 21 cities that were evaluated are covered by planning laws enacted between 1960 and 1980. Hyderabad is covered by an act from the 1920s. The demographic transition since then and contemporary realities do not find a place in the planning process of cities. Building violations, lack of affordable housing, haphazard construction, pollution and environment degradation can all be traced back to the lack of comprehensive and contemporary planning acts.
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In order to fulfil their service obligations, municipal corporations require skilled human resources, and the power to raise finances. However, the laws governing them have deliberately weakened municipal corporations, which are our city governments. Except Delhi and Patna, no major Indian city has the power to recruit and manage its own staff. Without exception, municipal corporations have a large number of vacancies. They do not have the strength to fill these because their powers of taxation and borrowing are limited. Except Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram and Pune, no Indian city has a per capita capital expenditure of more than Rs 4,000. Of these, only Mumbai and Pune have reasonable own revenues as a percentage of total expenditure — 67 and 96 per cent respectively. Municipal acts need to be reformed to give corporations more financing and staffing powers.
How effective are mayors and councils? Of eight strong mayors — directly elected with a five year term — none handles more than three out of the 10 critical functions they were evaluated on. Further, these cities have their hands tied on both financial management and staffing. The average per capita capital expenditure in these cities is approximately Rs 1,400, whereas the average of all 21 cities is in excess of Rs 2,200 (Mumbai’s is over Rs 7,500). With the exception of Chennai and Jaipur, which have own revenues to total expenditure ratios of 57 and 64 per cent respectively, all other cities with strong mayors have less than 50 per cent. This story repeats on the staffing front as well. Seven of the eight cities with strong mayors have a paltry 250 employees or less per 1,00,000 citizens, compared to Delhi and Mumbai, which have 1,260 and 895 employees per 1,00,000 citizens, respectively. These anomalies are due to outdated municipal acts that do not take a “systems perspective” of cities. Strong mayors and councils are ineffective without adequate staffing and finances. Similarly, a system with robust finances and staffing without an empowered leadership will also not deliver outcomes in an accountable manner.
Even if there were a city with the best planning acts, a strong mayor and council, and adequate staffing and financing, how can citizens assure their voice is heard? Municipal acts need to provide for meaningful transparency, accountability and formal platforms for citizen participation. While hundreds of cities around the world, even in peer countries such as Brazil, have adopted open government practices, Indian municipal acts ensure that our municipal corporations are underscored by opacity. It is only apathy and a lack of initiative that can explain why municipal corporations are not embracing the concept of open government.
If India is to witness a transformation in the quality of life in its cities, it needs to get its municipal act together. State governments must undertake a comprehensive review of the acts. Only such a review can overhaul municipal corporations and turn them into modern institutions. Building new cities is important. But recasting systems in existing ones is an imperative that will directly impact the lives of more than 600 million Indians by 2030.
The writer is coordinator, advocacy, research and capacity building, at Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.