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.
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.
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