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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Municipal budgets can make a real difference to citizens’ lives. Here’s how.

Evidence suggests that citizen participation in budgeting and closer engagement in the monitoring of civic works results in better outcomes and fewer leakages.

Written by Srikanth Viswanathan |
Updated: March 3, 2021 8:45:13 am
State budgets too receive a certain degree of attention and coverage, albeit far less than the Union budget.

The budget season is upon us. The Union budget, which lays out the receipt and expenditure proposals of the Government of India, is an annual feature in Parliament on February 1. It receives extensive press coverage — in fact, it sends both TV and print media into a frenzy. The halwa ceremony in North Block to mark the budget being sent for printing, whether the Finance Minister is carrying her budget papers in a briefcase or in a bahi khata, which poets in what languages she quoted, etc. get covered by print and TV media.

About 30 state governments present their budgets in respective state assemblies generally during February or March. State budgets too receive a certain degree of attention and coverage, albeit far less than the Union budget.

However, budgets that matter most to us, our parents, children, friends and colleagues are city budgets or municipal budgets. Ironically, they receive little or no attention in the media, except run-of-the-mill, fleeting coverage in the much-neglected city pages. Yet, a staggering 4,500+ municipalities in which over 300 million people live present their budgets every year during the budget season. Are we able to breathe clean air, do we get clean drinking water in our taps, is garbage cleared properly and on time, do we all have access to clean toilets at home and in public spaces, is our wastewater treated and disposed of safely, are our children and parents able to walk safely on streets and enjoy public spaces — these are all determined by these municipal budgets. While it is a pity we don’t yet have accurate data, estimates suggest that taken together, these 4,500+ city budgets aggregate to an amount in the range of Rs 1,50,000-1,80,000 crore annually.

The secret to a better quality of life in our cities lies in these city (and to a certain extent state) budgets. We need greater degrees of citizen engagement and media engagement on these budgets for them to become instruments of real change at a street, neighbourhood and ward level. At present, most municipal laws don’t provide for citizen participation in budgets or transparency in civic works and tenders. Budget documents themselves are not easy to read and understand for an average citizen. To exacerbate this, substantial expenditure in the city happens through parastatal agencies such as development authorities, transport corporations and water supply boards, which have separate budgets which are never discussed in the city council or covered in the media.

There seems to be evidence to suggest that when there is citizen participation in budgeting and closer engagement of citizens in the monitoring of civic works, there are better outcomes and fewer leakages. “Participatory Budgeting” is a concept that was pioneered in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in the mid-1980s. It is now practised in one form or other in thousands of cities around the world. In India, participatory budgeting in cities was pioneered by Janaagraha in Bengaluru in 2001, but took firmer roots in Pune, which drew inspiration from the Bengaluru experience and had a more committed leadership.

More recently the MyCityMyBudget campaign, first launched in 2015, is gathering traction in Bengaluru, Mangaluru and Visakhapatnam, as a collaborative effort between respective city corporations, neighbourhood communities and Janaagraha. Across Bengaluru, Mangaluru and Visakhapatnam, over 85,000 budget inputs have been crowdsourced from over 80,000 citizens in over 350 wards on a wide range of civic issues such as “yellowspots” (public urination spots), public toilets, footpaths, garbage dumps, roads and drains. These inputs will be reviewed and incorporated into the city budget. This is significant because in the government system, allocating budgets is the first step towards getting any piece of work done. Such an initiative has several benefits. It facilitates a targeted, hyperlocal focus on budgeting and problem-solving. It makes citizens feel like they have a voice in civic governance and thereby builds trust. It addresses inefficiencies arising from misplaced prioritisation of civic works relative to citizen needs. Finally, it improves accountability for civic works at the last mile (as citizens would monitor budget execution).

Even if 5 per cent of municipality budgets are set aside for participatory budgeting, that would amount to over Rs 7,500 crore nationally! If citizens could work with ward-level engineers to use these funds to get their street lights fixed, make their footpaths walkable, spruce up their parks, create a new childcare centre or public toilet in an urban poor settlement, or make bus shelters safe and comfortable, imagine the difference it would make to their lives and the trust it would build between citizens and governments. Children, women, senior citizens, the differently-abled and several interest groups would be able to make a case for their causes and aspirations and have them fulfilled. This would foster far greater ownership in communities for civic assets and amenities, thereby resulting in better maintenance and upkeep. At the local level, it is a win-win for communities, elected councillors and the city administration.

In fact, most of the allocations for cities in the Union and state budgets find their way into municipal budgets, as municipalities implement most of their schemes. Union and state governments have a hard time gaining assurance that these schemes and funds result in intended citizen outcomes. Participatory budgeting in cities is, therefore, in their interest too. Unlike the Union budget, the municipal budget is not just a financial or legal document. It can be an enabler of grass roots democracy in cities and tangible change for communities particularly children, women and the urban poor. Communities and media in cities need to engage more deeply with municipal budgets.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 3, 2021 under the title ‘The citizen’s budget’. The writer is CEO, Janaagraha

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