The COVID-19 crisis as a metropolitan battle

COVID-19 has brought in unprecedented challenges to India’s metropolitan cities, yet again highlighting their limited capabilities to self-govern. India’s top metropolitan cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad — now account for nearly half of the country’s cases of COVID-19.

No governance architecture

This fallout has an obvious public health angle. India’s public health expenditure in 2018 was a mere 1.28% of GDP. According to the World Bank, India’s out-of-pocket health expenditure was 62.4% in 2017, while the world average was 18.2%. Additionally, manpower in the health sector is low with India’s doctor-population ratio being 1:1,457 which is lower than the World Health Organisation norm of 1:1,000.

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Complimenting an inequitable public health system is a larger governance issue. Governance has a bearing not just on the response to COVID-19 but also in preparedness for other natural and man-made disasters and contingencies. Specific systemic factors underlying city governance include spatial planning, municipal capacities, empowered mayors and councils and inter-agency coordination, and ward-level citizen participation. Twenty-seven years have passed since the enactment of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, but these reform agendas continue to be on slow burn.

Lack of robust integrated spatial planning: The Constitution mandates formation of Metropolitan Planning Committees (MPCs) in all metropolitan areas with a million-plus population. MPCs are envisioned to ensure integrated planning for the entire metropolitan area, and are responsible for the preparation of draft development plans, synthesising priorities set by local authorities, State and Central governments. In reality, MPCs are either not constituted or are defunct. Janaagraha’s Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS) 2017 report found that only nine out of 18 cities assessed had constituted MPCs even if on paper.

The absence of comprehensive integrated planning is starkly visible in the COVID-19 crisis. Poor housing, sanitation, and a lack of access to meaningful social security are a reality for the urban poor. Only medium- to long-term spatial planning that focuses on equal access to opportunities and services can avoid a repeat of such disasters.

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Weak municipal capacities: India’s metropolitan cities have weak capacities in finance and staffing. Bengaluru’s average percentage of own revenue to total expenditure is 47.9%, Chennai 30.5%, Mumbai 36.1% and Kolkata at 48.4%. According to ASICS 2017, Mumbai has the highest number of officers per lakh population at 938. However, this is abysmally low compared to global cities such as Johannesburg with 2,922 officers and New York with 5,446 officers per lakh population.

COVID-19 resurfaces the poor capacity of municipalities in delivering infrastructure and services, and managing disasters; highlighting the urgency to bolster the capability of municipalities to self-govern.

Need for authority

Weak mayor and council and fragmentation of governance: The leaders steering India’s metropolitan cities are toothless. No big metropolitan cities with 10 million-plus population has a directly-elected Mayor. Mumbai’s Mayor has a tenure of 2.5 years, Delhi and Bengaluru, a mere one year. Furthermore, Mayors do not have full decision-making authority over critical functions of planning, housing, water, environment, fire and emergency services in most cases. Our metropolitan cities are far from being local self-governments. Parastatal agencies for planning, water and public transport report directly to State governments. The State government also largely controls public works and police.

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It is imperative that citizens are able to hold one political authority accountable in the city, and that political authority cannot be the Chief Minister or the State government.

Transparency, accountability and citizen participation: Transparent cities with institutional platforms encouraging citizen participation have significant bearing on urban democracy. No metropolitan has functional ward committees and area sabhas. An absence of citizen participation is worsened by poor transparency in finance and operations. As per ASICS 2017, India’s big metropolitan cities on average score 3.04/10 in transparency, accountability and participation.

Decentralised citizen participation platforms are critical in identifying beneficiaries to provide aid, co-opting communities for contact tracing, adoption of safety precautions, enforcing quarantine, recruiting volunteers, and collaborating with civil society organisations to battle the pandemic.

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Look at smaller cities too

A World Bank report notes that despite the emergence of smaller towns, the underlying character of India’s urbanisation is “metropolitan”, with new towns emerging around existing large cities. According to a McKinsey report, in 2012, 54 metropolitan cities and their hinterlands accounted for 40% of India’s GDP, and by 2025, 69 metropolitan cities, combined with their hinterlands, will generate over half of India’s incremental GDP between 2012 and 2025. Despite this, India is yet to begin an active discourse on cohesive metropolitan governance frameworks.

COVID-19 is primarily a metropolitan battle; and, owing to their size and complexities, come with a higher scale of challenges and opportunities. Studies by the Centre for Policy Research point that India’s spatial feature exhibits the growth of small towns beyond the economics of large agglomerations. This indicates that while India’s urban vision should focus on its metropolitan cities to reap the benefit of scale, it shouldn’t ignore smaller cities.

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Globally, metropolitan cities are steered by a directly-elected leader, with robust mechanisms to reduce fragmentation in governance. Evolved examples include the Tokyo metropolitan government, and recent experimental models such as combined authorities in the United Kingdom and Australia. India needs home-grown solutions suited to its context and political realities, while imbibing lessons on institutional design from global examples.

The challenges posed by COVID-19 offer a glimpse into various other future threats of climate change, natural disasters, etc. which will further strain Indian cities. It is time the Central and State governments lead efforts towards a metropolitan governance paradigm. The first steps should include empowered Mayors with five-year tenure, decentralised ward level governance, and inter-agency coordination anchored by the city government. India should use the current pandemic as an opportunity to introspect and reform the way its metropolises are governed.

V.R. Vachana is Associate Manager-Advocacy, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, Bengaluru

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 11:46:54 AM |

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