The crisis of governance in our cities

CHAOS: “A serious discussion on how governance needs to be structured in a city is long overdue.” Picture shows a view of heavy traffic jam near railway station in Surat.

CHAOS: “A serious discussion on how governance needs to be structured in a city is long overdue.” Picture shows a view of heavy traffic jam near railway station in Surat.

There is a crisis of governance brewing in our cities. In Bengaluru, for instance, the Karnataka government has decided to restructure the >Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the city’s municipal corporation, and defer polls to the city council until the restructuring is effected. The Karnataka High Court had directed the State government to hold polls to the council before May 31, which the State government contested.

Meanwhile, the State government has moved with uncharacteristic speed on two fronts. It dissolved the city council before the latter’s term ended, giving itself a window of possibility to push out polls to the BBMP. Simultaneously, it got the restructuring bill passed in the Legislative Assembly. Presently, the legislative council is discussing the bill, even as the three-member expert committee on BBMP’s restructuring, appointed by the State government, is working towards its deadline of June 30. A Public Interest Litigation was filed calling for elections be held irrespective of dissolution or proposed restructuring of the BBMP. The Karnataka High Court in its judgement on April 22 has since set aside the single judge ruling and given the State Government a six-month period to conduct elections to the BBMP. The High Court order is likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court.

These happenings are not isolated instances. Calls for reunification of the municipal corporations in Delhi and the scrapping of the >Mumbai Development Plan 2034 are also manifestations of this crisis. More cities and towns in India will confront similar circumstances in coming years. Rising population, business activity and aspirations will severely strain the already creaky public infrastructure. The systems in our cities are presently not geared to meet these challenges.

The good news

The good news is that the diagnosis of the problem has been carried out repeatedly over the last decade by several studies and committees. Broadly, the action areas fall under seven categories: land, spatial planning and urban design; municipal staffing and capacity building (covering adequacy of skilled staff and organisation design); municipal finance (including financial self-sufficiency and fiscal responsibility); political leadership (covering both their powers and legitimacy); transparency; accountability (for service levels, expenditure and performance); and citizen participation. Interdependence between these categories shows the systemic nature of the challenge. For example, lack of adequate number of skilled staff in municipalities could lead to lower property tax collections and own revenues, but the ability to attract quality talent requires financial self-sufficiency. Similarly, land and spatial planning are crucial for financial self-sufficiency, but empowered political leadership is essential to harness those opportunities.

And the bad news... The bad news, however, is that even the road map to a solution is not in sight. Local governments fall under the State List, but State governments have neither shown urgency nor are they equipped with the human and technical capacities required to solve this problem. Cities need to be a national priority and, therefore, at the core of the cooperative federalism agenda of the Union government. The current approach of managing urbanisation through smart cities and an urban development mission will not suffice. >The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) offers useful lessons on both the utility and limitations of packaging project funding linked to reforms. The government needs to ask itself whether these two missions answer the question “How can our cities guarantee acceptable standards of public service delivery and good governance to 400 million Indians today and 800 million Indians by 2050”.

The first step to solving the problem of successful urbanisation is to elevate the conversation to a holistic level. Liveable cities are critical today to India. Cities need to arguably become the fourth subgroup of the NITI Aayog. Cities bring together diverse, but important, priorities of economic growth and productivity, connectivity, jobs, skills and talent, foreign direct investment, ease of doing business, infrastructure and public services, housing for all and poverty alleviation. In many ways, cities are central to meeting many of these development priorities which are already part of the Union government’s agenda. The U.K.’s Work of the City Growth Commission could possibly be a good precedent.

The second immediate priority would be to learn from the recent experiences in Delhi and Bengaluru. A serious discussion on how governance needs to be structured in a city is long overdue and needs to move to contemporary realities and needs. Senior levels of the Union government and Chief Ministers of States must engage in a fruitful discussion. The outcome needs to be a broad set of principles on the architecture of a city government that address the seven action areas referred to earlier. If this does not happen, we risk wasting collective energies, resources and time in redrawing municipal boundaries with zero impact on quality of life or housing or connectivity or any of the other development priorities. What the Karnataka government does with Bengaluru in the next six months will be watched closely by the rest of India. We need to see if its actions serve as early warnings to other States or whether it will blaze a trail of transformational change that other States can emulate.

(Srikanth Viswanathan is Coordinator, Advocacy and Reforms at Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a Bengaluru-based non-profit.)

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 8:25:12 pm |