Empower local governments to be self-reliant

Governance does not happen over long distance by issuance of fiats and directives. Certainly, not in a democratic system of arrangement of constitutional responsibilities which we profess to be.

The municipal body is the only agency that can anchor the city development in every aspect of its existence. That is why its other name is very appropriate: local self- government sadly, over the years, the representatives of the local residents have run down the functioning of the body that could give a quality life to the citizens residing in the area. Even though elections are not contested under political wings, in reality they are totally party driven, from nomination to being an elected performer. Notwithstanding the mode, the primary responsibility is of the electorate for good service and for making the city an inviting place to live, which can only happen if the municipality is equipped with resources and competence. Does this ever happen? More importantly, will this ever happen?

The state of municipal capacity in our country is totally pathetic. The state politics and the local self- government politics intersect at many points. A well thought of leader at the municipal level is a possible threat to the incumbents in the state capital, as the electoral constituencies can have common populations. Over the years, there has been a steady decline in pan- state leadership images of the chief ministers, just as there are not many leaders with a pan-India image. This has intensified the competition for political space. One of the unfortunate consequences of this competition has been that the role of the municipal bodies has waxed and waned in accordance with the political equations in the states.

In turn, the sufferer, as always, is the citizen who has been deprived of basic civic amenities. Smaller municipal bodies do not have the financial strength to recruit needed personnel, train them and assure them of a progressive career. The bigger municipalities are so ridden with internecine rivalries of the councilors that the personnel are divided alongside their favourite councillors to milch the citizen who has to pay bribes to get legitimate service from the municipality. They are unable to plan for the future, are repeatedly beaten by the volumes resulting in a chaotic city development. Just imagine, as per a study made of the municipal bodies in India, 50 per cent of the local bodies spent one rupee per capita on public health! Why are we surprised that in our cities the only thing that is rampant is one kind of virus or the other in every season?

The situation in our cities is in an advance stage of degradation. It has to be retrieved now for giving a chance to our cities to first survive and then make plans to expand and progress in consonance with the needs of the population. We have no other vehicle for repair of cities, except the municipal body. It needs rejuvenation. First and foremost, its resource base must be fortified. There is already a constitutional framework which contemplates transfer of funds to the municipal bodies directly.

Let us work these provisions. Yes, there will be arguments that there is no maturity in the capacity of the municipal framework to handle big size finances. Sure, then create and build that capacity. If we do not want to employ, then let us engage competent accountants to hold, manage and account for these finances till the internal capacity is created. Likewise, hire out specific agencies to operate and manage the civic amenities. In South Africa, cities are engaging professional city managers to perform its functions. Of course, you have to put in place serious and stringent oversight protocols to ensure that deliveries happen. These are not the times when you have to employ permanent staff for every item of work which has to be performed by the municipal body.

Second, we have to revive the trust in the municipal functioning through performance. We have a historical legacy going as far back as 1667, when the formation of the Madras Municipal Corporation, and later in 1726, the Bombay and the Calcutta ones. Since then, there have been a series of legislative reforms. We now have a pace of urbanisation of which there is no stopping. Therefore, we have to meet the challenges coming with it.

A respectable municipal cadre of appropriate categories of professionals needs to be formed by each state. In fact, at the national level there is the Indian Defence Estates Service which serves the needs of managing the defence estates and the cantonments in the country. This is the only service which is trained and handles city management systems albeit in the restricted military environment. The scope of this service needs to be expanded to give it responsibilities in managing the municipal bodies in India. All that is needed is to increase the intake and professionalise its personnel in modern systems.

Third, we are now witnessing a massive surge in the use of ICT in all management platforms. The one big and urgent need is to get the city mapped through the GIS platform which can be the basis of all administrative functions. The GPS assistance will help in monitoring performances throughout the city spread. Yes, these things cost money, but human beings in organisations cost even more due to their built-in inefficiencies. And machines do not demand pensions or leave from work. These investments have to be made; failing which municipal service delivery capacity will always be constrained. We already have successful models at work. What is needed is to deploy them across all local bodies.

We can argue endlessly about all that is wrong with India. Yes, the corruption, yes, the inept bureaucracy, yes, the venality of the political class, yes, the poverty driven illiterates in the country filling up the slums, yes, to all of it. Even so, we have to work things out and impose the solutions diligently. The state of the local bodies is a symbol of the things that are wrong in the country. But it is also the symbol of where we need to start and succeed to change things for the better in this country.

A respectable municipal cadre of appropriate categories of professionals needs to be formed by each state. In fact, at the national level there is the Indian Defence Estates Service which serves the needs of managing the defence estates and the Cantonments in the country. This is the only service which is trained and handles city management systems albeit in the restricted military environment

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