Municipalities need to be smart

More than the common citizens, it is high time that the civic bodies came up with innovative projects and strict implementation to meet the environmental challenges in the face of changing climate

A long time ago, when I was covering Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the national capital’s nodal agency for water, I had asked one of its top engineers ‘why at all the DJB needed to outsource so many of its works? Whatever happened to its in-house talents?’

“What else can we do? If I try to force someone to work, he flatly refuses. Plus, transfers or suspension are no deterrents as such people have some or the other kind of political backing or workers’ union support,” the exasperated official said.

Either way, the fate is sealed. Work will not be done up to the mark and never on time. This is, more or less, the same story across India for scores of government agencies. Manpower is one of the most challenging aspects and under that broad umbrella, it is the quality that tops the list. A term that has gained much currency in recent years is ‘capacity building’ and scores of transnational NGOs and consultancy firms have had a field day building capacity of Indian institutions. The jury is still out on the impact of such efforts, but there is no doubt about the need for building capacities of our agencies keeping in tune with the times.

A 2011 report of the ‘High Power Executive Committee (HPEC)’ has estimated that India will have more than 85 metropolitan areas by 2031, a little more than a decade away. Predicting the pace and scale of urbanisation, the report said, India’s urban population is likely to soar to over 600 million. Tackling urban poverty will not be the only issue in view of the large-scale migration, but the pressure on resources will need to be addressed first and foremost.

Current scenario: bleak picture with scope for much improvement

A case in point is changing the climate and let us take just one issue, an issue so vital to our survival – water. In times to come when erratic precipitation has been forecast for the Indian subcontinent by climate scientists, it is no more an option but an imperative for the Indian authorities to ensure that its machinery is equipped to handle the impacts due to these changes. This is especially true for civic bodies across states as this is the agency that is the nodal point for implementing preventive measures and taking mitigating steps. Also, these agencies would be the ones to start rebuilding in case of destruction and damage due to a natural disaster or even due to changing climate.

As it is, across India, we suffer from inadequate water supply and inefficient management of available resources when it comes to this most precious one, water. It is not that the policymakers are not aware of the importance of having adequate water for rising population, but the lopsided policies ensure that there is no equitable distribution in any of the cities. Be it South Mumbai or the prime VIP area under the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), be it the plush Banjara Hills in Hyderabad or the Salt Lake area at Kolkata, these areas are the most pampered areas with 24×7 water and possibly that of the highest quality. But scores of residential colonies in these cities suffer from both quantity and quality issues.

Next, over last few decades, the demand for drinking water (thanks to increased urbanisation) agriculture and industry has been increasing. Also, in view of the changing climate, the overall availability of water at our disposal has been decreasing.

We have not even reached 100 % coverage capacity for all areas of cities – both metropolitan and tier I cities, forget providing 24×7 water supply. The less said the better about tier II and III cities. What is applicable to water supply is equally applicable to – or perhaps the situation is worse – waste water treatment. The result is there for all to see – highly polluted rivers, drains and nullahs apart from local water bodies. The disposal of untreated or partially treated domestic sewage and industrial effluents has continued to plague our water systems leading to several subsequent problems. The conundrum called urban local bodies (ULBs) is responsible for this deplorable status.

Basic issues need to be addressed

One of the most basic problems that needs to be addressed is the linking of planning, development and implementation process across cities. For many decades now, city improvement trusts (for instance, Nagpur Improvement Trust) or development authorities (e.g. Indore Development Authority) have been tasked with the development process. This is done without considering the municipal capacities but once these colonies are developed, the actual implementation is done by the municipal corporation.

Municipalities are required to take care of newly developed areas which were planned without their involvement. The need for de-centralised planning and implementation is much highlighted in such cases. Also, the municipalities need to have institutionalised knowledge and capacities to implement concepts such as green spaces, wetlands and increasing tree cover to tackle the growing environmental problems.

The second important issue that needs to be addressed is the perennial staff crunch problem (both technically sound and general). Since more than a decade, the Central and the state governments have stopped recruitment at lower ranks and outsourced much of their work. At the higher level, the planning, engineering etc., despite having staff, the quality is suspect and hence, here too, the work is outsourced. A better idea will be to start hiring and developing in-house institutionalised capacity building that too of personnel drawn from local areas who will have better first-hand understanding of the local environmental issues.

The third is to ensure capacity building in the right manner. It is nobody’s argument that the NGO consultancy firms or transnational consultants bring no knowledge. But application of that knowledge needs to be aligned to suit Indian needs. It is here where the real capacity building needs to be done.

Last but not the least, this capacity building need not stop at adequately equipping the officials and other personnel with knowledge, but should ensure that the planning is done diligently, and implementation is done even more assiduously.

Scope for learnings

The changing climate has already started showing its impact across states in India. The urban areas – especially high population density cities – are turning out to be most vulnerable and prone to suffer more damages in the face of a natural disaster. Floods and heat waves are two of the most common problems that Indian cities have faced increasingly in recent times. While many cities have devised ways to lessen the impact of heat wave – for example, Ahmedabad’s preventive measures to beat the heat island effect – there are others that have been trying to mitigate damage caused due to recurring floods (for instance, the early warning systems for cyclone in Odisha).

The civic bodies have a from-cradle-to-the-grave connection with its residents. It will be the municipal bodies that the people will expect to deliver in any given situation.And it is therefore important to bring about reforms that can deliver in the short term and also long term.

The civic bodies and other agencies such as Jal Nigams and/or Jal Boards need overhauling when it comes to their own system of governance. The powers that be will need to ensure that the inefficient, the non-performers do not get protection under political or union patronage.

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental, developmental and social issues. She can be reached at or follow her on twitter at @nivedita_Him