Cities have suffered the most because of this coronavirus pandemic as the virus spreads rapidly in dense areas and our cities are dense. The health infrastructure in the metropolitan cities came under pressure when the pandemic came, and everyday new record highs got reported. The role of mayors in dealing with crisis of such a magnitude is crucial, they being the first representatives of their cities. Understanding how the 73rd and 74th amendment empowered the mayors and elected representatives and the loopholes in the system that can be revised or can be recommended to the government, All India Institute of Local Self-Government (AIILSG), in association with National Institute of Urban Affairs, organised the second instalment of “Mayors’ Dialogues”.
‘Leadership and Pandemic Response’ saw participation from Samyukta Bhatia, Mayor Lucknow; Govind Singh Tank, Mayor Udaipur, and Amarjot Singh Bedi, President, Una Municipal Committee and Pashim Tiwari, Technical Director, AIILSG. and Abhishek Pandey, Editor, Urban Update, moderated the dialogue.
“No doubt cities have been the worst affected from the virus. This is why the role of mayors and elected representatives is very important in dealing with the crisis,” Abhishek Pandey said in his opening remarks. Talking about the role of elected representatives in making a city pandemic resilient, Pandey highlighted the administrative control and authority the mayors and public representative have and how its scope can be widened under the 73rd and 74th amendment of the Constitution. He further noted that there is need for a new governance model in the post pandemic world where the government and the urban local bodies work together in a coordinated manner.
He then asked Pashim Tiwari to throw light on issues cities are facing because of the coronavirus pandemic. Tiwari noted that COVID-19 is just a symptom of larger issues existing in the urban scenario of India. India has always been a reluctant urbanizerand we have always looked at the rural side of India as strength and socio-cultural as well as socio-economicregion which needs to be taken care of. Urban centers were mostly neglected post-independence. But the COVID-19 crisis has put light on the challenges urban centers face and as Abhishek clearly mentioned, 28 years ago the 74th amendment was in a way a step to empower the cities so that they actually can become the engines of growth which we want them to be. Cities being the largest provider of economic activities for most of the country and the GDP, need to be empowered in a way that they can control their own fate, Tiwari said. One of the powerful amendments was the 74th amendment, which actually did not get implemented in letter and spirit. COVID-19 is one of such crises, which has given us an opportunity to revise these amendments along with the support of the local government. The mayors and public representatives who have the major role, are playing it very well and because of whom It can be said that this entire system is in place and capable of working together. After the welcome remarks delivered by Pandey and Tiwari, the mayors individually presented their experiences, grievances, and insights during the pandemic, which showed their leadership and pandemic response. Here are the major takeaways from their addresses:
Samyukta Bhatia, Mayor, Lucknow
From the very day COVID-19 was reported in the country, we started preparing action plans with vice chancellors of various educational institutes to tackle the situation. Beds for corona patients in the hospitals were prepared before hand and no shortage of beds or need for extra beds was reported. Under the leadership of Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister, Uttar Pradesh, the situation was managed in a better and effective manner in comparison to other cities. The morale ofsanitation workers was also boosted during these times by the municipality and they were motivated to work twice a day. Ialso made an appeal to the people to honor these workers who are working tirelessly during these times and their confidence was lifted when the people, well known individuals and elected representatives started paying them respect. A community kitchen was started in Lucknowby the municipality which became an example for the entire state and other cities also started following the idea. Every section of society supported the initiative anda total of 80,000 food packets were distributedto the people in the city. The maximum amount as well the grains for these food packets was given by the people and as a result of which the municipality had to spend a smaller amount. With people’s support, municipality worked to better the crisis but they are not empowered enough under the 73rd and 74th amendment. The mayors and public representatives lack authority and administrative control; we hardly have any rights except for collection of house tax. Because of these pandemic times, there were not enough funds to pay the salaries of 8000 employees, their salaries were paid from the fund provided by the central government for development. I would like to suggest that more powers and rights should be given to the Municipal Committees as we face many challenges in terms of funds and facilities.
Amarjot Singh Bedi, President, Una Municipal Committee
The municipal committees are facing problems not only during this pandemic, but these problems have been existing since a long time. The powers of urban local bodies(ULBs) and panchayats have usually been diluted andthere has never been an intention to strengthen the ULBs. In Himachal Pradesh (HP), the crisis was easier to manage as the state is secluded in the sense that there are not many routes to enter the state and the population here is controlled. From the veryfirst day when corona was reported the entry into the state was prohibited.And today as well if I want to travel from Una to Chandigarh, an official pass is required, the entry of the pass is to be done and the reentry of the pass as well on return to Himachal Pradesh is to be done. The information about the travel has to be provided to the Nodal Officers who then keep complete check on our movement. All these measures are probably the reason for control of COVID-19 spread and zero deaths in Una. The everyday duties of municipal committees like ration distribution, collection of waste, sanitation work and other municipal activities were somewhat a challenge during these pandemic times but because of the confidence that the COVID-19 spread was controlled in Una or fewer cases were reported in HP, the work could be done with a little more courage. But again, I will come to the point that the mayors andmunicipal committees face many problems because of being less empowered. An example of such situation is the incident that happened two years ago in Oct 2018, I signed an agreement with a company, AG Dauters Waste Processing Private Limited, the first company in the world to come to India that promised a lot about garbage management. They were to segregate the waste and come with their own trucks to collect garbage and convert it into electricity and sell it to our area at half the cost. All this was done to follow the Indore model and 28 panchayats and 4 ULBs were involved. But today its been two years, the land hasn’t been allotted for the purpose and funds to buy the cars for door-to-door segregation are available but the file is still stuck with the Urban Development Department questioning us why cars are required and why segregation needs to be done. As a Mayor or elected representative, we don’t have chequq signing powers, that is as well given to theExecutive Officers, if any payment is made, we will not have any clue. I would like to suggest that the mayors’ or elected representatives’knowledge about their cities should be utilized and work between the State government and ULBs should be done in a coordinated manner. If I have to do the sewage work and someone else is responsible for providing water, it should be done together sothat the money and efforts are saved, and less inconvenience is caused to the public. Before the Implementation of any nationwide program it should be discussed with some mayors of different cities and there should a way to directly distribute the fundsto the ULBs. There is no ULB that is self-reliant or self-sustained; we have always been dependent on grant-in-aid, it should be given as a right as we are the ones who are questioned by the people.
Govind Singh Tank, Mayor, Udaipur
The city of Udaipur has a population of 5 Lakhs, and as it covers mostly the tourist belt, people here had the fear succumbing to the coronavirus pandemic. In the hospitals, special corona wards were set up, but the problem came up when the sanitations workers backed out. So, we decided to make them understand the ongoing situation and as directed by the District Administration, supplemented the cleanliness system. The entire system was 50 per cent supplemented which built the confidence in sanitation workers to work for the society. The sanitizationwas done of all the 70 wards in Udaipur as well asthe areas where corona positive cases were reported, and curfew was imposed. As Udaipur is semi-hilly area with narrow streets, the sanitization cars could not go to some places so there through manual pumps sanitization was done. We made sure that water was not collected anywhere, drainage systems were well maintained, all the sanitation workers are honored, and food packets are distributed to all the 2000 sanitation workers as an incentive. The funds for the food packets were provided by the MLAs from their MLA led fund, maximum food packets were prepared by the Bhamashah of Udaipur while the distribution part was done by Municipal Committee officers. In the trains that were run during this pandemic to send people back to their native states, food, water bottles and other facilities were provided to them which as a result created a positive image of the Municipal committee among people.The State government and District administration are well coordinated with the municipal committees and themayors in Rajasthan are given enough powers by the state government but the provision for funds from Central or State government during emergencies should be there so that municipal committees can work effectively. Apart from the taxes collected till date, I would suggest that the taxes from network providers like Jio, BSNL, who lay their lines by digging up roads, should also be collected.
Pandey concluded the session by lauding the efforts of mayors and municipal committees and said that by financially improving the situation of mayors and ULBs with some policy level changes, they can be empowered.