The Need to Empower Our Cities

It took over 45 years after the attainment of freedom to push the agenda of giving constitutional status to our urban local bodies. But the 74th Constitution Amendment Act left it to the states to decide to what extent powers will be given to the elected bodies, generally referred to as the third level of governance.

01 April, 2016 Opinion, Urban Development
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It took over 45 years after the attainment of freedom to push the agenda of giving constitutional status to our urban local bodies. But the 74th Constitution Amendment Act left it to the states to decide to what extent powers will be given to the elected bodies, generally referred to as the third level of governance. The Twelfth Schedule which was added to the Constitution through this Amendment lists 18 functions. Power of imposing taxes etc by the local bodies is again dependent on what the legislature of the state decides as per provision of article 243X. So, each state has a legislation as to what its urban bodies can do and what resource generation powers they have.

The positives of this Amendment are that it gave constitutional recognition to the local governments, their constitutional right to exist was guaranteed and they could no longer be superseded whenever the state governments felt like doing so and it was seen as the harbinger of a new era of empowered system of urban local government. But the follow up has not been all that impressive.

It does not look like the states have taken proper implementation of this agenda seriously. Other than states like West Bengal and Kerala which has been taking progressive steps with regard to this requirement of empowering the third level of governance, nothing substantial has happened across the country in the states. The Model Municipal Law circulated to the states provides enough guidance to states and acts as a resource to states as to what to include in the legislation. It classifies municipal functions into three categories namely, core functions such as water supply, drainage and sewerage, solid waste management, transportation systems etc, additional functions assigned by government such as primary education, curative health, supply of energy etc and other functions like town planning, health and sanitation etc. The Kerala municipal legislation clearly says that functions are to be assigned by law and once assigned can be withdrawn or modified only by a similar law.

In effect, the reform measure called for decision by the states on the functions to be treated as core, assigned and other. For assigned functions, state governments had to consider and decide when is it appropriate to transfer them, given municipal capacities and what funding mechanisms will underwrite the services. Nothing much happened in states in this regard. Are the state leaderships somewhat unwilling to part with their powers and strengthen the local bodies or there has not been enough pressure on them to decide on this important aspect in a time bound manner? Are the urban local bodies themselves not very keen to take up these additional responsibilities?

The question is not whether we should empower our cities but how quickly and steadily we should be doing that. Should we not go according to the principle of subsidiarity so that what can be done best at the city level is done there itself? We have 4,041 urban local bodies of varying sizes and characteristics, we have another 3,894 census towns which in effect are not notified urban areas. Only some states, Tamil Nadu cities added recently, have directly elected Mayors for full five year terms but generally such Mayors or Chairpersons complain that they do not have much powers. Either it is vested in the committee system or with the executive.

Since a uniform approach to appreciating governance issues of all our cities and towns will not be relevant in view of the complexity of issues, we may start with the mega cities. The absence of a proper vision and an integrated approach to overall, integrated development of the large city can be easily appreciated, if we take up one or two areas as examples. In the city of Mumbai, city bus transport is with the municipal corporation, suburban train services are with the central government oufit of Railways, metro is with a joint venture of the state and the centre, vehicle licensing issues are the domain of the state Transport department, traffic management is with the Police, some roads are with the Public Works department or the National Highways Authority and on top of this, one or the other of the 17 agencies which run the city, is likely to have something to do with city transport and its management. Where does the Mayor or the Municipal Commissioner figure in this? Only marginally.

How have major cities of the world addressed the issue of proper governance systems for those areas? The London Metropolitan area was governed by the Greater London Council which was abolished in the 1980s. But in 1999 they had to get back to a system of legislating for a Greater London Authority (GLA) with a directly elected Mayor and a London Assembly. The entire Greater London Region is governed by the Mayor who is directly elected, the London Assembly which has 25 directly elected members and 32 Borough Councils with clearly defined political and functional domains. Thus the GLA has a primarily strategic function and is responsible for the London Plan and the Boroughs are responsible for most operational service delivery. The four key organisations with the GLA deliver the Mayor’s vision for London and these four are: Transport for London, London development Agency, London Fire and Emergency planning authority and Metropolitan Police Authority. The Assembly must be consulted by the Mayor during the preparation of GLA strategies which also has to consider the budget for each of the above four bodies. In this arrangement the Mayor is powerful, has some statutory authority over
the Boroughs.

Is a strong Mayor form of government appropriate? Proponents of the model see it as offering clarity of leadership and streamlined functioning of the city government. It also allows the voters to see the Mayor clearly as the one whom they should hold accountable for the performance of the city government. Also, it clearly separates the oversight responsibility of the council, which tends to be diluted when the council also is empowered to take executive decisions. Despite criticisms and differing views, the strong Mayor form of government has become popular and many countries, both developed and developing, have gone in for this model. France, Germany and Spain in Europe are the most prominent examples. It has also gained increased prominence in the UK following the local government reforms which led to the introduction of the GLA system. Most of the largest US cities also have directly elected Mayors.

Another example which could be taken is that of Tokyo Metropolitan Region. With over 35 million people, the region consists of 23 wards, 26 cities, 5 towns and 8 villages. This Metropolitan region government has a directly elected Metropolitan Governor, Metropolitan Assembly as the final decision-making body with 127 directly elected members and autonomous 23 Special Wards and 39 Municipalities with their own elected Mayors and local governments performing some municipal functions. In the 23 special wards, the metropolitan government takes on some of the administrative responsibilities of a city such as water supply and sewerage services and fire fighting in order to ensure provision of uniform, efficient services while the Wards have the autonomy to independently handle affairs close to the lives of the residents. The administrative and financial systems for the metropolitan government and its 39 municipalities are the same.

Toronto’s is an example of being a true metropolitan government. There is a single tier metropolitan city government and all local government functions, including those previously invested in special districts and underlying municipalities, rest within the metropolitan government. A different model was introduced in Manila where the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, the overlapping area wide government, whose Chair is appointed by the President, is responsible for planning and for delivering or co-ordinating services with a metro wide impact such as transportation, flood control, sewerage, urban renewal, zoning, health, sanitation and public safety. The local government units which are elected bodies are responsible for local functions.

In all this where does the citizen come in? Many US cities try to overcome representation and participation problems by having citizens serve on various advisory commissions, neighbourhood councils etc. In the Philippines, the local government code mandates that all provincial and municipal governments establish a local development council to set the direction of economic and social development and review local government’s budgets. In Bolivia, the 1994 Law of Popular Participation created local vigilance committees to monitor activities of elected local government bodies and to participate in local planning and budget creation. In Japan, in response to widespread perception of local government corruption, a civic movement began establishing citizen ombudsmen in various municipalities. This initiative spread throughout the country and led to formation of the national Citizen Ombudsman Liaison Council and recognition of the mechanism in government statutes.

We have not focussed on the complex issues of governance of our very large cities and do not have authentic reports on the subject of how to reorient mega city or metropolitan governance. The report on Indian Urban Infrastructure and Services of March 2011 recommended an empowered Mayor system with effective devolution.

What is required is a distinct entity of governance, which partakes and shares some of the functions presently discharged by the state government in a rather hierarchical and exclusionary manner.

The Metropolitan Commissioner is a crucial position in the composition of this council. Since the Metropolitan Commissioner becomes the most important functionary in such a set up, it is necessary that he should be one with appropriate rank and status commensurate with responsibilities. Such a person could have the rank of not less than the chief secretary of the state or preferably even a minister of state.

An essential pre-condition is the acceptance that a Metropolitan Development Authority, Council, Board or whatever it is called, will have to fulfil a comprehensive multi-sectoral mandate for metropolitan governance rather than functioning merely as one more sectoral or line agency. It also needs a high degree of autonomy.

The key questions which arise with regard to the third level of governance in our country are:

  1. Given that our urban local bodies need more powers to be able to perform better and deliver better, are the states prepared to empower these bodies by taking decisions and bringing about changes in their municipal legislations?
  2. When this is to be done, it has to be for all the 4,041 urban local bodies of varying sizes in the country. Who is going to take a call on this?
  3. This question becomes even more important when there are critical issues to be settled such as how much of devolution of funds, what all functions will be placed at the level of these bodies, what will be done to improve capacities and have performing, professional municipal cadres at that level?
  4. Will we have empowered Mayors and Chairpersons with a five year tenure for each rather than continue with limited terms of one year or so as is the case in many states now? How will they be held accountable?
  5. What effective steps will the states take, so that the urban bodies will be in a position to raise more resources locally and what enhanced limits of freedom in this regard will be given to them?

There cannot be two opinions about the point that from a priority angle, our mega cities are the ones badly in need of reforms and changes as far as governance is concerned. Why?

A global research project undertaken by two independent research organisations, after interviewing over 500 public and private sector experts, Mayors, city administrators and other persons, listed the following findings as to why mega cities are critical:

  • Mega cities prioritise economic competitiveness and employment;
  • The environment matters, but may be sacrificed for growth – air pollution is the most significant environmental challenge, followed by congestion issues;
  • Transport overtakes all other infrastructure concerns;
  • Better governance is a vital step towards better cities;
  • Holistic solutions are desired, but are difficult to achieve;
  • Cities will seek to improve services, but could do more to manage demand;
  • Technology will help to deliver transparency and efficiency; and,
  • The private sector has a role to play in increasing efficiency.

Further there are clear findings as to what all needs to be done-

  • Metropolitan governance has become increasingly complex as cities have morphed into agglomerations combining multiple administrative organisations and jurisdictions. This has led to calls for a complete reassessment of urban governance. Mega cities also need innovative funding strategies.
  • A wealth of depressing statistics drive home the scale of urban poverty. In a UN Habitat report, Kofi Annan, the then Secretary General of the UN comments that efforts to improve the lives of the urban poor have not kept up with the rate of urbanisation.
  • Long-term strategic planning emerges as the single biggest problem facing city managers. The call for better city governance is echoed in a related issue, the need for more efficiency in the management and implementation of infrastructure.
  • The underlying reason for poor planning is poor coordination and a lack of leadership. There is also a clear stakeholder emphasis on holistic urban management over separated responsibilities. It takes more time in Mumbai to process typical municipal tasks such as building plans or construction regulation. A government task force identified improved governance as a key step towards Mumbai becoming a world class city
  • One implication of the research is that the traditional model of municipal government may need to be reconsidered. As opposed to having many departments based around a single discipline, cities might adopt ‘local area teams’ that offer the multi disciplinary skills required to deliver integrated solutions at a local level.

Without the centre taking the initiative and the states coming to an agreement as to what governance changes are to be implemented, I do not see any immediate solution to the critical problem we are facing. There was some sort of a beginning in this direction some years back when a Sub committee of Chief Ministers constituted by the National Development Council came up with the following recommendations (regarding governance issues) for action:

  • The Urban local Bodies shall be empowered by devolution of all the 18 functions listed in the 12th schedule along with the concomitant funds and functionaries.
  • The GOI shall draft and place before Parliament a Framework law by building on the Municipal Law already circulated to ensure that there is a fair degree of uniformity in the legislative and institutional framework for the ULBs.
  • Three tiered administration consisting of municipal council/corporation, wards committees and area committees or area sabhas shall be instituted in urban local governments
  • For all metropolitan cities, MPC as articulated in the 74th amendment shall be established on a priority basis, For mega cities, a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority shall be established. For cities with above five million population, a Metropolitan Environment Authority and a Metropolitan Police authority shall be established.

When an Expert Group is to be set up to draft the Framework Law, as recommended by this Group, since it is expected to address all the lacunae observed in present legal framework governing the municipal bodies, I think this could be one route through which the mega city governance issue and the changes required in the structure could get taken up. What is required now is to generate detailed discussions as to what governance systems should be put in position for the very large cities, say either ten million plus or five million plus.

(M Ramachandran is Distinguished Fellow, Skoch Development Foundation. The views and opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect the views of INCLUSION.)

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