Maximum mess

| Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on June 21, 2015

Floods in Mumbai highlight the shambles most of our urban civic bodies are in. It’s time to rethink the model

One of the first buildings to come up in GIFT city — the new international financial district coming up in Gujarat — is likely to be a 25-floor tower being built by the BSE Brokers Forum. Mumbai’s indefatigable stockbroker community, which helped develop the Bombay Stock Exchange into an icon of Indian capital markets and helped make the city India’s financial capital, has clearly decided that it’s time to hedge its bets. One can’t blame them. Last week, just one spell of heavy rains brought Mumbai yet again to a grinding halt. Streets were flooded, suburban rail services halted, air connectivity hampered and India’s largest corporates hit with massive productivity losses as staff simply could not make it to work. The Shiv Sena, which has been in power at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for 25 years, and which had highlighted the monsoon preparedness of the city as one of its achievements, was forced to call off its 50th anniversary celebrations because of the flooding.

Political rivals have predictably lambasted the Sena, but the mess in Mumbai is symptomatic of the mess most of our urban local bodies are in. Delhi is reeling under mountains of uncleared garbage, thanks to a municipal worker strike engendered by a failure of the municipal bodies to pay sweepers. Chennai’s transportation infrastructure is badly stretched, and Kolkata is in no better shape. The tale, with a few rare exceptions, is no different in other cities. The root cause of most of the problems in our civic bodies can be traced to money. Most civic bodies are financially stressed. Although empowered to levy taxes, tolls and fees, few have come up with imaginative revenue mobilisation powers. Octroi, which needs to be abolished, continues to be the major source of income for Mumbai, for instance. Political one-upmanship has also hampered devolution of adequate funds from State to local governments. Corruption and a lack of managerial bandwidth are the deadly toppings to this mess.

It is time the model of local self-governance is revisited. Municipal administrations need to be professionalised and expert supervision needs to be brought in over the development plans hatched by civic bodies. Politicisation of city administrations and the absence of accountability among municipal staff have only worsened a situation already made intolerable by endemic corruption. The financial structure of our local bodies needs a complete overhaul, starting with basic municipal accounts, many of which are still in the outmoded cash system. Civic bodies need to adopt outcome budgeting as well so that citizens can assess delivery against promise. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to address chiefs of 500 municipal bodies on June 25. That would be a good time to initiate some changes. For, without change, our cities can only wait helplessly for the next disaster to overwhelm them.

Published on June 21, 2015
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