Setting a template to solve the urban mess

Raghu Dayal | Updated on July 11, 2018

Urban woes Delhi’s plethora of elected representatives seem to be working at cross purposes REUTERS   -  REUTERS

Problems in India’s large cities need a new governance paradigm and the Centre must lead the way

It is the cities and towns, where citizens’ daily travails in terms of paani, bijli, sadak, sanitation, housing, schooling and healthcare extensively impact public perception of a government’s performance. While annual inundation of cities, daily loss of lives and injuries on roads, frequent fire infernos highlight continued dysfunctional civic and municipal governance, failed zoning resulting in burgeoning thicket of illegal buildings and structures as revealed in current “sealing” over-drive in Delhi shows how deep the rot runs.

Most problems for most people need to be solved at the local level. It was the Modi magic which helped the BJP retain its sway on Delhi municipalities last year, despite an overwhelming impression of the BJP-dominated MCD being ineffectual and corrupt. As per popular perception, Delhiites hoped MCD in concert with the Modi sarkar would strive for a really swachchha city to emerge.

Modi promised the country better governance and less government. The capital city was the place to start. In view of Delhi seeped for decades in a culture perpetrated by thriving mafia of wheelers and dealers, the government at the Centre had an opportunity to set an example of civic administration, showcasing a template of a clean and caring city, planning for future, developing for the present.

Notwithstanding the colossal resources expended, the Capital city is, for an ordinary citizen, a city with laissez faire growth, a polluted miseropolis with crime, grime and chaos, sitting on a garbage volcano, the delivery of its services hampered by technical inefficiency, outright waste, besides ubiquitous graft.

Urban problems are not urban in isolation; they are national problems. Reflecting pathetic governance, also as revealed by the Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems 2017 report, public perception endures — of cities in dire need of duly empowered municipality as an institution, and institutional systems and processes for closely coordinated and accountable agencies for delivery in areas such as sanitation, health, education, mobility, and housing.

Remake urgent

With a plethora of elected and other agencies, the governance structure for Delhi is in need of drastic re-make. In addition to 272 councillors in three Municipalities, 70 MLAs in the NCT government, seven MPs, there is the New Delhi Municipal Council for the cloistered Lutyens zone, and Cantonment Board, not to talk of the Union government controlling its land and policing. Too many intervening institutions, often with overlapping jurisdictions and sometimes contradictory goals, make for sub-optimal output and outcome.

The erstwhile unified MCD was among the world’s largest municipal bodies, covering an area of 1,397 sq km, responsible for civic services to over 11 million citizens. East Delhi Municipal Corporation incurs annual expenditure of ₹1,200 crore, but has income of just about ₹750 crore. It gets property tax from only about 200,000 properties out of around 600,000 of them it has. The North Corporation generates about ₹1,400 crore of annual revenue against ₹2,200 crore of its expenditure, half of which is spent on health and education.. Strangely, it runs 715 schools with 350,000 children, besides five hospitals. It is saddled with 55,000 employees, accounting for an annual salary bill of ₹2,100 crore.

The mega-scale migration is Delhi’s special woe. It has steadily risen from a level of 38 per cent during 1961-71 to around 60 per cent. With people pouring into the city and cars pouring on to roads, the outlook for the environment looks grim. The city goes on piling over 5,000 tonne of refuse every day. The number of jhuggis shot up from 12,000 in 1951 to half a million now. It has some 7.5 million registered vehicles. If population and disease don’t kill, the Capital’s roads do. More than 2,000 people die in traffic accidents each year.

Pampered child?

In a way, Delhi is hailed as the country’s pampered child, its annual per capita income of ₹3.29 lakh (2017-18) being almost thrice that of the whole country. According to 2011 census, of a total of 3.34 million households in Delhi, 3.31 million had electricity, 2.62 million safe drinking water, and 2.99 million toilet facilities. Even so, over a million of its people are without dwellings; it has almost 250,000 homeless people, 49 per cent of its population in slums and unauthorised colonies.

Resources are siphoned off in myriad specious ways — roads are laid and carpeted, only to disappear or deep-cratered in the next rainfall. Thousands of unauthorised settlements and buildings spring up, all regularised sooner or later.

Countless encroachments devour the green belt and create lucrative real estates. MCDs have a formidable force of safai karmacharis, but can one count even 10 per cent of them on duty doing a day’s honest work? Likewise, only a fraction of its fleet of dumpers and refuse collectors is deployed on active work.

High wages with little accountability for actual service delivery make public sector agencies an obvious target for patronage hiring, which also results in massive over-staffing. An essential concomitant feature needs to be privatisation of civic delivery services like cleaning of roads and drains.

Conservancy services deserve a senior level exclusive administration. Waste management demands professionalism and technologies.

The use of biotechnology should help in the treatment and disposal of waste; information technology in city planning and service-delivery options; energy saving and cleaner technologies in urban transport; and high-tech, low-cost materials in building and housing. Technology could assist the cities, incorporating user-based charges for access to roads, electricity, and water. Major economies can be achieved by sharing service areas such as billing and tariff collections, cable laying and maintenance.

As China envisions three big urban clusters: (i) along the Pearl River, (ii) Yangtze River, and (iii) the Beijing-Tianjin corridor — each with 50 million people or more, the NCR, aiming at relieving pressure on Delhi, needed to be treated as a Common Economic Zone, with rationalised inter-State tax structure, uniform financial/banking services, telecom facilities and power supply, integrated education policy, health policy, rail and road transport network, water supply and drainage system.

Funds, not an issue

It is not a case of the want of funds; it is more an issue of governance and delivery. In most cities municipalities are viewed as dens of corruption and inaction. Inspectors do not inspect, they only extort. A structured, mandatory inspection system is the very sine qua non of effective delivery. Councillors and commissioners don’t regularly move around their wards and activity centres; they remain inaccessible to people.

Owing to its great importance for national reconstruction and countrywide impact, especially for India’s large cities — Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru — the real catalyst for NCR’s clean, caring, efficient and effective local self-governance needs to be the Union government.

A compact, much less diffused and pruned, structure will hopefully usher in a promising paradigm of urban management, worthy of being replicated across the country.

The primary need is for the delivery apparatus to be transformed into a compact and cohesive formation for the city to first address the basic problems before it dreams of striding towards the goal of being really swachchha and smart.

The writer is a former CMD of Concor

Published on July 11, 2018

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