TALK POINT: Can professionals and municipal bonds save our cities?

Dozens of our municipal corporations are set to issue financial bonds in the coming months to raise funds for developing smart cities. Over 90 urban local bodies have also got themselves rated in order to increase their ability to attract investment. Is this the best way to turn around the sorry state of our cities and how they are governed? We ask experts: Keshav Varma, Kishwar Desai, Manisha Priyam, Gautam Bhatia, Anjali Bhardwaj and Aromar Revi.

 

Bring professionals into municipal corporations, issue city bonds, fix India’s crippling urban crisis — KESHAV VARMA, Program Director for the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative, former Municipal Commissioner of Ahmedabad.

Our country is in the midst of a crippling urban crisis. Cities are becoming ugly, inefficient and unhealthy. The problem is that our cities are run by unprofessional sets of municipal employees who have no idea about the modern world. The city management is just not equipped to respond efficiently and runs things in a manner worse than a village. There are no trained planners, urban economists, environmental or finance experts.

Instead, what we have are unionised cadre and politicians whose accountability can’t be fixed. In China, cities are managed like companies and compete globally for investments by improving their local investment climate and ease of doing business.

Here, city governments are supposed to administer and clean the streets and keep manholes clean and hygienic. The JNNURM and now the Smart Cities programme are merely tinkering at the edges of the problem.

Professionalise the municipal corporations by bringing in MBAs, chartered accountants, engineers, urban poverty experts and trained urban officers. Let the municipal commissioner be a professional with urban management expertise. Run it like an efficient, modern company.

Cadre rules were changed to bring in professionals in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and run it efficiently, which helped it gain investment-grade credit rating. The city corporation can float a city bond and raise investment worth crores of rupees, like Ahmedabad successfully did.

Under the Smart City programme, fund at least 10 professionals in every city for the next five years including city planners, urban economists, micro finance and urban poverty experts who would then constitute the core management services division. Well-run cities can add at least 2 per cent to the GDP instead of being a drain on resources.

 

Accountability and continuous evaluation of municipalities is key, writes KISHWAR DESAI, Chairperson, Partition Museum Trust

The main argument behind professionalising the city services and handing it over to experts is definitely a good idea. But to allow these experts to make an impact, the current political structure of the municipal corporations has to be changed.

If you want to run city corporations professionally, accountability and continuous evaluation has to be a key part of the programme. It is not good enough to put in experts, if there are no targets which are transparent. We should not build another bureaucracy of ‘professionals’.

And it may not work, if they face endemic political interference.

The rationale behind the political nature of the corporations was perhaps to keep the body accountable and to instil a fear that they would be thrown out if they did not perform. Now that fear no longer exists.

Bringing in experts and local investment will not resolve anything, unless corruption can be rooted out. The problem has been a diversion of funds. In parts of Delhi, new public toilets are being built, but there is no monitoring for users’ feedback. As a result, many toilets are filthy and have no water in many of them.

In the UK, my local council is at the end of a phone line and I can call them if I have a problem. That is the kind of response system we need to build in India. A more transparent system of monitoring can impact public image of local bodies, which is the only thing that political parties care about here.

Local involvement, setting targets and evaluation drives are important. Each city has to be divided into smaller modules, each of which will need to compete with each other for better performance and client satisfaction.

We must evolve a system with an active website which will downgrade the ratings of a municipal body if complaints are not attended to within 24 hours. This requires political will.

 

No university wants to teach urban governance, writes MANISHA PRIYAM, Associate Professor, National University for Educational Planning and Administration 

I agree with Keshav Verma that our cities are in the midst of an urban crisis. But I find his diagnosis of what ails our cities to be very narrow. True, our cities are run by a handful of untrained bureaucratic professionals.  But our cities’ problem is that its most skilled workers belong to disadvantaged social castes and marginalised sections of society. Delhi’s drains and garbage are still dealt with by a small caste group of Dalits. None of their young want to take to this profession. Nor do high ranking universities wish to invest in skilling for a decent urban life.

The other major issue is city aesthetics — we need to love our history and heritage and not contest. Urban dwellings for the marginal must not be bereft of city history or aesthetics. Investment in public health is another area. Here too we must provide more for areas where the underprivileged live. Reducing city inequalities will go a long way in resolving this crisis.

We need professionals. But even more, we need to have a heart for our city.

 

Allow people to monitor the functioning of the municipality, writes ANJALI BHARDWAJ, activist with the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information

The current urban crisis in India is an outcome of a skewed development model which created pockets of economic opportunity where people in search of livelihood gravitate. Add to that the complete absence of urban planning to cope with the resultant population density.

India is not China. In a democracy, people cannot be banned from migrating into urban centres nor coerced into vacating cities. In the absence of meaningful and sustainable livelihood opportunities in rural areas, municipalities have no option but to be equipped to cope with the crisis.

Municipalities already employ scores of professionals, and can certainly employ more if needed, but the real challenge is to ensure that those who are employed work professionally and are accountable to the residents of the municipalities they serve. For that to happen, citizens must be empowered with information about the exact roles that municipal functionaries, including elected representatives to ULBs, are meant to perform.

To allow people to monitor the functioning of the municipality, comprehensive citizens’ charters laying out the rights of citizens and the obligations of the municipality must be prepared through extensive public consultation and widely disseminated. Municipal budgets must be easy to comprehend and publicly available with effective mechanisms for peoples’ participation in deciding how to allocate the resources available.

Finally, strong grievance redress mechanisms that make the supervisory structure in municipalities accountable are absolutely essential. If a grievance arises there must be a system of time bound hearing and action, with penal consequences not only for those responsible for the complaint arising but also their supervisors, whose job it is to ensure that municipal services are delivered properly.

 

The question is not whether our city should be governed like a business. But can it be governed at all?GAUTAM BHATIA, an architect and sculptor.

 

In the natural human urge for misery, the Indian city provides enough sustenance. It is uglier than London; poorer than Dhaka; unhealthier than Lahore; more crowded than Lagos, more miserly, polluted, selfish and uncouth than crime-infested Bogota.

Delhi, Gurgaon and Mumbai, are often used in case studies for what not to do in governance, urban policy and public health. In the rush to imitate Western, Southern, Eastern… any model, the Indian city will remain second rate and always Third World.

The question is not whether it should be governed as a business model, as a state, or as a municipality, but whether it can be governed at all.

Despite radically different political, commercial and social attitudes, cities like Tokyo, London or Singapore are similar: they have encouraged diversity of population and culture, preserved historic neighborhoods; upgrades come out of local consensus. Primary governance comes from citizen groups with local civic priorities. Private philanthropy funded New York’s theater, parks and libraries a century ago; Jerusalem allows citizens to veto building proposals they don’t like; a Stockholm civic ordinance allows apartment dwellers without access to a park, to use the gardens of private houses.

The essential nature of civic life abroad is formed out of a capacity to share, the government is an enforcer of equality.

The Indian city now – and of the future – is a city with a migrant majority. The business model is formulated out of the middle class fear of losing the city’s foothold to the new citizens. The new city must continue to exist on the ideal of freedom and equity. Build a model from the perspective of its resident majority: the migrant.

 

Domestic progress on sustainable urbanisation is weak and slow. Lack of money is just one problemAROMAR REVI, Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Co-Chair of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

 

A serious discussion on new financing arrangements for sustainable urbanisation has started across the world, especially in East Asia following the acceleration of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Yet, domestic progress on these questions are weak and slow. Is it possible that neither North Block nor Nirman Bhawan fully appreciate the potential economic and employment creation opportunities that India’s urban transformation presents?

Institutional capacity to address even day-to-day service delivery, let alone larger economic and infrastructure development processes, is poor. Constraints include huge understaffing, inadequate education, skills and training, poor compensation and career mobility, low morale, misaligned systems and processes. Local institutional capacity suffers despite a Constitutional mandate to strengthen Urban Local Bodies and the Finance Commission’s attempts to transfer funds to cities, if they establish some basic reforms.

Some recent progress in the Smart Cities mission include the credit rating of 94 cities to enable some of them to raise municipal bonds, and starting the lengthy process of establishing a domestic market to fund urban investment in infrastructure and services, building and housing.

The appetite and ability of most states to step out of their erstwhile patron-client relationship around central schemes of the government is low. Two major shifts in imagination are necessary. First, the political courage and foresight to devolve power from state capitals to cities, where the opportunities and challenges of much of India’s future development will be decided. Second, the ability to alter the post-GST intergovernmental fiscal arrangements to enable cities to both raise more of their own resources, but also help build a domestic municipal debt market and reach out to sources of international finance, that are not the traditional World Bank and ADB mandates.

 

(TalkPoint is an online huddle of experts. Track this post for more commentaries on the subject)

 

 

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