Pace of City-Systems reforms in India is painfully slow; cities need to address challenges urgently


Excerpts from “The Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS) 2017: Shaping India’s urban agenda”*, prepared by the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a Bengaluru based not-for-profit institution:

Our cites presently have broken City-Systems and are improving at a snail’s pace. They score between 3.0 and 5.1 while London and New York score 8.8. Johannesburg, a city from a developing country scores 7.6. Scores of benchmark cities indicate how far our City-Systems need to be strengthened before we can expect our cities to deliver good quality of life. The graph below shows the slow pace at which scores have improved – the average score has moved from 3.4 to just 3.9 over the last three years.

India’s cities need to address the following five systemic challenges in order to deliver better quality of life to citizens in a sustainable manner. These are:

  1. Lack of a modern, contemporary framework of spatial planning of cities and design standards for public utilities
  2. Weak finances, both in terms of financial sustainability and financial accountability of cities
  3. Poor human resource management, in terms of number of staff, skills and competencies of staff, organisation design and performance management
  4. Powerless mayors and city councils and severe fragmentation of governance across municipalities, parastatal agencies and state departments
  5. Total absence of systematic citizen participation and transparency

Well-made and well-executed Spatial Development Plans (SDP) lie at the heart of economically vibrant, equitable, environmentally sustainable and democratically engaged cities. India’s cities suffer from acute lack of planning. Our evaluation reveals several issues across the planning PIE (Preparation, Implementation and Enforcement). Outdated town & country planning acts, a large majority of which were drafted well before India’s economic liberalisation and subsequent population growth have spawned a whole range of challenges such as urban sprawls, choked mobility networks, high carbon emissions, lack of affordable housing, rising income inequality, low economic productivity etc.

The town and country planning acts are only instruments of change. There are several reform agendas that need to be part of their overhaul. Firstly, they need to mandate creation of three tiers of SDPs at the metropolitan, municipal and ward levels with nested timelines. These SDPs need to have sectoral plans within them, such as mobility plans. The law needs to provide for proper and timely preparation, implementation and enforcement of SDPs (the planning PIE). It needs to have performance measures as an integral part, to measure the success of SDPs.

Citizen participation in SDPs, particularly at the ward level, will need to find place in this new and improved law. So also a single GIS base map for the city across the municipality and all public utilities and state departments. Institutions and institutional mechanisms such as metropolitan planning committees, spatial planning boards, spatial data centres and others required for the functioning of the spatial planning framework will need to be conceived through the law. India’s cities do not have design standards for roads. Roads are networks for other public utilities too-footpaths, bus stops, water and sewerage networks, storm water drains, power cables, optical fibre networks and traffic surveillance all depend on road networks. Proper design standards for roads can transform not just mobility but also other utilities.

Cities need significant amounts of capital to invest in not just creating new infrastructure and catching up on service delivery deficits, but also for revenue expenditure such as operations and maintenance and hiring of talent. On average, the cities assessed in this study, generate only 39% of the funds they spend, leaving them highly dependent on state and central government grants. Our analysis revealed that for several cities, their own revenues do not even cover staff salaries. Lack of adequate own revenue sources severely constrains the ability of our cities to invest in infrastructure and service delivery.

cities3However, with the abysmal standards of financial management and accountability systems existing in Indian cities today, enhancing revenues will be akin to pouring money down a leaky bucket. This is evident in the fact that no Indian city, barring Guwahati, is required to have a Medium or Long Term Fiscal Plan (MTFP/LTFP) in place. No city is required to mandatorily undertake external audit of annual accounts or internal audits. The weak state of budget management is also evident in budget variance figures (budget v/s actuals) which on average over last three years is 36% across cities and as high as 75% in the cities of Raipur and Ranchi.

Arguably the single most important City-System for India’s cities presently is that of urban capacities. Our cities do not have adequate number of skilled staff. Their HR policies are outdated and HR systems and processes broken. The average staff vacancy is 35%, with the highest vacancy being 60% in the case of Guwahati. These vacancies have been evaluated against sanctioned posts, which themselves in many cases have not been updated in a scientific manner commensurate with the growth of cities. None of the cities has cadre and recruitment rules that contain modern job descriptions covering both technical skills and managerial competencies for each role or position in the municipality.

Commissioners of cities do not possess adequate domain experience in urban management constraining their ability to deliver strongly. On average, commissioners only have 2.7 years of experience in urban management. Medium-sized cities have commissioners with 1.2 years of urban management experience, whereas large and mega cities have commissioners with 2.9 and 4.1 years respectively. Commissioners in Ludhiana, Guwahati, Dehradun, Kanpur, Ranchi, Thiruvananthapuram and Chandigarh have less than a year’s experience in urban management. While it is true that 15 out of the 23 cities have access to a municipal cadre, the underlying rules are quite weak. What we need in our cities are robust and modern HR policies which have normative standards for job roles and number of positions, clearly defined job descriptions covering both technical skills and managerial competencies, principles in respect of organisation design and span of control, a comprehensive performance management system, staff benefit policies and learning and development policies.

cities4Mayors and councils in our cities are toothless. They don’t have full decision-making authority over critical functions and services such as planning, housing, water, environment, fire and emergency services etc. On average, only 9 out of the 18 functions under the 74th CAA have been effectively devolved. Large cities such as Bhopal, Kanpur and Lucknow have a directly elected mayor with five year tenure, compared to mega cities such as Bengaluru and Delhi which have an indirectly elected mayor with one year tenure.

Mayors and councils also cannot hire and fire their own management teams, severely constraining their ability to exact accountability for performance from city officials. They have limited say when it comes to investing or borrowing monies or finalising budgets – only four cities assessed can borrow without the sanction of state governments (with a debt-limitation policy), of which one is a medium sized city and three are large cities. Only seven cities can invest without prior state government approval, of which three are large cities and four are mega cities.

Only 11 out of 23 have full independence in budget-setting. Of these 11, one is a medium sized city, six are large cities and four are mega cities. All of the above have resulted in the municipality becoming a glorified service provider, far from a local selfgovernment or a city government. Parastatal agencies like the development authorities (which cover planning), water authorities or boards (that cover water and sewerage), transport corporations (that cover bus transport) report directly to state governments and to different departments/ministers within it. Exacerbating this fragmentation is the role of state departments, such as public works (roads) and police (traffic, law and order) which in many cities also have important roles to play in infrastructure and service delivery.

India’s cities are characterised by low levels of citizen participation and transparency. There are no structured platforms for citizen participation (such as ward committees and area sabhas), no coherent participatory processes (such as participatory budgeting), weak citizen grievance redressal mechanisms and very low levels of transparency in finances and operations. All of this put together has resulted in weak levels of engagement between citizens and governments, as a consequence low levels of trust and in general poor quality of democracy in a city.

Only 10 out of the 23 cities assessed have a Community Participation Law (CPL), a reform measure introduced under the JnNURM that mandates constitution of both ward committees and area sabhas for citizen participation. Even so, while most have constituted ward committees, only two cities, Guwahati and Hyderabad have constituted area sabhas. Citizen charters, powerful tools of accountability and grievance redressal, are missing in nine of the 23 cities assessed.

Where they do exist, there is no mention of service levels, and few mention timelines for service delivery and processes for obtaining relief where service levels are not met. An ombudsman, specifically for resolving such issues, is missing in all but three Indian cities, Bhubaneswar, Ranchi and Thiruvananthapuram. Data and information are useful only if they are easily usable by citizens. While PDF formats may be good say for citizens to look up a list of citizen service centres, they do not lend themselves to information on city finances and public works. To have citizens engage meaningfully, they have to be enabled with actionable information, aspect which an open data framework addresses – by not just allowing citizens to access data more easily, but also enabling civil society organisations, the media and others to aggregate and analyse information and drive advocacy efforts around specific causes. We find that 19 of the 23 Indian cities assessed are neither mandated to nor release basic yet important data sets in an open data format.

*Supported by IDFC Foundation and DASRA. Download full report HERE


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