Decentralisation Can Build Better Cities

Decentralisation Can Build Better Cities

The current model of city governance is centralised, with multiple agencies.

Milind MhaskeUpdated: Thursday, March 28, 2024, 12:10 PM IST
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Urban centres have historically played a vital role in shaping India’s socioeconomic fabric. Today, as we stand at the forefront of rapid urbanisation and economic growth, with the $5 trillion vision for our economy, it’s imperative to optimise the potential of cities as the primary economic engines. Investing in the empowerment of city governments will not only make them more resilient but also optimise their contribution to the overall growth. To do so, it is essential to critically examine three key factors: who is in charge of governing the cities, what resources they have, and how citizens can participate in the process. The city’s mayor (the head of the city) and councilors, too, should be empowered to ensure the development of the city is done with a vision.

Who is in charge of governing the cities?

The current model of city governance is centralised, with multiple agencies. The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act 1992, has directed states to devolve 18 functions to city governments. However, so far, none has completely devolved all functions. The 18 functions include urban planning, construction and maintenance of roads, solid waste management, water supply and other basic amenities, which are effectively delivered by a city government.

Solid waste management

As exemplified in Indore (consistently acknowledged as India’s cleanest city), complete devolution of solid waste management function to the city government has resulted in good practices of waste segregation, collection, and disposal. Another mechanism for effective infrastructure and civic services development is the constitution of Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs), as observed in CIDCO-driven urban planning and development of Navi Mumbai. The SPVs could further be enhanced if city governments were to preside over them, departing from their current model as parastatal agencies. This approach will not only ensure that SPVs are tailored to local needs and resources but also expand to the city level. A successful model in this regard can be found in BEST under the BMC, which oversees the delivery of city bus services. BEST’s hyper-localised function has resulted in multiple initiatives that are among the most successful in India, including mobile tickets, passes, live tracking, and live seat status.

Resources for governance

The availability of resources and the ability to access them are critical factors in sustaining economic development and improving the quality of life. Currently, cities heavily rely on grants provided by the state and the Centre, with limited revenue of their own. A national study on municipal finance conducted by Praja Foundation revealed that, on an average, grants make up 60% of a civic body’s income. For a few cities, it’s higher than 90%. Self-sustenance will ensure that cities can support their organisational set-up and delivery of public services. Furthermore, cities can invest in the development of critical human resources. It would help bridge the talent acquisition gap and ensure the selection of qualified personnel.

Citizen engagement

Citizen engagement plays a pivotal role in addressing hyperlocal concerns, which is why it is imperative to grant citizens a voice in the decision-making process, in turn gradually transforming them into institutions of direct and participatory democracy. There is provision of platforms such as ‘area sabha’ and ward committees in the 74th Constitution Amendment Act, 1993. However, as per findings from Praja’s Urban Governance Index 2020, only nine out of 29 cities have functional committees, with only 12 constituting them.

Only three out of 29 have functional area/ward sabha; 10 have not constituted them. Moreover, harnessing the power of technological advancements helps establish consistent communication between citizens and the government. An illustration is the Centralised Complaint Registration System (CCRS) by the BMC. Decentralisation of governance through effective devolution of functions, capacity building and leveraging technology hold the key to democratic empowerment of cities.

(The author is CEO of Praja Foundation, a non-partisan organisation working towards enabling accountable governance since 1997)

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