After the central government and state governments, the next level is closer to people in the urban local body or village panchayat who are being constitutionally recognized under the 74th Constitution amendment of 1992, even though we had the municipal corporation of Chennai existing since 1688 and of Calcutta and Bombay since 1726.
Local government is a state subject and though the constitutional amendment provided constitutional status to municipalities, the prerogative of the respective state legislature to determine powers, functions, and responsibility of municipal bodies was maintained. So even though the legitimacy of the local bodies has been ensured, the amendment by itself did not lead to any structural change in the municipal system.
States have built upon this requirement of providing governance through local governments, thereby taking it closer to the people, differently. The 18 functions which could be assigned to urban local bodies as per schedule 12 of the constitution have been handled differently by different state governments. Some have transferred all these functions but many have done it partially. Still, the issues of funds, functions, and functionaries fully decentralized to the urban local bodies continue to remain live.
The central government has made efforts through the linking of central schemes for urban areas with the reform agenda of ensuring the transfer of all these functions to the urban bodies and to make them effective in line with the principle of subsidiarity.
But the question that arises is that – why cannot our urban bodies be fully responsible for key areas of activities affecting water supply, waste management, drainage, sewage, city transport, and e-governance. One reason is that the constitutional amendment did not lay down revenue base for the urban bodies and the State Finance Commission mechanism has not worked effectively to bring about change. Empowering to improve own generation and ensuring better devolution of funds from the states are major requirements.
For instance, municipalities in Brazil enjoy broad autonomy regarding levying taxes and their constitution defines a system of unconditional transfers between federal, state, and municipal governments. It is worth considering, to make local governments more effective, whether like the union and state lists in the constitution, can we have a local bodies list as well?
If local bodies are to play a more active and accountable role in the case of functions assigned to them, the municipal cadre structure must change. Specialized work requires competent professionals in municipal administration to oversee performance and to plan appropriately for the future. A typical city corporation in a state like Karnataka has five main heads next to the commissioner, namely chief accounts officer, chief engineer, revenue officer, chief development officer, and chief health officer.
Solid waste management is a complex subject needing proper leadership. Raising resources, tying up for PPP‘s, environment management, urban mobility are all areas that require competent professional leadership at the local body level. Norms of staffing patterns also require review. Our urban bodies should be able to focus on the best possible service delivery and have to be accountable for the same. The importance of the shift from infrastructure creation to delivery of service outcomes has to be recognized at the local level.
The other questions – are our local bodies confident to talk about water supply in terms of coverage, per capita supply, the extent of continuity of supply, quality, metering, the extent of non-revenue water, cost recovery, efficiency in collection of water charges, efficiency in the redressal of complaints and all such basics? Can they present before the residents the roadmap for making water available 24 x 7 as per norms, to all the households of the city/ town representing future requirements as well?
The 13th Finance Commission had said state governments must gradually put in place standards for all essential services provided by local bodies and the 14th Finance Commission repeated the point that urban local bodies will have to measure and publish service level benchmarks for basic services.
The head of a private water utility in London accepted through a public statement in 2019 that they have not met the water leakage target for the year and find it unacceptable, apologized wholeheartedly and assured that the penalty they will pay for this as determined by the water regulator, will be transferred to the customers through their bills from the next year. That is how a utility is subjected to the norms of accountability of performance.
To take local governments closer to the people, there are two measures which if made effective and functional, can make a big difference as far as making local governments ‘ vocal’. The Constitution amendment earlier referred to provides for Ward committees to be constituted below the level of the local body council. Each state legislature has to make provisions for this and see to it that they become functional.
The center had circulated to the states a model Nagara Raj Bill which had listed their functions, their rights, and duties as well. Such ward committees can play a proactive role in preparing ward budgets, supervision, and coordinating of various development works, ensuring universal access to the key public services and overall, this mechanism can be converted into one where people of the area can proactively contribute to the development agenda of the area. It is for the states to legislate for their constitution and make them effective. Most of the states have not taken this agenda forward.
Recently, the CAG performance audit of Karnataka local bodies has pointed out that ward committees have not been constituted in any of the city corporations except Bangalore.
Yet another step that can take local governments closer to people is the constitution of area sabhas at the level of each polling station or a group of polling stations, as decided by each state government through legislation. The community participation law which each state government was expected to legislate as part of the reform agenda under the national urban mission was to make such a provision but except for a very limited number of states like Andhra Pradesh, the agenda has not been taken forward.
In making local ‘ vocal’, both ward committees and area sabhas can play a key role in generating and maintaining basic data/information about the residents, in constantly monitoring service delivery, reporting deficiencies, providing a network that can promptly and efficiently highlight issues and requirements, encourage citizen participation and promote the creation of local leadership, the very essence of local governance.
In times of pandemic, the areas sabhas can provide inputs to the local body administration about people needing help, who are single, disabled, living alone, needing constant medical attention, migrants and workers who are stranded and needing support, linkages required with a supply of certain essential items locally not available, deficiencies in service delivery and so on which in turn could have positively influenced more informed decision making at the local body level.
For instance, the Gurugram city administration utilizing the otherwise idle city buses to go to different parts of the city to provide provisions and such essential items as per a pre-publicized rotation arrangement.
Local governments can be made vocal as far as areas of local administration are concerned. This will give people the feeling of being participative in the process of governance. Local body governance can move closer to people. States have to take the initiative to legislate for these institutions at the local level. Also, it is time that the state governments recognize the effective role local bodies can play in areas earmarked for them and considered better handled at that level.
Some changes have to come about as regards resource position, professionalization of cadres, and encouraging the growth of both local accountability and improved performance at that level. The swachh Bharat mission has proved how useful a contribution local leadership can make when they get actively involved. With formal mechanisms coming into existence, it should be possible to better implement goals like what the AMRUT scheme talks about in terms of the primary purpose being covering all households with a water supply and sewerage.
The author is a former Secretary to the government in the Ministry of Urban Development.
Dr. M Ramachandran
Feature image is for representational purposes only