Poor governance burdens Indian cities, finds survey

Dharavi settlement near Mahim Junction in Mumbai, India

Dharavi settlement near Mahim Junction in Mumbai, India

  • A survey reveals India’s urban governance is ill-prepared for the challenges of urbanisation, with issues such as missing master plans, poor policy implementation and transparency deficits.
  • To address these issues, the report suggests vital reforms such as constitutional amendments, city recognition, power decentralisation, streamlined administration and enhanced local government financial autonomy.
  • Empowered city governments would be a key force in driving local action for global challenges such as climate change, public health including water and sanitation, affordable housing and gender equity, says the report.

India’s urban governance is ill-prepared to deal with the impacts of unprecedented expansion that is taking place in cities, highlights a recent survey. The survey, that evaluates the quality of governance in cities, reveals that 39% of state capitals, do not have active master plans that are urban governance tools that chart out long-term development and growth of cities.

Indian cities are expected to host over 800 million people – about half of India’s population – by 2050. This growth, if not addressed effectively, may trigger civic woes, ranging from pollution and waste management to traffic congestion and more, says the survey by Janaagraha, a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation. Empowered city governments would be a key force in driving local action for global challenges such as climate change, public health including water and sanitation, affordable housing and gender equity, says the report.

“The pace of city-systems reforms in India has been painfully slow, and India’s cities are caught in a bad status quo,” the report says.

The largest share of city government budgets is generally allocated to city roads, notes the survey, but it finds that none of the 35 states and union territories it reviewed have mandated street and public space design standards for their cities.

The report also indicates that states have implemented 42% of the provisions of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act of 1992 meant to empower local urban bodies. Additionally, nine functions out of the 18 listed in the twelfth schedule of the Constitution that specify powers, authority and responsibilities of urban local bodies, have been devolved by states to their city governments. The report also recommends having directly elected mayors instead of indirectly elected mayors so that citizens have a say. As of 2021, more than 1,400 cities in India do not have directly elected mayors or councils, some for as long as nine years.

Anand Iyer, Chief Policy and Insight Officer of Janaagraha, that conducted this survey says that climate change has significantly affects various aspects of urban life. Climate change has impacted rain patterns with increased intensity of rainfall in short durations, he says, adding that this, among other reasons, affects urban flooding. He gives the example of Delhi, a city without an active master plan, where annual flooding near Minto Road during the monsoons, is recurring. Regular flooding occurs in Mumbai as well, he says. “Drainage systems overhauled to meet new flooding levels linked to climate considerations are essential, but the question remains – who will implement them? Local urban bodies are grappling with significant resource constraints, both in terms of human and financial resources. Our study highlights the critical challenges that local urban bodies face,” he says.

Iyer also points to other environmental concerns in cities, such as air pollution, which is visible regularly in Delhi and Mumbai. These raise concerns about the ability of such cities to effectively address environmental challenges.

The report advocates for citizen engagement in city budgets but finds that only three out of 35 states and union territories mandate public consultation on city budgets. Further, 11 out of 35 states and union territories in India have enacted the Public Disclosure Law, which mandates financial and operational disclosures across all city government categories, such as municipal corporation, town panchayats etc. Only five out of 35 states and union territories have enacted the community participation law, with established rules for creating ward committees and area sabhas for citizen engagement.

Urban legislations are not easily accessible in the public domain. Of the 35 states in India, only 17 offer access to their municipal law on the websites of state urban departments. Furthermore, just four states have made a comprehensive collection of amendments to municipal legislation available. According to the report, ten states have uploaded solely scanned copies of laws, hindering the seamless navigation of the documents.

Low visibility due to Smog at New Delhi railway station.
Low visibility caused due to smog at New Delhi’s railway station. Delhi’s ongoing struggle with recurrent air pollution issues raises concerns about the city’s ability to effectively address these challenges. Photo by Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons.

While talking to Mongabay India, Srikanth Viswanathan, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Janaagraha, says, “We need better municipal laws for improved municipal governance; there is no doubt about that. However, we are not suggesting that only better municipal laws will help us rectify these systems. But it represents an important and useful starting point for think tanks, researchers, and policy organisations. Ensuring easy accessibility of laws and policies, drafting them in simpler language, and making them available in vernacular languages while creating a searchable database are crucial steps. But it is important to recognise that this approach will reach only a certain segment of the population. There is also a need for the government to raise awareness about these laws, even among elected councillors. We have heard from councillors, MLAs, and others that municipal legislations are quite comprehensive. When you factor in the Town and Country Planning Acts, they become fairly complex. Therefore, there is a necessity to exert effort in simplifying them for people to comprehend how the law affects them, what rights it confers, and what obligations they have toward their city.”

Citizens need to understand the functions of local government. They must differentiate between a planning authority and local government to contact the appropriate authority when needed, says Manvita Baradi, founder and director of the Urban Management Centre (UMC), an Ahmedabad-based organisation with a focus on the management and improvement of systems of urban local bodies. Baradi emphasises that the citizens’ interpretation of the law is crucial.

Unplanned expansion of urban landscape

According to the 2011 Census, India’s urban population is 31% – 318 million people – of the total country’s population.

The Janaagraha survey cites a 2016 report by the World Bank, that suggests that the Indian census definition of urban areas is more stringent than that of many other countries. The World Bank report estimates that India’s urban population is over 50%. Additionally, the Janaagraha report references the satellite data from the Global Human Settlements Layer (GHSL) under the Group on Earth Observations at the European Commission. This data suggested that India’s urbanisation rate in 2015 reached 63%, nearly twice the rate reported in the 2011 Census.

Based on these findings, the Janaagraha report says, “India could be far more urban” than perceived.

Although there are over 470 urban clusters when observed in terms of spatial contiguity, these clusters are not officially recognised as administrative units. They often span multiple districts and, in some cases, even cross state boundaries. Moreover, they fail to account for the evolving rural-urban transitions and the necessity for holistic, place-based governance that extends beyond the traditional rural-urban classification, the report says.

It says that India’s rate of urbanisation is 31.1%. However, there are 181 districts out of a total of 640 districts that are witnessing a higher rate of urbanisation than the national average. For example, Uttar Pradesh, with an urbanisation rate of 22.27%, has eight districts, including Jhansi, Varanasi, Agra, Meerut, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Kanpur Nagar, Lucknow, and Ghaziabad, which exceed the state average. These districts have urbanisation rates ranging from 40% to 68%. Odisha which is only 16.69% urbanised has three districts, including Sundargarh, Jharsuguda and Khordha whose percentage of urbanisation ranges from 35-48%.

Reacting to the trend, Baradi from UMC highlights a prevalent misconception among media and policymakers that India is primarily rural, which is not the case. Urbanisation is inevitable, and local governments need to step up for future challenges such as waste management, traffic woes etc. To deal with governance challenges, local urban bodies need autonomy and financial strength. The tax citizens pay goes to the central government, but services are primarily delivered at the city level. The whole system needs a re-evaluation, said Baradi.

Army flood relief and rescue operations, in Chennai on November 17, 2015.
Flood relief and rescue operations by the army, in Chennai on November 17, 2015. Climate change further exacerbates issues such as flood risks in urban areas. Photo by Ministry of Defence of India/Wikimedia Commons.

Read more: A hope for climate-focused urban planning in Assam’s cities reeling from severe floods

Way forward

The report offers recommendations based on its findings, suggesting a constitutional amendment to recognise cities as distinct units of governance. Such an amendment would empower local self-governance and lead to meaningful implementation of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, by handing over power and resources to local bodies. Through further constitutional amendments, it also calls for the inclusion of governance over climate change, gender equality, public transport, traffic management, information technology, broadband internet, and primary healthcare.

To address the challenges of larger cities with populations exceeding four million, the report suggests introducing metropolitan authorities and granting mayors and councils control over funds, functions, and functionaries.

The report also advocates for an open city framework that leverages technology for real-time communication between citizens and governments, as well as participatory budgeting to focus on hyperlocal problem-solving and budget allocation. To enhance cities’ financial autonomy, the report emphasises predictable transfers based on State Finance Commission recommendations and the devolution of revenue streams to reflect the city’s economic growth.

Highlighting the impact of climate change, Baradi notes that cities are significantly affected. Every activity, from road construction and transportation planning to waste management, either leads to climate change or adds to the vulnerabilities occurring due to climate change. Therefore, local administration practices need streamlining. A better and clearer understanding of the cities’ action will encourage increased citizen participation in climate action, she said.

Robust city-systems reforms, primarily by state governments, need to accompany the massive increase in budgetary outlays that we are seeing in urban infrastructure and services in India, says Srikanth Viswanathan.

Read more: Are cities ‘smart’ enough to leverage municipal bonds?


Banner image: Dharavi settlement near Mahim Junction in Mumbai, India. Indian cities are expected to host over 800 million people by 2050. This growth, if not addressed effectively, may trigger civic woes, ranging from pollution and waste management to traffic congestion. Photo by A. Savin/Wikimedia Commons.

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