From 3Fs to 4Fs – The Functionality Conundrum

Cities are the engines of growth for any nation. In the context of India, this is particularly true. Over 60% of our GDP is contributed by the cities. While we await veracious data from the upcoming Census, current estimates show that over 40% of our population will reside in cities by 2040. 

But a moot question arises with burgeoning urban population – is our urban governance landscape capacitated enough to deal with the myriad challenges that come with the mushrooming cities? 

Historically, ever since the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 came into force, Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) have faced the three Herculean challenges in ‘Funds, Functions and Functionaries’. A dearth of funds and functions renders ULBs hors de combat from the realms of innovation and effective citizen service delivery. 

Solving the issues emanating from the 3Fs requires great political will to devolve autonomy to ULBs. However, there is a bigger fish to fry if we are to empower the ULBs in a holistic and comprehensive manner.  With city governments handling unforeseen challenges beyond the traditional barriers of resource scarcity, the challenges relating to “Functionality” have been largely overlooked. Functionality is an ability to meet outcomes best suited to the purpose in a practical and doable manner. Without functionality, ULBs will continue to lag on effectiveness and efficiency. 

Technological Functionality 

From GIS to Enterprise Resource Planning, ULBs are increasingly relying on technology to provide the operational heft required to manage government affairs. Technology is the backbone of multiple schemes designed for capacity building of ULBs, for example, Smart Cities Mission and AMRUT. However, there are multiple issues of functionality that are debilitating the ability of ULBs to extract ‘use-value’ out of technology. 

First is the lack of digital and technological dexterity among officials. This inhibits the adoption of new technologies and encourages the status quo. As a result, a lot of processes which can easily be outsourced to algorithms are done manually. In a technologically advanced state like Karnataka, for example, some ULBs are still managing property tax records manually despite sound solutions existing. A lot of the accounting and payroll processes are also manually conducted. As a result, some auditing exercises last over 6 months. The inefficiency snowballs when, in most cases, ULBs have to maintain manual registers despite having an integrated property tax management system due to legal mandates. In most states, since the treasury operations are still conducted manually, paperwork-ridden officials rarely have the mindspace or time to innovate and effectively deliver on their core missions. Such a parallel system of technology and manual processes defies logic and is a waste of precious resources. 

The National Digital Urban Mission (NUDM) is a central program that seeks to create shared digital infrastructure in the shape of state-of-the-art digital urban platforms. Apart from NUDM, states have their own customised data platforms and societies. While the vision of NUDM is quite progressive, it doesn’t quite factor in the difference in current levels of technology among ULBs. For instance, a software called e-Sweekruthi has been rolled out by the Karnataka Municipal Data Society for the ULBs in Karnataka. While only a few ULBs use this software, others have their own data platforms and systems in place which have been customised to suit local conditions and needs. Thus, in terms of functionality, it is imperative to get all the ULBs to the same level of technology and digital dexterity before having a uniform platform. Currently, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is not proving to be a prudent way ahead.  

Overlap in Planning and Operations

As urban centres expand across the country, multiple satellite towns and peri-urban areas are proliferating. However, the planning for urban development is largely being done in silos. In most cities, there are multiple urban development authorities with largely overlapping spatial and functional jurisdictions. Any operational and planning exercise that occurs in an isolated manner will lead to fragmented and disjointed development. For example, both Mumbai and Bengaluru Metropolitan regions have a Municipal Corporation and a Metropolitan Region Development Authority. Bengaluru additionally has a Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA). Aside from these, both cities have multiple other civic parastatal agencies. As a result of such overlapping jurisdictions, there is a gross lack of an integrative and collaborative view on the planning and development of cities along with their peri-urban regions. It also creates conflicts and disputes among agencies relating to financial and operational decision-making powers leading to delays in commissioning of public works. 

The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 provided for creation of Metropolitan Planning Committees (MPC) as a mechanism for synergised and collaborative planning for metropolitan regions. They are expected to be a high-level, democratically elected body that will provide a constitutional mandate for the entire metropolitan development planning process and resolve conflicts in planning. They are also supposed to advise and assist local governments in the planning process. However, currently, most MPCs in India are non-functional and devoid of powers. Many metropolitan regions do not have a MPC constituted. Most MPCs also lack the technical expertise and consultation of urban planners. Niti Aayog has also highlighted the non-availability of an inter-agency coordination mechanism, including Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs), for effective delivery. A metropolitan city’s complexity necessitates a metropolitan-wide perspective, planning, consultation and action. Water sources, waste disposal, traffic and transportation, drainage, air pollution control, and so on are examples of areas where one Municipal Corporation or Municipality cannot achieve much on its own. The role of an MPC becomes critically important in such circumstances. 

Emergence of parallel governance is also challenging the functionality of ULBs. For example, Smart Cities Mission aims to establish a SPV for the execution of the city development. This has created a parallel institution vis-a-vis Urban local government. This functional overlapping may eventually lead to weakening of local bodies.

In terms of domain-specific planning, the functionality of ULBs in specific areas is limited by the absence of a comprehensive plan. For example, most cities in India do not have a holistic mobility or sanitation plan. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to tackle challenges like Climate Change, ULBs need to cater to specific domains by increasing synergy, collaboration and interoperability. 

Monitoring 

One of the major functions of a ULB is to execute civic projects. These include parks, roads, water supply, etc. However, most ULBs do not have a functional Project Monitoring Unit (PMU). This leads to ineffective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms that often cause time and cost overruns. It makes the use of public money inefficient while also compromising the quality of public works. 

Monitoring of works is a key aspect of ULB functioning to ensure effective and prudent use of public funds. GIS, drone surveys and geo-tagging make this exercise much easier. However, many ULBs still rely on personnel on the ground to ensure effective monitoring. While this is done under the pretext of accuracy of observations, it leaves ample room for discretion and quid-pro-quos between contractors and officials that give birth to the demons of corruption. It also sidelines the importance of the core jobs that the officials must do in their routine work. 

Political Functionality 

The Mayor is the political head of the municipal corporations. She symbolises the decentralisation of political power and is a beacon of civic participation in urban governance. However, in most ULBs in India, the term of the Mayor varies between one year and two and a half years. This leads to a discontinuity in policies and leads to political instability. It also creates a disincentive to enforce political accountability in ULBs. Ideally, an empowered and accountable Mayor should be the first step towards augmenting functionality of ULBs. 

Financial Functionality 

Many ULBs still have a fine of Rs. 5 for littering on the road. Similarly, many civic violations attract meagre penalties. Not only do they limit the potential for revenue generation, they also render the goal of deterrence ineffective. Periodic revisions of fees, penalties and fines is critical. 

To tackle the challenges of functionality, a prerequisite is the effective devolution of the 3Fs and ensuring complete autonomy in these domains. In this context, the State Governments must regularly set up State Finance Commissions and implement their recommendations in letter and spirit. It is imperative that State Governments follow the principle of subsidiarity and sub-federalism to empower city governments. 

Technological functionality demands that adequate trained manpower and consultation is provided to ULBs. To attain this goal, the NUDM may have a ‘state cell’ for every state in India. MoUs may be signed with major IT consulting firms of India to handhold individual ULBs, irrespective of the level of technological capacity they have currently. To enable better citizen service delivery in ULBs via technology, the model of a ULB Shared Services Centre may be explored on the lines of Haryana’s Saral initiative and Passport Seva Kendras. 

It is essential that a path of least resistance is followed to attain political functionality. For example, the Constitution of India may be amended to provide a minimum tenure of three years for the Mayor to ensure political stability. Ward committees and area sabhas should be strengthened for them to act as citizen engagement centres. 

In terms of planning, every city government should have a dedicated planning cell. Some policy experts have also recommended having a planning commission and a city finance commission for every ULB. MPCs should also be constituted with actionable powers and authority. Some large ULBs can also function as the technical arms of MPCs. This will enable holistic planning and long-term sustainability of Urban governance entities. Apart from strengthening MPCs, there should also be dedicated PMUs in every ULB for effective monitoring and evaluation of schemes. 

Cities will be the drivers of New India. To realise the dreams of the People, functionality of Urban Governance will need to be paid heed to urgently and decisively. 

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap