Swachh Bharat test: Can Kejriwal show a way out of the civic mess that is New Delhi?

So, what ails our municipalities and who governs Indian cities? What needs to be done to transform their effectiveness, responsiveness and agility?
Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann seen seen celebrating after AAP's win in the MCD polls. (File Photo | Parveen Negi, EPS)
Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann seen seen celebrating after AAP's win in the MCD polls. (File Photo | Parveen Negi, EPS)

It is a bit surprising that local governments, or specifically municipal corporations, that determine the lives of millions of upwardly mobile Indians thriving in urban city centres should count for so less in the country's political scheme of things.  

The accelerated rate of urbanization in India demands better policies, planning and governance. The central government, states, and other public and private entities implement programmes that impact the quality of life in urban areas. However, it is the local governments that are the key instruments in ensuring their success. Surely, measuring their capability to play that role should be a high priority for the country.

Sadly, that measurement falls short. Indian municipalities are among the least empowered in the world, save for some rich metropolises, and if Arvind Kejriwal and his recently-elected Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) manage to introduce systemic changes in the national capital’s dire, graft-laden Delhi Municipal Corporation, it could be regarded as a great leap forward.

Can he? On available evidence, the answer is no. The pointers are all tipped in favour of a hostile Lieutenant Governor (LG), who represents the central government and whose relations with the AAP and Delhi Chief Minister, are acerbic, to say the least.

Ultimately, the appointment of municipal commissioners and other top civic officials in the capital is the union government’s prerogative and if antagonistic relations derail the forward movement of files and implementation of government programmes for the common good, there is little that a hobbled Delhi Chief Minister can do.  

In July 2018, the Supreme Court said that the Delhi government has power on all but three fronts: public order, police and land. But it is precisely these three – particularly the third - that will determine how municipal services in the capital of one of the world’s fastest growing economies, will play out.

A parliamentary amendment in 2021, sort of, watered down this Supreme Court order. The amendment underlined that the term ‘government’ in any law made by the legislative assembly of Delhi will now mean the LG. It de facto increases the concentration of the Union government’s governing power over Delhi through the LG, at the cost of the elected Delhi government.  

Delhi may be a bad example, but municipalities are at the receiving end of executive and legislative fiats everywhere else in the country. Even though they have always been important determinants of citizens’ well-being, their powers had been gradually encroached upon by the upper tiers of the federal structure. Though the intent of the 74th Amendment was to undo that damage, in spirit, things have remained much the same. Almost 30 years after the amendment, municipalities are unable to wield their governance structures to solve the complex needs of their citizens.

The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992 established municipalities or urban local governments (ULGs) system as a constitutional entity. In India, the phrase 'urban local government’ refers to the process through which the electorate governs an urban region.

So, what ails our municipalities and who governs Indian cities? What needs to be done to transform their effectiveness, responsiveness and agility? These are questions that all citizens need to find out collectively through an informed debate. It is important that data about their performance is collected on common, comparable benchmarks and disseminated to people to begin that process.

With this background, the ministry of housing and urban affairs released India's first ever Municipal Performance Index (MPI). It ranks 111 municipalities on the basis of functioning across five key verticals -- services, finance, planning, technology and governance. These verticals comprise 20 sectors and 100 indicators and endeavours to support the process of informed debate, foster competitiveness among cities and provide them a roadmap to improve their performance.

An observation of concern is the regional disparity reflected in the rankings. Municipalities from the southern and western parts of the country dominate the top ranks, while municipalities in the north-eastern, northern and eastern parts of the country have featured low in the rankings. This is a reminder of long-persisting regional disparities wherein the more prosperous cities located in western and southern India have continued to reap benefits of serving as financial and industrial hubs from colonial times, while the historically backward regions have continued to lag behind.

More worrisome is the aversion to change, despite ample lip service. For instance, the key talking points of AAP's victorious campaign in the recently-won Delhi municipal elections was clearing the city's three stinking dumping sites at Ghazipur, Bhalswa and Okhla.

According to a study by a team of experts submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in January 2022, these three landfill sites have cost more than Rs 450 crore in environmental degradation to the national capital so far! It would be a tragedy if such a national shame -- reported in the global media -- were to be overlooked in intra-party squabbles. Despite the BJP's control over the three municipal corporations -- now merged into one Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) -- for close to 15 years, and in spite of the Prime Minister’s scientific adviser involvement, no noticeable progress has been made to reduce the millions of tonnes of toxic waste at these dumping sites.

In the larger metropolitan cities, the slash and grab of political jockeying has taken its toll. In Mumbai, for instance, a number of civic projects have been delayed for years because of the differences in approach of the BJP, Congress, NCP and the Shiv Sena.

Even though the 12th Schedule of the Constitution identifies 18 areas of administration that fall under the purview of municipalities, states have done little to devolve commensurate powers to enable them to deliver on their responsibilities. Severe lack of autonomy has hobbled Indian municipalities.

This lack of autonomy also extends to their financial powers. It also restricts their ability to effectively provide services. Until this devolution takes place, and becomes part of the political discourse, non-issues that do not concern the tax-paying citizen, will continue to dominate the sweepstakes -- as will the tonnes of filth all around urban India. There is little chance of Swachh Bharat taking off the way it was planned.

(Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist. These are the writer's views.)

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