Fifth Columnist: Get the mayors back
When will India have empowered cities? That is the question haunting those devising the concept of smart cities, which at the moment, has receded into the background

The state of municipal administration in India is such that urban planning needs a radical rethink, a cataclysmic change both at the level of ideas and execution of plans, to reach a stage where smart cities can become a workable idea.

Clearly, planning will have to begin from scratch. There was a time in the country when the mayor was considered an important post in a metro or a city. Rajni Patel, for instance, in the Bombay of the 1970s was a mover and shaker, a flamboyant personality in his own right. There have been important sheriffs in Delhi and Calcutta, who dominated the local landscape, with their ability to improve and build upon civic amenities, liaise with the state and even the central government, armed as they were with financial powers. Their privileges were wide ranging – including receiving foreign dignitaries. In other words, the local mayor was an important functionary in the overall administrative setup and a significant figure in the life of a city.

But all that is now a thing of the past. Today, a mayor is a caricature of the past, a merely ceremonial post, who has to look over his shoulders for every decision, particularly financial, that he takes.

This week Union housing minister Hardeep Singh Puri did well to bring out the plight that afflicts India’s urban life, which is steadily descending into filth and chaos. Pitching for a “robust financial management”, he painted a rather sordid picture. The combined receipts of all municipalities in India, he said, totaled up to a measly Rs 1.5 lakh crore, with less than a third of the amount coming from their own resources, making them wholly dependent on the central and state governments. For any meaningful way forward, nearly Rs 65 lakh crore would be required as capital investment and for services in Indian cities over a 20-year period, the minister said, adding therefore the space to raise private funds was “enormous”.

“Compared to certain other areas of reform, we have been relatively slower in municipal finance reforms and the financial position of our municipalities is a cause of concern,” he said, quite candidly.

Puri was merely reiterating what is regarded as one of India’s best kept secrets. The municipal finance market faces a range of challenges, including weak administration and political interference by way of waivers. The time has come for municipalities to lay a foundation of robust financial management for both enhancing own revenues as well as tapping the capital market, an idea that the Narendra Modi government has been pursuing without much success thus far.

Most experts believe that for starters, the time has come to adopt the recommendations of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission and merge the functions of the person chairing the municipal council and the individual exercising executive authority.

For that to happen, it is imperative that the position of chairperson/mayor duly created must be filled via a direct electoral process, which should have a fixed five-year tenure. The mayor should also be given the power to appoint his/her cabinet consisting of councillors selected from the elected members.

The current practice in the country is far from satisfactory. In many – if not all - cities, the head of a municipal corporation, the mayor, is merely a ceremonial authority and executive decisions are carried out by the municipal commissioner appointed by the state government.

If that is not bad enough, then many states have short-term tenure of mayors. The Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) mayor’s tenure, for instance, is two-and-a-half years.

It is also more than apparent that the kind of urbanisation India will witness in the 21st century, with technology and innovation at its very core, required skills and expertise would not always be available within the government fold.

Experts desperate to move the immoveable believe that it is time for the municipal administrations in India to get look beyond the IAS and begin leverage talent, particularly in the field of finance. Lateral entrants at the municipal level, should be become the norm and not exception.

So is China – a country where technocrats dominate bureaucrats - a template for India to follow? Highly unlikely, believes Niti Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar, who says India needs to follow its own models rather than cut and paste foreign models, particularly China. “We do not need to look for outside models for our own urbanisation. It is pity that we continuously look for outside models for copy and pasting. Given our diversity and plurality, we cannot let inequitable or unbalanced urbanisation in India. We cannot let India replicate what China has done,” Kumar said at an event on Thursday. In China, he noted that development and modernisation has happened along the coastline, while other areas have remained backward, he said.

By all accounts, therefore, India needs still does not have empowered cities and there is urgent need to resurrect the old tradition of strong mayors in cities. In India, a powerful Mayor like Mike Bloomberg, former New York City mayor, is unheard of. There is urgent need to create growth hubs across the country as also to make cities the centre of knowledge. When that happens, smart cities will just be a kiss away.

Ranjit Bhushan