June 21, 2017

The published version of my op-ed in Hindustan Times today leaves out a few sentences due to the word limit. Here it is in full with the omitted sentences in bold.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.

Last week, both the president and the prime minister inaugurated metro lines: Pranab Mukherjee came to Bengaluru and Narendra Modi went to Kochi. There was some controversy in the latter when some people criticised the prime minister for not sharing the stage with E Sreedharan, the railway stalwart who led the Kochi metro project.

The criticism misses the point.

The real question we ought to ask is just why do we need the head of the Indian state and head of the Union government to inaugurate what are essentially municipal projects. The fact that they did inaugurate them reveals just how disempowered our city governments are, and why we have such terrible, unliveable cities.

Like water supply, garbage collection and street lighting, urban transport is a municipal matter. Where buses should stop, where auto-rickshaws should wait, where pedestrians should cross the road are best decided by the municipality. If anyone argues that the bus routes and bus stops in Bengaluru, Kochi or Coimbatore should be decided by a civil servant or political leader in New Delhi, we are likely to ask that person to get his head examined. So why is metro any different?

Oh, it involves spending a lot more money than bus routes, which is automatically seen as the reason why the Union government must get involved in municipal matters. That only begs the question. Just why is it that Indian city governments cannot raise the money required to spend on their own essential infrastructure?

Now, back when they wrote the constitution, they rightly put Railways under the Union list, because it was an inter-state matter. However, metro rail” is not Railway”, but is more like the old tramways that existed in some of our cities. Despite attempts by some states to use the old tramway acts to run metros, the Union government used safety certification and other instruments to insinuate itself into this municipal subject. In fact, metro rail shouldn’t even be a matter for the state government: it is and should be a municipal subject.

Why is it not? Well, because the framers of the Constitution paid insufficient attention to municipal governance — ironic, considering Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Vallabhbhai Patel cut their political teeth in municipal councils — and the 74th amendment that is the current basis of urban local bodies is very imperfect. Mayors of Indian cities serve largely decorative purposes (including their gowns of office) and have little real power. Municipalities depend on the state and Union governments for funds and political direction.

Contrast this with US cities, where mayors have powers over everything that concerns the city. There they are directly elected by citizens. even in China, where nobody is directly — or even — elected, city officials have both authority and public accountability on urban governance issues. That’s because sensible people understand that urban leaders empowered to deal with urban issues. Nothing prevents them from collaborating with state and national governments where necessary, but it is the city that makes decisions.

In India, political disempowerment of our municipalities is accompanied by their fiscal disempowerment. While Union Finance Commissions have consistently done well to devolve funds to states, very few states have professionally-led and effective finance commissions. This leaves municipal (and rural) governments at the mercy of the chief minister for funding. Cities are both cash cows and orphans: the taxes that they generate go off to New Delhi and to state capitals, and disproportionately little comes back to them. They are orphans because they do not have enough assembly or parliament seats that will give them a stronger voice. It would be wrong to begrudge policies of redistribution in a country with our levels of poverty, but it is also true that our cities are fiscally overexploited.

But municipalities have little to show for what little powers that they have. They are unable to effectively collect revenue due to them: from taxing property to charging for parking. Bengaluru could easily double its revenues if it were to introduce paid parking on a fraction of its roads. Yet it is content to seek more grants from the state government than mobilise its own resources. There are signs that this is changing — New Delhi and Pune are contemplating paid parking — but it does not absolve municipalities from failing to hold up their end. City leaders and officials are unaccountable because they are disempowered.

This needs to change. We need empowered city governments that will not only deliver competent urban governance, but also create the next generation of state and national leaders. Nehru, Patel and Prasad started in municipalities and went to New Delhi. That’s the right direction. That’s why getting Mr Mukherjee and Mr Modi from New Delhi to Bengaluru and Kochi is movement in the wrong direction.

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