Redefining cities in 2022, making federal and financial changes, not just criticizing urban structures

Nations debate issues of climate change and pandemic response among other things, but ultimately it is cities that have the unenviable task of executing the ambitious agendas put in place by national elites. Cities find themselves overwhelmed and crippled to keep these promises because of the following factors. First, the lack of adequate authority at the federal level to run a city. Second, the funds allocated to cities do not quite match the tasks they have to accomplish. And third, the lack of capacity to plan, monitor and execute tasks adequately.

It’s time for crisis first responders, our cities, to no longer be treated as just local urban organizations that ensure water runs through our faucets, garbage is picked up and roads are paved, but are in fact treated as the guardians of urban governance. in India.

In 2022, we must make serious federal and systemic amendments to enable and strengthen cities to play this role, and not just criticize those pale urban structures when they do not meet our high demands. With the Glasgow Pact endorsing the “urgent need for multi-level and cooperative action” at the local level, it was for the first time that the role of cities was officially appreciated and recognized at a COP summit. The New Deal also highlighted the need for climate adaptation through planning at the local government level. It is a sign that, globally, the way cities are viewed is changing. Decentralization and devolution of power should be the axis around which federal reforms should be implemented and rethought in cities. While we constantly invoke the 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution, which introduced the concept of decentralization, the three levels of government that put urban local governments at the lowest level, are to be redefined 25 years after its conception. We need to assess the reasons why most cities have not been able to implement many of these reforms.

During the pandemic, even in cities, a strong and successful model that emerged in densely populated areas was neighborhood-level management. The formation of neighborhood committees, the involvement of citizens’ voices and a local voice at the hyper local level were part of the 74th Amendment, which did not resonate with many municipal authorities. There is reluctance, even within municipal governments, to shift power to the lowest level and to hold citizens and their direct representatives accountable.

The Second Administrative Reform Commission, 2008 recommended that cities adopt a bottom-up approach to operating on the principle of subsidiarity, which places neighborhoods as the first level of governance that has the people closest to them. Tasks are then pushed to higher authorities when local units are not empowered to carry them out. The delegation of work is bottom-up. Such citizen involvement has been attempted in Mumbai through its Advanced Locality Management (ALM) groups and in Delhi through the Bhagidari program, where Resident Welfare Groups are set up to work on local civic issues. However, these have never been eligible to participate, either through funds or functions. Recently, cities like Vishakapatnam have called on the government that decentralization is not limited to power but to development, where the authorities in the region are able to administer all the development work of this region and not depend on funds. allocated at the central level for an infrastructure boost.

The 15th report of the Finance Committee tabled during the budget session in 2021 was a beacon of hope for urban governance. The issue of devolving taxes to cities after local taxes like Grant and VAT had been incorporated into Goods and Services Taxes (GST) had aroused much clamor and there had been a demand for a GST. separate municipal council be incorporated. But while the consideration of this request still seems remote, the 15th Finance Committee has allocated 4.15% in absolute value of the divisible pool – about Rs 3,464 billion of the divisible pool of taxes – to local communities. When distributed, this will constitute almost 25% of the total municipal budgets of most cities. The Commission has also given a budgetary boost to metropolitan governance by introducing performance funding in 50 million metropolitan regions with more than 150 million inhabitants. Here, an expenditure of Rs 380 billion has been planned for 100% financing of indicators related to water and sanitation, air quality and other services.

But it’s still a double whammy, given that it’s always going to flow up and down from the center to state governments, who then delegate the money to the cities. There has always been a question mark over the full use of funds allocated to a city, since this will depend on the absorption capacities of cities and their ability to spend municipal funds.

The Commission also suggested that other avenues such as city incubation grants should be used to develop small towns and regions of the country. This has gained importance in areas with strong political leadership or in cities supported by the Smart Cities Mission, which encourages, supports and sets up guarantee mechanisms for private investment in the urban sector.

With the decentralization of financial and other powers comes transparency and accountability in its systems, for which the responsibility rests with municipal governments. The first step towards transparency will be to ensure that city budgets are placed in the public domain and follow a simple format that is both easy to understand and understandable. Municipal governments must make their own efforts to ensure that taxes, which are within their purview, like property tax, are paid by citizens, for whom unique mechanisms must be put in place to guarantee collection. As issues like climate change gain traction, city governments must introduce tax cuts for green infrastructure in order to meet their goals.

In conclusion, a holistic three-pronged approach of reinventing federal governance, reworking financial governance, and restructuring systemic governance in urban centers could be the magic pill to create strong cities. If we want our first responders and drivers of our quality of life to be successful, our political leaders and administrators will need to join hands to put cities first.

The article was first published in ORF

The author is Senior Fellow of the political economy program of the ORF. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.

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