Municipal Corporations Across India Are Unable to Meet the Promise of Local Governance

Why do problems associated with municipal corporations remain unaddressed even after they have been identified year after year?

Municipalities are intended to serve and be responsive to local civic needs. However, recent newspaper reports underscore the extent to which municipalities are mismanaged. In August 2019, five migrant workers died while cleaning a sewer line in a project for the Ghaziabad Municipal Corporation. Sanitation workers’ deaths and injuries are normalised. Hindu notions of purity and pollution perpetuate the oppression of Dalits, who are compelled to perform manual scavenging. 

In the same month, an audit into the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) revealed “irregularities of over Rs 1,600 crore.” This finding is especially alarming given that Delhi’s municipalities have failed to pay teachers and sanitation workers salaries on time, citing a funding crunch. 

India’s annual monsoon season routinely exacerbates problems and reveals the depth of mismanagement across cities, including in Mumbai. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report identified several shortcomings of Mumbai’s municipal corporation in preparing the city for the monsoon as rains continue to bring the city to a standstill and cause deaths

While these issues are identified year after year, they remain unaddressed. What are the root cause of some of these civic issues and what makes them so persistent? In this reading list, we aim to address some of these questions by analysing cases of municipal mismanagement across India. 

1) Manual Scavenging: Caste-Based Exploitation

Anagha Ingole evaluates the manner in which Pune’s municipal authoritiesranked third best in India in 2012treat workers. Based on surveys and interviews with 491 sewage cleaners and 600 toilet cleaners in 2015, Ingole found that the government was the largest beneficiary of manual scavenging. While laws mandated the provision and use of protective equipment, few used the equipment because of their low quality. 

For example, the soaps that were bought by the municipal corporation at an exorbitant price were of extremely poor quality. The workers’ union had also staged an agitation protesting the purchase of such substandard soaps. One worker said that he had hurt himself after a rod slipped from his hand because the gloves provided by the corporation were too large and inflexible for the nature of his work.

Pune’s municipal corporation, like others in India, continues to hire and exploit workers based on caste. Most of the respondents were Dalits, mostly Valmikis, Mehtars, and Bhangis. 

This state of permanent exception is the accepted norm necessary for our “normal” civic life to run by making permissible manual scavenging under the agencies of the state. No amount of new toilets we manage to build can create a Swaccha Bharat unless the state agencies themselves reform the way they imagine the sphere of human solid waste management and the work remains relegated to certain caste groups that continue to remain pools from which manual scavengers are drawn generations after generations.

2) Waste Management: Red Tape and Ad-Hoc Contracts 

Bengaluru’s waste is managed either directly by its municipal corporation employees (pourakarmikas) or by private contractors appointed by the corporation. Sidharth Santhosh and Padmini Ram detail the exhaustive list of requirements that private organisations must meet in order to compete for contracts. Based on data from the municipal database and residents of the city as well as interviews with active citizens and retired bureaucrats, Santhosh and Ram found that these requirements prevent private organisations from competing for contracts, thereby compelling the municipality to depend on ad-hoc service providers to meet waste management needs. 

These barriers to entry also leave out the self-help groups (SHGs) which consist of former pourakarmikas who have worked in the field of waste management for the past 15 to 20 years. SHGs of women workers were promoted, assisted and monitored by government departments that collect garbage from houses themselves and respond to training and public complaints. Like the NGOs, they do not have the financial means to contest in the bidding process but have the necessary skills for waste management. Barriers to entry are exacerbated by mandatory documents for bidding, which include PAN card, service tax registration, license.

3) Municipal Revenue and Allocations 

In 2011, Delhi’s then government trifurcated the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) into North Delhi, South Delhi and East Delhi Municipal Corporation(s) (EDMC) based on the justification that a single corporation was too large to cater to the needs of the city. The trifurcation was covered in controversy, particularly since the EDMCalthough the smallest of the threereceived the highest share of debt while its revenue base remained the smallest. Bhanu Joshi and Shahana Sheikh investigate the reasons behind the EDMC’s low revenue base despite a dearth of data. The EDMC has experienced cuts in funding and the properties it has been allocated control over for tax revenue collection are severely low in value when compared to those allocated to the SDMC and NDMC. 

This anomaly was deliberately maintained since the MVC [Municipal Valuation Committee]  in its draft report had argued that East Delhi post the 2010 Commonwealth Games and other massive infrastructure upgradation projects, had seen an unprecedented uplift in its infrastructure which need reflection in the categorisation of the EDMC.

4) Decentralisation and Municipal Financial Health 

India undertook formal decentralisation measures to devolve administrative and fiscal functions to urban local bodies (ULBs) through the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) of 1993. Maumita Das and Soumyadip Chattopadhyay analyse the financial health of municipalities in West Bengal and find that while indicators have improved, municipalities continue to be dependent on intergovernmental transfers. This limits their fiscal autonomy and undermines some of the justifications for decentralisation in the first place. 

The possibility of financing basic services from taxes borne by local taxpayers establishes a clear and close link between the costs and benefits of public services and, thus, renders decision-makers more responsive to local residents. However, in most developing countries, expenditure assignments are more decentralised than revenue assignments (Bardhan 1996). Local governments have utilised intergovernmental fiscal transfer and borrowing to bridge the gap between their revenue-raising abilities and expenditure responsibilities. Nevertheless, it is generally believed that greater the financial autonomy, greater the incentives for local decision-makers to be sensitive to both costs and local priorities (Klugman 1994).

5) Political Rivalries and Municipal Independence  

Abhay Pethe, Sahil Gandhi and Vaidehi Tandel argue that the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), one of India’s largest urban agglomerations, resembles a “polycentric governance system.” They offer an explaination in rich detail about how this system is intended to work. 

[S]everal independent organisations with overlapping jurisdiction provide public goods and services that are either complementary or substitutable in nature. Polycentric governance system ideally works on the premise of mitigating any problems of coordination or promoting “creative conflict” or competition between these organisations which would lead to an improvement in the outcomes in terms of greater efficiency in goods and services delivery.

In practice, however, they argue that two organisationsthe Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA)fail to cooperate in areas where they are expected to. They attribute these failures to political rivalries between ruling parties at the state and local levels that prevent cooperation and growth based on an analysis of the relations between state and local governments from 1995 to 2010. 

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