A City without Government?

Mohan Guruswamy

One must wonder about Joseph de Maistre's conclusion in 1811 that ''every nation has the government it deserves!" There just has been too much evidence of bad governance this past two years for comfort. Government is multi-layered and the evidence that is piling up on the streets of Delhi indicates problems at all levels, national, state and local. Are Indians so cursed a nation that they cannot get even a modicum of good government at any level?

Delhi is a classic example of failure of government. In the last two decades from being a capital representative of a modern India, Delhi has become gigantic urban mess with dirt and disease its defining characteristics. It is now a city without government. Those who have power are not chosen by the people. Those who are chosen have no power.

The AAP chosen to govern is caught in a vice between the jaws of the BJP controlling the central and local governments. The AAP state government has no more power than a Parents Teachers Association or a Residents Welfare Association. All the political parties know this. That is why all of them even now expressly state in their manifestos that Delhi must have full statehood. But when in power both the Congress and BJP have preferred to extract from it rather than give it a government it deserves. The BJP is now in power where it matters but it denies Delhi the government it needs.

People here have a birth to death relationship with municipalities without whose registration of births people may not exist, and without whose death certificate people run the risk of becoming immortal. The Twelfth Schedule to Part IX of the Constitution of India (Article 243W) added through 74th Amendment Act provides an illustrative and rather exhaustive list of municipal functions.

The paradox of the population accretion into urban areas is that the major expansion begins at the lowest economic strata with economic refugees pouring into the cities. From much before the days of Dick Whittington (1354-1423) and his cat who migrated to London believing that the ''streets of London were paved with gold", urban areas always lured rural folk in seek of excitement and fortunes. In modern times the story of Dhirubhai Ambani from the remote village of Chorwad to the opulence of "Sea Wind" might well be the Whittington tale of present times. While that might be the lure for the more gifted and ambitious, the vast majority are just economic refugees defeated by a hard land and diminishing holdings and prospects.

As per census estimates India's urban population has grown from 290 million in 2001 to 377 million in 2011 accounting for over 30 percent of the country's population. Urban India accounted for 62 to 63 percent of the country's GDP in 2009-10. By 2050 India will have almost a billion people living in urban areas and less than 700 million living in rural areas. That is the kind of swing that is under way. Clearly management of urban areas is now a major national priority.

Because of their dense population and breakdown of traditional hierarchies that ensured a degree of conformal behavior, urban areas are highly volatile and can bring about social and political destabilisation rather suddenly and quickly. India is entering a dangerous phase. Delhi must show the way.

The erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) that governed 8 of the 11 Districts of Delhi was among the largest municipal bodies in the world providing civic services to more than estimated population of 11 million citizens in the capital city. It covered an area of 1,397 sq km.

In 2012 it was divided into three, for what many believe was essentially  for political reasons by the Congress governments at the centre and the state to gerrymander its way back to power. It didn't work and for fourteen long years at a stretch the BJP has kept control of them.

But the three new MCD's are socially and economically very different. South Delhi has the most affluent areas and hence its vast property tax base is now no longer available to the less fortunate area North and East corporations. The other two are dependent on handouts from an increasingly assertive state government, which insists on knowing how the money given is utilized.

Delhi's municipalities are notorious for their corrupt ways and sloth. A drive around Delhi will give one a good idea how badly the city is managed with rampant unauthorized constructions and occupation of public spaces. Delhi practically has no pavements any more for pedestrians. What is not taken over for commerce is taken over as informal urinals. And what choice do people have anyway? The area under the MCD's and NDMC require almost 45000 public conveniences, but don't even have a small fraction of that. To compound matters 18.4% of Delhi homes do not have toilets, which means most open spaces and public spaces are dumping grounds—literally. But the corporations are clearly financially strapped.

East Delhi Standing Committee chairperson B B Tyagi lays out his corporation's predicament clearly : "Our monthly expenditure is around Rs 100 crores. This amounts to Rs 1,200 crores annually. The revenue generated every year, however, is just Rs 700-750 crores". Tyagi adds : "There are around 5-6 lakh properties, of which a little over 2 lakh properties pay tax. Moreover there are at least 30 unauthorized colonies in this zone and we do not collect any property tax from these areas." But collection of taxes from these properties is going to be politically unpopular, and no elected government courts unpopularity even if it is for better government.

The North Municipal Corporation generates nearly Rs 1,400 crores in revenue annually : its annual expenditure-is over Rs 2,100–Rs 2,200 crores —a gap of nearly Rs 7,800 crores. The revenue and expenditure mismatch is obvious. In addition to their primary civic duties the three MCD's are saddled with 715 schools with 3.5 lakh children and five hospitals. Half of their expenditures are on health and education. Clearly they are left with nothing for capital expenditures. Hence the corporations have to depend on handouts. But the hand that gives will always insist on knowing how the money was spent?

In shining contrast to the three corporations sliced out from the erstwhile MCD, the NDMC territory comprising of Lutyens Delhi, the abodes and workplaces of the high and mighty, most of Delhi's five-star hotels, market places and office buildings, all situated in a golden area of about 3 sq km is a symbol of financial stability and plenty. It had a surplus ot Rs.335.4 crores last year.

Clearly the corporations cannot cope with needing the civic needs of its citizens and their revenue bases. One way to make the spread of money more even and to ensure distributive justice would be to merge all the corporations into one big unit where the revenues can be spread evenly. It cannot be argued that the success of NDMC areas is because of spends by local residents only. All the people of Delhi make the NDMC areas tony with their patronage and taxes. The other way of dealing with this would be to shear the MCD's lists of responsibilities significantly.

Why should the corporations run schools and hospiuils when the Delhi government too does that? These can be transferred to the state government. The corporations should be tasked only with urban management and civic services. Many of the civic services that the corporations provide are very basic but it is a high cost operation for them because of the government pay structure. These can be outsourccd to contractors whose wage structures are infinitely low. The corporations should be asked to give Ways and Means financial projections for the next few years now before seeking new funds.

Clearly this will involve conflicts between the political players who will fight to either protect or extend their turfs. That's where the national leadership has a role. It should travel the high road and seek solutions for problems rather than piling them up. This is the time for Prime Minister Modi to act. He promised people better government and less government. This is the place to start.


Vol. 49, No.36, Mar 12 - 18, 2017