The purpose of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) to devolve more powers and functions to the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) remains unfilled even after 28 years of its enactment. It is unfortunate that none of the States in India have completely devolved all the 18 functions to their ULBs. As per the Janagraha report 2016, only 11 states in India have devolved powers to their ULBs. In Kerala, out of the 18 functions, only 6 functions are completely under the control of city government. As shown in Figure 1, according to the Kerala Municipality Act, 1994, the ULBs in Kerala are often restricted to perform only the mandatory civic, administrative and regulatory functions and other functions are transferred depending on the State’s predilection. Though a list of 18 functions were brought under the purview of ULBs, there was no defined road map on how to achieve the objectives of the Act as the devolution of funds and functionaries are still under the purview of the State government. This indeed leaves the ULBs being accountable for the city’s urban service delivery, but the circumstances are not quite favourable for the ULBs to rise to the level of citizens’ expectations.
Figure 1. Basic Services Provided by the ULBs
Status of Urban Service Delivery
With increased levels of urbanisation, the pressure on the urban service delivery has also increased. The service level benchmarking was introduced in 2010 to assess the performance of ULBs based on various indicators to ensure efficient service delivery. The Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) has developed service level benchmarking for water supply, waste water, solid waste management (SWM) and storm water drainage.
As per a McKinsey report, the status of service delivery in Indian cities is poor and much below the basic standard. Inadequate coverage, lack of 24×7 water supply and poor quality of water are some of the challenges with respect to water supply in Indian cities. According to Kerala Economic Review 2019, 70.33 per cent of the urban population in Kerala has access to piped water supply and 84.76 litres per day is the per capita availability of piped water against the benchmark of 135 lpcd for urban water supply. Sanitation issues are another major concern of the city as a large number of the urban poor still depend on public toilets. However, Kerala is 100 per cent ODF (Open Defecation Free), but only 152.97 million litres per day of sewage is treated and 94 per cent of the untreated sewage waste is dumped into the water bodies. The State government along with the Suchitwa Mission is planning to construct 435 toilets in Municipalities and 48 premium toilets in Corporations as part of the ‘Take a break’ project. Solid waste management is poor as no segregation of the waste happens at source or no proper processing of the waste is done at the landfills, which are already filled to their maximum capacities. Municipal solid waste generated in Kerala is 3.7 million ton per day and the State has no sanitary landfill sites. Hence, the ULBs are practicing open dumping of waste which further results in clogging of drains and urban flooding in the cities.
Challenges of ULBs
In spite of being a leading state in decentralisation, Kerala — the second most rapidly urbanising state in India — still struggles with urban service delivery. Though 18 functions are mentioned in the 12th Schedule, the scope of these functions is not well defined. For instance, in the case of Thiruvananthapuram, last year there was a tug of war over the roads owned by PWD for which the Municipal Corporation was collecting the parking fees. Thus, the involvement of multiple agencies for the service delivery of the same function is one of the limiting factors for providing efficient services, which often confuses the citizens about which agency to be held accountable for the service. For example, with respect to urban transport, projects which are carried out by the ULBs are limited to road maintenance or footpath construction, but multiple organisations like PWD, City Development Authorities, RBDCK, etc are involved in the road improvement projects within the city
a. Fragmented Structure in Urban Service Delivery
In Kerala, parastatals like the Kerala Water Authority (KWA), KSEB, etc are in the forefront to provide urban services. Thrissur Municipal Corporation is the only Corporation in Kerala that undertakes water supply. In the Kerala Municipality Act, 1994, Section 315 mentions about the powers of Municipal Corporation with respect to water supply, lighting and sanitation but it also mentions a clause that these powers shall not be overriding the powers given to autonomous institutions like KWA and KSEB, which are established as per the Kerala Water Supply and Sewerage Act, 1986. This clearly depicts how the State government is still reluctant to bestow the responsibility of urban services completely to the ULBs.
To avoid this fragmented structure in urban service delivery, new reforms need to be formulated to authorise the ULBs in taking the responsibility of urban services. ULBs need to enjoy more autonomy in providing urban services while empowering the Mayors with effective devolution of powers. Often the decisions taken by the elected body at the ULB is superseded at the state level due to political differences. Hence, to improve the coordination mechanism it is essential that all the decisions from bottom (Local Self-Government institutions) to top (State Government and Central Ministry), the hierarchy with respect to urban service delivery, shall converge at the Mayor’s office who is directly held accountable to the citizens.
b. Lack of Data on Demand-Supply of Urban Services
There is no data available on the demand and supply of urban servicesat the city level, leading to inadequate service delivery. Outdated norms formulated in 1963 by the Zacharia Committee are still used for benchmarking urban services in the cities as it is often referred by institutions like CPHEEO, Planning Commission and the State government to set the norms. Residents of Kochi city recently suffered a water crisis due to the untimely setting up of water hydrants by the Kerala Water Authority, which should have been installed earlier in the first place. There is a need for incorporating suitable tools like GIS technology to gather data based on which the urban delivery decisions can be made.
c. Fiscal Limit
Section 217 of the Kerala Municipality Act, 1994, defines the fiscal limit for the projects which can be carried out independently by the ULBs. All other projects, which require funds greater than the prescribed amount, shall get permission of the State government at each stage of the project, which slows down the pace of implementation of the project. Considering the fast-paced growth of the cities, the ULBs need to attain financial autonomy by finding their own revenue sources through unlocking land value through Value Capture Financing Model.
d. Lack of Manpower
Lack of manpower in the ULBs is another reason for the inefficient service delivery. The Corporation has limited power in the recruitment process to hire qualified experts, as the recruitment is done by the Local Self Government department at the state level and the law does not prescribe on the appointment of experts like transport/environment planners to the ULBs. Though Municipal Corporations have the power to appoint staff based on contract basis, prior approval needs to be taken from the State government once the council approves. Apart from the procedural delays in appointing experts, frequent transfers is another major reason why the urban service delivery projects suffer. In order to improve the quality of service, it is essential to provide capacity building training for the ULB officials as per the project requirements. Adding a credit-based system for promotions may encourage the officials to actively involve in such training.
Hence, the present situation where ULBs acting as mere service providers in Indian cities shall improve only if the State is ready to give more powers to them. Unless, the fingers shall always be pointed at the ULBs for the failure of quality service delivery, irrespective of the restrictions imposed by the State government on them.
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Section 217 of the Kerala Municipality Act, 1994. Power of the different authorities to sanction estimates.— 40[(l) Subject to the availability of resources and the provision in the budget estimate, the Authority competent to accord administrative sanction to the estimates of any works or schemes and the limit up to which such sanction may be accorded shall be as shown below, namely:— (a) Town Panchayat Upto twenty-five thousand rupees Exceeding twenty-five thousand rupees (b) Municipal Council Upto fifty thousand rupees Exceeding fifty thousand rupees (c) Municipal Corporation (i) Standing Committee (ii) Council (i) Standing Committee (ii) Council (i) Standing Committee (ii) Council Upto one lakh rupees Exceeding one lakh rupees.]
“Value Capture Finance Policy Framework – Smart Cities Mission.” http://smartcities.gov.in/upload/5901982d9e461VCFPolicyFrameworkFINAL.pdf. Accessed 17 November, 2020.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research