The COVID-19 Pandemic has forced policymakers and academics to revisit and rethink the role and importance of urban local bodies (ULBs) in a broader model. The #IMPRI Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi organized a talk on “Innovation and Empowerment of ULBs for Effective Decentralization and Accountability” by Dr Purnima Chauhan, IAS (Retd.) under the series #LocalGovernance with Tikender Singh Panwar.
The speaker for the session was Dr Purnima Chauhan, IAS (Retd.), Secretary (Retd.), Government of Himachal Pradesh. The panellists included Prof Mahalaya Chatterjee, Professor, Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Department of Economics, University of Calcutta and Prof Uday Shankar, Registrar and Professor, Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur. The moderator for the session was Tikender Singh Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla; Visiting Senior Fellow, IMPRI, New Delhi.
A Brief Introduction
Tikender Singh began the discussion by contextualising how local governance plays an important role in transforming the cities. He stated that decentralization and democratisation of local bodies and people are important elements of local governance. One important question raised by him was why the local governance is neglected? He emphasised “reclaiming our spaces” for city governance and highlighted the proliferation of slums due to minimal focus on planning cities.
The Need for Shift in the Focus
Dr Purnima started her lecture by emphasizing refraining from the thought process of the “one size fits for all” mindset, given that mountains and coastal areas are much more vulnerable. She highlighted a viability gap in these areas and inadequate fund allocation to these regions considering their vulnerable position.
She went on to discuss a few horizontal and vertical challenges in governance and stressed some constraints that the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) face in the mountains like limited working hours, small population and climatic conditions, along with the need for an intensive capacity building program. She discussed the successful case of solid waste management in Europe regions and compared to India’s situation, she feels there is a lack of motivation. Ma’am encouraged the need for an institutionalized system of people’s participation.
Data and Innovation
Mentioning the innovations required in local governance, she labelled data as the new oil and emphasized evidence-based decision making and the need to overcome trust deficit to ensure all the three tiers of government work together either through a top-down approach or a bottoms-up approach. She also discussed her initial participation in the District Good Governance Index and how today every state is actively participating in this ranking for a good governance reputation.
Dr Purnima emphasised a few improvement pointers, like the need for time-bound and quality services at affordable cost in the future, increased involvement of women in the rural workforce, the requirement for big data analysts and considering the cost of service provided by the government. She stressed the bottom level of the pyramid in order to scale India as a five trillion dollar economy.
Dr Purnima concluded her discussion by stating the need for adhering to the relevance of demand and supply and assessing the market for evidence-based decision making. A need-based approach is to be considered an important aspect for future scenarios.
Prof Mahalaya began by stating the need for imposing the Centre or state-level plans after considering India’s diversity and shifting the focus towards middle and tier-2 cities. Talking about the post-COVID revival, she highlighted how the role of local bodies and representatives has increased or getting stuck in a cash or skill trap situation isn’t enough. Prof Mahalaya, through her interesting example of the parlour and cycle scheme program by the Government of Kolkata, gave insights into the different needs for each municipality. She concluded by emphasizing the need for an equal participation chance to be given to the public.
Prof Uday started his discussion by stating that the 2-tier or multi-tier system is a tried and tested formula and discussed the benefits of local power like better-addressing citizens’ complaints if we have local government and civil servants, the role of incentives and legally having the same set of rights. He defined public service as an entitlement and mentioned if amenities are assured by the government then law and order would itself prevail in society. According to Prof Uday, the strengthening of local government plays a significant role in establishing the rule of law, the multiplicity of jurisdiction facilitates in managing risks, and constitutional schemes to strengthen 3-tier governments.
A very important point highlighted by Prof Uday was the deficiency in implementation. A few suggestions by Prof Uday include introducing municipal cadres like IPS and IAS to ensure accountability, attempting reform in municipal governance either through the private process or through technology-driven advancements, strengthening institutions and not replacing them for better efficiency and grievance redressal. In the end, he asked to focus on empowering the people and emphasised the important role of Urban Local Bodies.
Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra started his discussion by stating four main keywords in the context of city life, that is innovation, empowerment, decentralization and accountability. He addressed the need for new approaches to handle day-to-day challenges.
Questioning the sufficiency of the existing system, he asks to be more innovative, collaborative and empowered. According to him, the issue of adequate financing to local government, the need for collaborative efforts by private, government or CSR, innovations in urban sectors be experimental, and the status of municipal monopoly needs are essential and need to be addressed. Concluding the discussion, he stressed the challenges in the implementation setup and energizing the entire eco-system of municipalities.
Acknowledgement: Sunishtha Yadav is a Research Intern at IMPRI