- COVID-19 has brought in unprecedented challenges to India’s metropolitan cities, yet again highlighting their limited capabilities to self-govern. The absence of comprehensive and integrated urban planning is starkly visible in the pandemic.
Major issues in health sector
Less public spending
- India’s public health expenditure in 2018 was a mere 1.28% of GDP.
More out of pocket expenditure
- According to the World Bank, India’s out-of-pocket health expenditure was 62.4% in 2017, while the world average was 18.2%.
- Manpower in the health sector is low with India’s doctor-population ratio being 1:1,457 which is lower than the World Health Organisation norm of 1:1,000.
No governance architecture
- Complimenting an inequitable public health system is a larger governance issue.
- Specific systemic factors underlying city governance include spatial planning, municipal capacities, empowered mayors and councils and inter-agency coordination, and ward-level citizen participation which are still lacking.
Lack of robust integrated spatial planning:
- The Constitution mandates formation of Metropolitan Planning Committees (MPCs) in all metropolitan areas with a million-plus population.
- MPCs are envisioned to ensure integrated planning for the entire metropolitan area, and are responsible for the preparation of draft development plans, synthesising priorities set by local authorities, State and Central governments.
- In reality, MPCs are either not constituted or are not functioning.
- Janaagraha’s Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems 2017 report found that only nine out of 18 cities assessed had constituted MPCs even if on paper.
Weak municipal capacities
- India’s metropolitan cities have weak capacities in finance and staffing.
- According to ASICS 2017, Mumbai has the highest number of officers per lakh population at 938. However, this is abysmally low compared to global cities such as Johannesburg with 2,922 officers and New York with 5,446 officers per lakh population.
Weak mayor and council and fragmentation of governance
- No big metropolitan cities with a 10 million-plus population has a directly-elected Mayor.
- Mumbai’s Mayor has a tenure of 2.5 years, Delhi and Bengaluru, a mere one year.
- Mayors do not have full decision-making authority over critical functions of planning, housing, water, environment, fire and emergency services in most cases.
Transparency, accountability and citizen participation
- Transparent cities with institutional platforms encouraging citizen participation have significant bearing on urban democracy.
- No metropolitan has functional ward committees and area sabhas.
- An absence of citizen participation is worsened by poor transparency in finance and operations.
- As per ASICS 2017, India’s big metropolitan cities on average score 3.04/10 in transparency, accountability and participation.
- It is time the Central and State governments lead efforts towards a metropolitan governance paradigm which includes
- Empowered Mayors with five-year tenure
- Decentralised ward level governance
- Inter-agency coordination anchored by the city government.
- Medium- to long-term spatial planning that focuses on equal access to opportunities and services can avoid a repeat of such disasters.
- There is an urgency to bolster the capability of municipalities to self-govern.
- Decentralised citizen participation platforms are critical in identifying beneficiaries to provide aid, co-opting communities for contact tracing, adoption of safety precautions, enforcing quarantine, recruiting volunteers, and collaborating with civil society organisations to battle the pandemic.
- India needs home-grown solutions suited to its context and political realities, while imbibing lessons on institutional design from global examples.
- Metropolitan cities should be steered by a directly-elected leader, with robust mechanisms to reduce fragmentation in governance.
- Examples include the Tokyo metropolitan government, and recent experimental models such as combined authorities in the United Kingdom and Australia.
- India should use the current pandemic as an opportunity to introspect and reform the way its metropolises are governed.