Improving quality of urban governance

George Cheriyan and Amar Deep Singh

The main thrust of decentralisation is to bring governance nearer to people to enhance its quality.

Urbanisation is an indicator of economic development. However, today, big cities are under severe strain, particularly in terms of making access to infrastructure and services to the increasing population

The Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) play an important role in the planning and development of urban areas. The 74th Constitution Amendment Act (CAA) of 1992 provides for a significant devolution of functions and powers to the local bodies through decentralisation and people’s participation in local self-governance. However, unlike the 73rd CAA, the 74th CAA, aimed at the creation of local bodies in the rural areas, has not taken off.

The main thrust of decentr-alisation is to bring governance nearer to the people in order
to enhance its quality. Civic engagement is one of the critical norms of good urban governance. This could be achieved by promoting democracy through free and fair elections, providing space for civil society participation, promoting civic sense through mechanisms like city watch groups, citizens actions groups etc. People would take part in the issues that affect them directly, thereby having a say in the decision-making.

The concept of ward committees as per 74th CAA is a novel addition in examples of people-centric governance. The ward committees create the platform for citizen’s participation from below the municipal level, thus bringing the electorate closer to their representatives. It is expected to increase effectiveness of public policy by providing feedback to policy makers and extract accountability of elected representatives and local officials, by providing a space for citizens to critically evaluate their performance.

Despite the clarity and details that the 74th CAA provides about the constitution of the ward committees, majority of the states have neither constituted the ward committees nor are functional or have interpreted the provisions differently. One of the reasons for poor performance of the ULBs is this complete disconnect with the citizens.

Kerala has been considered a potential model for citizen participation through ward committees which provided an elaborate legal and institutional framework for functioning of ward committees, designed to be highly participatory, providing proximity of people to elected representatives. Ward committees in Kerala have tasks that include preparing and supervising ward level development schemes and identifying beneficiaries of welfare schemes among others.

As part of a process to better understand the status of ward committees in cities where it existed, we recently visited Bengaluru and made a quick check on the ground about the status of ward committees. Other than meeting with the officials of Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), which is now dissolved, we met with corporators and members of the ward committees in selected wards.

Using Facebook, e-groups

Though it was as a result of court directive in January 2013 to form ward committees in all the 198 wards and put online contact details of all ward committee members to enable citizens to reach out to their respective wards and apprise them of grievances, in all wards the ward committees were indeed formed. Though initial apprehensions were there, the corporators acknowledged the benefit of the same.

H A Srinivasa, then corporator of Hagaduru, said, “I, 100 per cent welcome the constitution of ward committees, because the members are very pro-active in the development planning of the ward and bring issues from all parts of the wards on a daily basis.” Members of the ward committees, whom we met said they play an active role in the work related to garbage collection, roads, drainage, street lights, parks, lakes etc. and share information using Facebook and e-groups.

In order to create a space for citizen’s engagement, as visualised in the 74th CAA, the Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) initiated a pilot intervention titled “Improving service delivery by local urban government in the city of Jaipur through enhanced civic engagement”– MyCity, in Jaipur city in August 2012 in partnership with The Asia Foundation (TAF). In three years, the intervention covered a total of 40 wards.

These interventions crafted space for citizen engagement and resulted in changes on the ground in the selected wards. The ‘Citizen Report Cards’ and ‘Public Services Index’ of the targeted wards showed a substantial improvement in the quality of delivery of services, wherever the citizen engagement mechanisms were put in place and Citizen Action Groups (CAG) were formed. The recently held meeting of the ‘Rajasthan Mayor’s Learning Platform’ under MyCity in Jaipur, fully endorsed the need to create space for citizen participation and formation of ward committees.

Today, MyCity is well recognised by all stakeholders as a platform for civic engagement in the city of Jaipur and there is a competition among and demand from councillors to get their wards covered under MyCity. If we have to improve the quality of urban governance, space for active civic engagement is a must and need to implement the 74th CAA, in letter and spirit.

(Cheriyan is Director and Singh is Project Coordinator (MyCity) of CUTS International, Jaipur)