Indore’s Municipal Corporation received an overwhelming response from institutional and corporate investors when it issued a green bond last week. This development set a positive tone for similar resource-scarce urban bodies looking for investments to meet civic needs and ambition. However, mobilising capital through bond issuance is still at a nascent stage for urban bodies, experts opined.

Bonds are issued by governments or companies to borrow money from investors for major projects. For investors, bonds are a fixed-income investment. ‘Green’ bonds, in particular, are for raising money for climate and environment projects.

Indore, one of India’s ‘smart’ cities, aims to use this fund to reduce its financial burden related to the drinking water needs of the city. With the mobilised fund, Indore aims to install solar plants and use the renewable energy to fetch water from the Narmada River from the Khargone district, some 80 km away from the city. The Indore’s Municipal Corporation spends around Rs 3 billion every year for the same. Closing on February 15, the issuance was subscribed 5.9 times and attracted a subscription of Rs 7.2 billion. The base price was Rs 1.2 billion.

Experts called it exciting news. Namita Aggarwal from Janaagraha, a Bengaluru-based think tank working with urban local bodies on policy and governance, said that this is a very encouraging development given the fiscal gap under urban local bodies functioning. The fact that the bond was oversubscribed is a positive development.

She lauds Indore’s initiative to issue green bonds to focus on sustainability issues. Before this, Ghaziabad has issued a green bond in 2021 for setting up a water treatment plant.

When it comes to local governance, the Indore urban local body has been setting records. In India’s Municipal Performance Index, Indore emerged as the highest-ranked municipal corporation in 2020. The city has maintained a top position in the cleanliness survey for consecutive six years.

The city received a special mention in a recently published report by the Reserve Bank of India for being the first municipal corporation to list on the National Stock Exchange in 2018.

Focused on municipal finance, the report appeared on November 10 and gives a glimpse of urban local bodies’ financial health.

An e-bus near Sarei Kale Khan in New Delhi. Credit: Manish Kumar/Mongabay

Burgeoning needs

The cities of India have been growing in population over the past fifty years. In 1951, there were five metropolitan cities with a population of over one million. In the latest census (2011), India’s 53 cities have more than one million population. There are estimates that India will add over 416 million urban residents in its cities between 2018 and 2050, bringing the urban population to over 850 million people by the end of the period.

The rapid growth of urbanisation in India has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in urban infrastructure, says the Reserve Bank of India report on municipal finances.

The increasing urbanisation is putting pressure on the infrastructure. There is an increasing demand for affordable housing, integrated transport systems, and basic infrastructure like water, and electricity along with schools, hospitals, etc. The Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed the lack of preparedness of Indian cities which now need to be prepared for managing future disasters. Simultaneously, there is added burden due to climate change. Rise in sea level, cyclones, flooding, and heat waves warrant climate adaptation and risk mitigation plans, says the Reserve Bank of India paper.

In this scenario, the three-tier local governments need significant capital to prepare their infrastructure for future challenges.

To estimate the required capital, the government of India constituted a high-power expert committee that gave its report in 2011. The committee estimated that urban infrastructure (eight sectors) will need Rs 31 trillion in 20 years from 2012 to 2031 (estimated at 2009-’10 prices). Those sectors include water supply, sewerage, solid waste management, urban roads, storm water drains, urban transport, traffic support infrastructure, and street lighting.

This estimated investment however, has not been revised in the last decade, said Janaagraha’s Aggarwal, adding that currently, urban local bodies do not have the financial capacity to meet citizens’ needs. They are heavily dependent on state and federal grants that are unpredictable and insufficient. The capital expenditure of cities has grown manifold in the last decade or so, she added.

The Reserve Bank of India paper also reiterates the same, “Due to limited sources of revenue generation, municipal corporations in India are largely dependent on grants from the central and state governments for meeting their expenditure needs.”

Extreme weather events such as the Chennai floods in December 2015 have brought environment issues into mainstream discussions. Credit: Destination8infinity/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nilachala Acharya from the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability said that the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992 empowered urban local bodies to function as independent ‘institutions of self-government.’ However, for discharging their obligatory functions and basic services to urban residents, most of these urban local bodies have been dependent on the resources from the Union and state governments. Acharya works as the research lead with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability and has studied the finances of six municipal corporations in India and leading the work on presenting fiscal information of municipal corporations through a dashboard for easy to understand and comprehend by non-technical audience.

Acharya’s study reveals that “now the urban local bodies are heavily dependent on grants given by the centre and states.”

The grants for these local bodies are decided by the recommendations of the Central Finance Commission from time to time. The State Finance Commissions also recommend grants from the consolidated fund of states to supplement the municipalities’ resources. Both the Central Finance Commissions and State Finance Commissions are constituted every five years and recommend grants for municipalities from the Consolidated Fund of India and States. However, it is not a guarantee that the urban local bodies get the entire amount of the recommended grant. There are some suggested guidelines from both the Union and state governments that need to be followed to be eligible.

The latest Finance Commission (Fifteenth) for the year 2021 to 2026, recommends Rs 1.2 trillion for five years in way of grants to local governments. It says, “To cater to the growing urbanisation needs, a total of Rs 1,21,055 crore is recommended for urban local bodies for the period 2021-’26.” Before this, the Fourteenth Finance Commission recommended Rs 871.4 billion to urban local bodies for five years from 2015 to 2020 which included Rs 697.1 billion as a basic grant and Rs 174.29 billion as a performance grant. Apart from these Central Finance Commission grants, states also devolve grants to urban local bodies, however, these grants are minimal.

As per the Reserve Bank of India paper, the local rural and urban bodies received less than 90% of the recommended grants during thirteenth and fourteenth plan period. Being dependent on grants also affects urban local bodies’ financial autonomy, says the Reserve Bank of India report which goes on to explore possible ways through which municipalities can generate resources. It discusses bond issuance as a tool too.

Financing through bonds

In the last few years, there has been a push from the centre for local governments to use bonds to mobilise capital from the market. In her budget speech, the Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, “States and cities will be encouraged to undertake urban planning reforms and actions to transform our cities into ‘sustainable cities of tomorrow.’ This means efficient use of land resources, adequate resources for urban infrastructure, transit-oriented development, enhanced availability and affordability of urban land, and opportunities for all.” For this, cities will be incentivised to improve their creditworthiness for municipal bonds, she added.

Waste-to-energy plant in Okhla near Delhi. As per the new rules, waste-to-energy comes under the green energy umbrella and can be used in open power trade system. Credit: Kundan Pandey/Mongabay

Though, market borrowings through bond issuances are not new in India. The first municipal bond came in 1997 when Bengaluru tried to mobilise funds through the debt instrument. “Since then, the Indian municipal bond market witnessed healthy growth until the mid-2000s, with nine municipal corporations raising around Rs 12 billion,” informs the Reserve Bank of India paper. However, it came to a sudden halt after 2005 with the launch of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

Acharya from Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability explained the possible reason saying that urban local bodies might have stopped exploring venues of resources, including bonds, as they were getting resources from centre and states to improve basic services.

However, there is a resurgence of municipal bonds since 2017 with nine municipal corporations raising around Rs 38.4 billion during 2017-’21, the paper informed.

The Ministry of Housing & Urban Affairs also provides incentives to urban local bodies for the issuance of municipal bonds.

Though there is an exclusive emphasis on issuance bonds, experts said that this is still a distant dream. Namita Aggarwal said that revenue mobilisation through bonds is at a very nascent stage. Re-issuance of municipal bonds have been very limited. It means cities that have gone for municipal bond issuance have only done it as a one-time activity to raise money, and not as a sustainable form of funding for their infrastructure projects.

The larger million-plus cities can look for mobilising finance through this tool. “But it does not look to me as a major source of funding given the current status of smaller municipalities. The cities lag on many fronts. They do not have their strong revenue source and also there are no predictable grants from the states. There is a lack of trust in the market regarding the repayment capacities of municipal corporations. Trust needs to be built first, for the market to be able to see that this is a good investment,” she adds.

She listed several hurdles including the gap between market expectations and what municipal corporations are offering. Cities lack financial literacy and cannot take this forward. They are heavily dependent on state capacities and privately hired advisors to guide them in the overall process of bond issuance. “Cities should have their own set of bankable projects that they have created and have inherent revenue potential. And to fund those projects, they should go to market. Right now, what is happening is the opposite of this. Cities are going to the market because this is a new thing to do. They are going into the market first and thinking about the project later,” she added.

Due to poor planning and programme budgeting; and varying accounting practices followed by urban local bodies across states, the level of fiscal transparency is very low and hence the chance of mobilising resources from market through issuing bonds would be bleak, said Nilachala Acharya.

The Reserve Bank of India paper also underlines this fact by saying that municipal laws do not prescribe any uniform accounting standard to be followed, rendering municipal accounts largely incomparable across states and even within a state.

The Comptroller & Auditor General of India constituted a task force on accounting format for urban local bodies in 2002. The task force recommended an accrual accounting system for municipalities to ensure the correct, complete, and timely recording of municipal transactions. It is also supposed to help in producing accurate and relevant financial reports. Following this, the central government formulated the National Municipal Accounts Manual in 2004. As a next step, state governments were supposed to implement National Municipal Accounts Manual, however, only nine states (of the fourteen states for which information pertaining to adoption of state municipal accounts manual is available in the Comptroller & Auditor General reports have approved it, as per the Reserve Bank of India paper.

Now, the central government is relying on the credit rating of municipal corporations and has included it in the reform agenda of the Smart Cities and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation programme. Of the 94 cities that have been assigned credit ratings in 2018, 59% received a rating of investment grade or above, highlighting the under-utilised potential for bond financing by Indian municipalities, concludes the Reserve Bank of India paper.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.