We must wonder about Joseph de Maistre’s conclusion in 1811 that “every nation has the government it deserves!” as there has been ample evidence of bad governance this past fortnight. The stinking evidence piling up on the streets of Delhi indicates problems at all levels – national, state and local. Are we so cursed as a nation that we cannot get even a modicum of good governance at any level?

We have a birth-to-death relationship with our municipalities without whose registration of births we may not exist, and without whose death certificates we run the risk of becoming immortal. But what we need to be concerned about is the relationship we have with this tier of government through our lifetime.

Rural-urban migration up

The paradox of the population accretion into urban areas is that the major expansion begins at the lowest economic strata with economic refugees pouring into cities. From much before the days of Dick Whittington (1354-1423) and his cat who migrated to London believing that the “streets of London were paved with gold”, urban areas lured rural folk in search of excitement and fortunes.

The story of Dhirubhai Ambani who moved from the remote village of Chorwad in Gujarat to the opulence of his family home, Sea Wind, in Mumbai, might well be the Whittington tale of our times. While that might be the lure for the more gifted and ambitious, the vast majority are just economic refugees defeated by a hard land and diminishing holdings and prospects.

As per census estimates, India’s urban population grew from 290 million in 2001 to 377 million in 2011, accounting for over 30% of the country’s population. Urban India accounted for 62% to 63% of the country’s GDP in 2009-'10.

Bursting cities

By 2050, India will have almost a billion people living in urban areas and less than 700 million in rural areas. That is the kind of shift that is underway. The management of urban areas now must be a major national priority.

Because of their dense population and the breakdown of traditional hierarchies that ensured a degree of conformist behavior, urban areas are highly volatile and can bring about social and political destabilisation rather suddenly. India is entering a dangerous phase, and Delhi must show the way.

The erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi that governed eight of the 11 districts in Delhi (the other three governed by the New Delhi Municipal Council and the Delhi Cantonment Board) was among the largest municipal bodies in the world providing civic services to more than 11 million people spread across 1,397.3 square km.

Multiple civic bodies

In 2012, it was divided into three – the North, South and East civic corporations – for what many believe was political reasons by the Congress governments at the Centre and the state ostensibly to gerrymander their way back to power. It didn’t work. The Bharatiya Janata Party has kept control of the municipal corporations of Delhi for 14 consecutive years.

The three newest municipal corporations are socially and economically very different. South Delhi has the most affluent areas and its vast property tax base is now no longer available to the less fortunate North and East corporations. These poorer siblings are dependent on handouts from an increasingly assertive state government, which insists on knowing how the money given is utilised. Most municipalities are notorious for their corrupt ways and sloth and Delhi is no exception. A drive around the national capital will give you a good idea of how badly the city is managed with rampant unauthorised constructions and occupation of public spaces. Delhi practically has no pavements left for pedestrians. What is not taken over for commerce is taken over as informal urinals. What choice do people have anyway? The area under the three municipal corporations and the New Delhi Municipal Council requires almost 45,000 public conveniences. But they don’t even have a small fraction of that. To compound matters, 18.4% of Delhi homes do not have toilets, which means most open spaces and public spaces are dumping grounds, literally.

Revenue deficit

The corporations are severely financially strapped too.

East Delhi standing committee chairperson BB Tyagi lays out his corporation’s predicament clearly: “Our monthly expenditure is around Rs 100 crore and this amounts to Rs 1,200 crore annually. The revenue generated every year, however, is just Rs 700-750 crore.”

Tyagi adds: “There are around 5 lakh-6 lakh properties, of which a little over 2 lakh properties pay tax. Moreover, there are at least 30 unauthorised colonies in this zone and we do not collect any property tax from these areas.”

But collection of taxes from these properties is going to be politically unpopular, and no elected government courts unpopularity even if it is for better governance.

The North Municipal Corporation generates nearly Rs 1,400 crore in revenue annually but its annual expenditure is between Rs 2,100 and Rs 2,200 crore, a gap of nearly Rs 700-800 crore. The revenue and expenditure mismatch is obvious.

Then, in addition to their primary civic duties the three MCDs are saddled with 715 schools with 3.5 lakh children and five hospitals. Half of their expenditure is on health and education. Clearly, they are left with nothing for capital expenditure. Hence the corporations have to depend on handouts. But the hand that gives will always insist on knowing how the money was spent.

The case for a merger

In shining contrast to the three corporations carved out from the erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi is the territory of the New Delhi Municipal Council comprising Lutyens Delhi – the abode and workplace of the high and mighty, most of Delhi’s posh markets, expensive office locations and five-star hotels. This golden area of about 43 square km is the model of financial stability and plenty. It had a surplus of Rs 335.4 crore last year.

Clearly, the corporations cannot cope with the civic needs of its citizens and their revenue bases.

One way to make the spread of money more even and to ensure distributive justice would be to merge all the corporations into one big unit where revenues can be spread evenly.

It cannot be argued that the success of the posher New Delhi Municipal Council areas is because of spends by local residents only. All the people of Delhi make this tiny area rich with their patronage and taxes.

Focus on civic services

The other way of dealing with this would be to shear the lists of responsibilities of the civic bodies significantly.

Why should the corporations run schools and hospitals when the Delhi government does that too? These can be transferred to the state government. The corporations should be tasked only with urban management and civic services. Many civic services that the corporations provide are very basic but they are high-cost operations because of the government pay structure. These jobs can be outsourced to contractors whose wage structures are infinitely low. The corporations should be asked to give financial projections for the next few years before seeking new funds.

Clearly this will involve conflicts between the political players who will fight to either protect or extend their turfs. That is where the national leadership has a role. It should travel the high road and seek solutions for our problems rather than piling them up. Like the overflowing garbage in India’s capital city tells us. This is the time for Prime Minister Modi to act. He promised us better government and less government. This is the place to start