There is a hierarchy to the attention government budgets get. Most citizens follow the Union budget closely, a few pay attention to State budgets, and just about a handful keep an eye on city budgets. The hierarchy should in fact be reverse for city dwellers at least, for it is city budgets that impact their daily lives the most. Whether it is budgetary allocations for footpaths and streetlights, or garbage collection and roads, or storm water drains and parks, they are all predominantly made in city budgets, not State or Union budgets.

Directing citizens’ attention towards city budgets would highlight the fact that, with aggregate revenues of Rs 100,000 crore or less, capital expenditure budgets of our municipalities are scarce. Beset with multiple civic challenges, our cities require more capital expenditure to acquire or improve long-term assets. This challenge can’t be met easily. Even if capital expenditure budgets of other civic agencies – such as the development authority or the transport corporation – were added, it wouldn’t address the problem. The cities would enhance their financial position, but not enough to meet all the basic needs of citizens.

So, given these limitations, what can Indian cities do to make sure that their money is spent carefully to meet specific, well-defined quality of life outcomes in a cost-effective manner? Well, what better way than to ask the citizens.

Realistic intervention

Participatory Budgeting, a structured process that asks citizens where they would like money to be spent, has emerged as a well-run citizen engagement exercise in several countries. It is estimated that more than 1,500 cities in Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe practice participatory budgeting whose origins can be traced to Porto Alegre in Brazil. Since 1989, as many as 50,000 citizens have been said to take part in deciding as much as 20% of the city’s budget.

There are examples at home too. The Pune Municipal Corporation institutionalised participatory budgeting in 2006 in close collaboration with NGOs such as Janwani and Centre for Environment Education. The Pune municipality now sets aside Rs 50 lakh per prabhag (equivalent of a ward) for citizens to decide on, and provides a separate annexure in its annual budget document to list those works. More recently, the government of Delhi ran participatory budgeting in 11 assembly constituencies for Budget 2015-’16 and has set aside around Rs 1,500 crores in Budget 2016-’17.

Participatory budgeting in Indian cities isn’t just a romantic idea, but a realistic policy intervention. It comes with four advantages:

1. It builds much-needed trust between citizens and governments by providing citizens an opportunity to participate in decisions of allocating resources at the neighbourhood level. After all, the government is holding and spending funds on behalf of its citizens.

2. It can potentially ensure that funds are better targeted towards outcomes since citizens, as end-users of infrastructure and services, are best placed to tell whether a project has improved their quality of life. This could go a long way in changing the culture of implementation of civic projects, creating a scenario where just executing projects without achieving quality outcomes isn’t enough.

3. Involving citizens in budgeting serves as an accountability mechanism for governments and civic agencies. Our municipal bodies are too stretched to effectively monitor project execution at the last mile or to make sure that money is spent on the purpose for which it is budgeted. So by keeping an eye on where the money is going, citizens work to their benefit as well as of the government. Importantly, this creates ownership of the city among citizens. The engagement of citizens need not be only through physical inspection of works in neighbourhoods, but also through review of periodic data on status of works and payments.

4. Participatory budgeting channelizes citizen energy to a positive, constructive, systemic mode, away from a negative, complaint-centric, tactical mode. This reinforces the message that the citizen’s right to complain on civic issues needs to be accompanied by the obligation to participate.

Citizen participation in city budgeting can commence with three simple steps of collating inputs from citizens, prioritising them at the levels of the administration and the council, and publishing lists of inputs that have been accepted along with the annual budget documents of governments. Engaging citizens and citizen groups in prioritisation can be the next step, and this can be accompanied by publication of actionable data on the status of civic works and payments. This should be done not just by the municipality, but also by the state government and other civic agencies servicing the city.

Citizen participation in city budgets strengthens the representative nature of our democracy by providing elected representatives with a consolidated, ready-reckoner of citizen inputs for their consideration, which they otherwise would not have access to. After all, the average constituency size of a city councillor or MLA is large. In Bangalore, for instance, a city councillor on average represents an area of 4 sq km and close to 50,000 citizens.

Even as advocacy for area or mohalla sabhas and ward committees continues, citizens and governments need to find innovative modes of engagement to tide over civic challenges and break the status quo of poor quality of life, scarce funds, low levels of trust and civic apathy. Channelising citizen energy towards city budgets may just be the idea.

Sapna Karim is Coordinator (Civic Participation) and Srikanth Viswanathan is Coordinator (Advocacy and Reforms) at Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.