Local government reforms are crucial for Swachh Bharat

By  Sanjeev Sabhlok

Melbourne has been ranked the most liveable city in the world for seven out of the past eight years by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Currently it is ranked second. Much of this liveability can be attributed to Melbourne’s efficient local governments (38 of them in all) which ensure high quality local infrastructure.

On the other hand, the Swachh Bharat campaign has been a comprehensive failure. Even thinking about the sights that I came across during my travels earlier this year across India causes my stomach to churn. India is disgustingly dirty and polluted. And local roads and footpaths are in shambles.

In my official work-related role in a Victorian government department in Melbourne, I have been closely involved with the development of local government policy over recent years. Basically, the focus of Victoria’s local government system is on alignment of incentives and achieving accountability.

First, local governments in Victoria are almost fully independent, with strong taxation powers (rates and fees). Second, the elected representatives have complete powers to hire (and fire) the CEO of the municipality. These CEOs are hired from the open market on a time-limited contract and paid a significant salary. The CEOs, in turn, have full powers to hire and fire down the line. Elected councillors do not interfere in how the CEO carries out his job. Only if he fails does the council hold him to account. Third, councils are manageable in size and there is no distinction in the legislation
that applies to rural and urban councils.

In this manner the local governments of Victoria (and the West, more generally) operate on best- practice principles of subsidiarity, democracy and new public administration with a clear line of sight of accountability for delivery.

Consider the council in which I live, the Manningham Council – one of 38 councils in Greater Melbourne. It has a population of 1,23,000 (around the size of a block in India), 9 councillors, one mayor (on rotation), 520 full time equivalent staff (many are part time, so this would mean around 650 staff in all), and a total annual expenditure of $125 million. The CEO (on a contract) is paid around $350,000 per year. The CEOs of bigger councils like the Melbourne City Council get much more, around $460,000.

In India, on the other hand, utter confusion prevails in the local government sector. First, there is a thing called district in India with its own set of officials who are accountable to no one locally. The British set up a system of divisional commissioners and deputy commissioners as the eyes and ears of the imperial government in London. This system is completely inimical to subsidiarity and accountability in an independent democratic nation. (A digression: a number of reports by British deputy commissioners are available in British government archives in London and provide insights into life in India in those days. James Tooley used these records to discover amazing insights into India’s ancient school system.) We must abolish districts and only have councils. Cities like Delhi would have around 80 councils. Some functions currently performed by deputy commissioners should be given to councils, such as parts of land management. The other functions should be hived off to state departments.

Second, there is no ability of elected representatives in India’s municipalities and parishads to appoint their own CEOs, who are appointed by State governments. Even more problematically (and this is known to very few Indians), even the State governments’ powers in this regard are very limited. All senior posts in major municipal corporations are reserved by the Government of India purely for IAS officers in compliance with Part 14 of the Constitution – as implemented through IAS cadre rules. This means that IAS officers are helicoptered on to large municipal corporations (via State governments). These officers are completely unaccountable to the local elected representatives.

Third, Part 14 of the Constitution makes it next to impossible to dismiss the corrupt, leave alone incompetent, municipal employees. Even good IAS municipal commissioners can do virtually nothing if a municipal employee is corrupt or is incapable of performing his job. Fourth, wages of council staff in India are regulated by the State governments. These wages are generally very low and insufficient to attract competent staff. There is also no reward for performance. Instead, there are huge rewards for corruption. India’s level of municipal corruption is therefore the highest in the world.

Our local government system is dysfunctional by design. Even the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution are very poorly drafted and have no focus on accountability and results. There is no prospect of any competent work being done by India’s municipalities under such a system. The idea of Swachh Bharat can be ruled out. Even the incentives of elected representatives are skewed, without meaningful compensation for their time and effort. As a result, they too are complicit in large-scale corruption.

If India has to succeed, we need a complete shakeup of our local government system. We need small local governments that are professionally run and directly supervised by citizens. An incentives- based governance model is needed that gives full control to elected representatives over the outcomes of their council.

In this process of total transformation of local governments in India, a vast number of new jobs will be created, particularly to clean up the country and to build footpaths and roads. India will finally stop stinking like an open urinal. We will then be able to attract millions of additional foreign tourists and billions of dollars in new investment.

(Views expressed above are the author’s own).

Published by arrangement with The Times of India

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