Urban governance systems must reform
A comparative analysis of the emerging coronavirus cases across India clearly shows that rural areas have fared extremely well in comparison to urban areas in enforcing the various Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines related to the lockdowns and, consequently, in containing the overall spread of COVID-19.
It can also be ascertained that a majority of the uncontrolled COVID-19 spread has occurred in urban areas and metropolitan cities, despite them having better health infrastructure. The urban governance machinery certainly has lessons to learn from its rural contemporary.
Reforming the urban governance model
- Fundamentally, there is a stark contrast between the socio-economic and demographic landscape of the rural and urban areas. A robust urban governance model needs to recognise these differences and accordingly adapt itself to better serve the urban citizen.
- It is important to rebuild our urban governance model on the following pillars – Convergence and accountability; urban populace specific schemes; wider public participation; and use of the latest technologies.
What should we do?
- To begin with, there is an urgent need to re-empower the institution of the district magistrate in urban towns. Notably, most of the functions that the gram panchayats and other departments perform in rural areas are usually monitored and supervised by district collectors — this is not the case with the municipalities in urban areas.
- To achieve convergence, we need to have a clear command and control structure at the field level. We need to eliminate the multiplicity of authorities and institutions in the urban areas with one function being managed by one institution only — and which is publicly accountable. A beginning in this direction could be made by designating the district magistrate as the ex-officio municipal commissioner, and also ensuring that the line department functionaries report to the DM in the field.
- A re-empowered DM can operate a centralised call centre where anyone can register any grievance related to any department, and since all of them would be reporting to the DM, he can then directly engage the concerned department for an early resolution of the grievance.
- A reformed urban governance machinery needs to invest in building a credible database of the urban poor and migrants, along with mapping their skills that is maintained centrally at the office of the re-empowered district magistrate. The urban poor may be granted new types of identification documents which can be held by the people in addition to those pertaining directly to their native place: The national migrant database, announced in May by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is a step in this direction.
- To garner meaningful public feedback in urban areas, the unified urban governance structure led by the DM needs to take cognisance of new emerging social settings where the public is most easily accessible for interaction. These include interacting with the public over social media and radio shows. Public meetings must be held at places and at times that cause minimum disruption to the citizens’ daily schedules.
To perform the regulatory functions – such as town planning, enforcing building by-laws and renewal of trade licenses – a reformed urban district administration shall have to increasingly use technologies such as mobile-governance, geo-spatial platforms for zonal regulations and property tax, tele-education, and block chain-based networks for record keeping and verification.