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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 23, New Delhi, May 23, 2020

Empowering City Governments Is Key To India’s Fight Against COVID-19

Saturday 23 May 2020


by Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar, Simi Mehta

The impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic have already laid bare the shortcomings of Indian cities in addressing urban densification and inadequate provision of urban basic services including drinking water and sanitation. This pandemic has affected the urban poor more than anyone else. Health experts have opined that the citizens need to think in terms of living with this virus for at least two years. With the inevitable easing of the lockdown, the outbreaks will potentially spread in many other areas. Locally led and adapted responses that take into account the diversity and complexity of urban settings are key to mitigate the worst of the outbreak. Indeed, preparedness and early action by local governments are essential. Therefore, empowerment of city governments - political, financial, functional- when seen from this perspective is no longer a matter of choice, it is a necessity.

A major achievement of the Indian government in it’s endeavour to empower city governments is the enactment of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act. This Act offers constitutional recognition to the city governments by devolution of powers and functions. Even after 25 years, India has witnessed patchy progress in the implementation of this Act. Political empowerment has been derided by irregular elections of city governments. In most states in India, the executive authority of the city governments is vested on the state appointed commissioners. The democratically elected mayors and city councillors have very little say in the management of the cities, let alone on emergencies like COVID at the city-level.

The 12th Schedule of the 74th CAA mandates devolution of 18 functions including water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, public health and slum improvement to the city governments. The 2020 Urban Governance Reforms study conducted by Praja reveals that not a single city government among 21 major cities has control over all 18 functions listed under the 74th CAA. Out of these 21 cities, 9 cities currently experience involvement of multiple agencies in more than 10 functions. Parastatal agencies controlled by the State government plan and operate bulk of the critical infrastructure including transport, water supply, sewerage and storm water drainage systems. For water supply, the responsibility for carrying out capital works in most cities rests with a state-level agency and the operation and maintenance function in relation to water services is with the city government. Even the Smart City Guidelines state that the ‘rights and obligations’ of the local municipality be transferred to the Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) without specifying exact terms of the relationship and hierarchy between the SPVs and the municipality. Lack of synchronization of responsibilities among the multiple agencies and fragmented decision making structure has weakened the city governments, often contributing to poor services and the problems become far severe in case of managing and preventing potential disease outbreaks.

Moreover, majority of the city governments are understaffed. The Praja study reveals that while municipal corporations from Mumbai and Kolkata have eight employees per thousand populations to carry out their functions, the corresponding figure for Patna municipal corporation is only one. Not a single municipal corporation among 21 cities has all sanctioned positions filled and they have no control over recruitment process. Besides, the knowledge and skill levels related to both technical and managerial aspects are often inadequate.

Conceiving locally appropriate control strategies for COVID 19 requires engagement of local residents and community based groups with the city governments. The Act (243 S) of the 74th CAA provides for constitution of Ward Committee (WC) as deliberative body at the municipal ward level, to ensure greater participation of citizens in governance matters. Later the Community Participation Law (CPL) mandates the constitution of Area Sabha (AS), enabling further decentralization below WC to bridge the gap between government and the citizen and to foster citizen participation in decision making. However, the Act and Ordinances prepared by the States were not in complete conformity with the 74th CAA and the CPL. Some states like Gujarat and Odisha do not have any provision for constituting the AS. In many states, WCs have not been formed. Even in states where WCs are formed, for example in West Bengal, the non-occurrences of the Annual General Meetings and poor attendance of the respondents in such meetings seriously undermined the aim of ‘deepening democracy’ which could have been very much useful to better understand what’s happening on the ground and communicate key health messages amid COVID-19.

Elected representatives of the city governments, being closer to the common people, can better comprehend the needs and priorities of common people (for example, testing, quarantine, isolation, mobility, food etc), thereby making available governments provisions more responsive in terms of speed, quantity and quality of responses. This could be particularly helpful for the urban poor who prefer to access government resources through the elected councilor who accede to formers’ request in exchange of support during election. There is an army of about two lakhs elected representatives in the cities with over a third of them being women and belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and they are in touch with the most vulnerable citizens. These elected representatives have an important role to play in tailoring the COVID response to their city contexts and connecting key stakeholders by leveraging their established relationship with the local citizen.

Last but not the least, the city governments in India have continued to suffer from dwindling finances, which has been a matter of concern over the years, especially for the smaller cities. As per the ICRIER (2019) study, total revenue of the city governments in India, on an average, accounts for only 1 percent of the country’s GDP and these figures are substantially low compared to the estimated municipal revenue-GDP ratios of 8.6 percent for Canada and 8.1 percent for Germany. State governments in India have left the city governments with limited taxing instruments and autonomy and city governments, owing to their capacity constraint, have even failed to properly utilize the taxes at their disposal. For example, under assessment of properties, poor collection and wide spread exemptions have undermined the revenue potential of property tax. The situation is equally unsatisfactory on the expenditure side. Cities tend to spend more on per capita basis on general administration and salaries and wages. As a result, little funds are left for development purposes and this limits the city governments’ capacity of providing basic urban services. Essentially, the cities often get entangled in a vicious circle where paucity of resources causes poor service delivery, leading to poor revenue generation. In the absence of adequate resources and lack of institutional spaces, cities as mere implementers central and state projects prioritize short term projects rather than strategic approaches which are nonetheless more effective in dealing with emergencies.

The coronavirus outbreak should serve as a wake-up call for the policymakers to empower the city governments which are particularly well-placed to develop and implement their own strategies that are feasible and effective in their contexts. Equal importance should be accorded to three Fs – functions, funds and functionaries. Financially empowered city governments with clear functional domain and adequate institutional capacity can respond rapidly and contain the outbreak of COVID-19.


Soumyadip Chattopadhyay is associate professor of economics at the Visva Bharati University, Shantiniketan and a senior visiting fellow at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

Simi Mehta is CEO & Editorial Director, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

Arjun Kumar is Director, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

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