Municipal services in India

The raison d’être of urban local bodies anywhere in the world is the provision of basic civic or municipal services, and the functions of these bodies in India have remained virtually unchanged, since the time of Chanakya. Today, I would like to share some little known ground realities in India, about the key sectors of Water Supply and Sanitation, Solid Waste Management, Urban Transport and Housing.

Water supply, of course, is the most important function of a municipal body anywhere in the world, and it is said that bridging the demand and supply gap in a city can be the urban manager’s worst nightmare. Water, because of its centrality to human existence, has always been a highly emotive issue in most cultures, ever since the first civilizations came up on the banks of mighty rivers.

There is also the underlying assumption that water is a gift of nature, and should be provided free of cost, and any proposal to recover the cost of supply at realistic rates, meets with immediate resistance – from rich and poor alike. The rising price of chemicals and electricity needed for the effective treatment and distribution of water further adds to the cost, and is completely ignored and impossible to recover from the end-user.

The net effect of these attitudes is the precarious water situation in India’s metros, and even in its small and medium towns. According to a 2001 World Bank study, of the 27 Asian million-plus cities, Chennai and Delhi are ranked as the worst performing metropolitan cities in terms of hours of water availability per day, while Mumbai is ranked as second worst performer and Kolkata fourth worst. The quantum of water supplied too, is far below the WHO norms in almost all Indian cities.

The sporadic, inadequate and unreliable municipal supply of water has led to a desperate search for other sources, and as a result, groundwater is being indiscriminately tapped with rapid depletion, boding ill for future generations. The groundwater levels of Delhi well illustrate this point:

Delhi Groundwater

At the operational level too, the urban local bodies are dogged by several intractable problems. While water sources in and around a city remain virtually static, the exponential growth in population dramatically increases the demand-supply gap, year after year. And as the proportion of poor grows with the population, the sanitary conditions deteriorate; water sources get contaminated; and the cost of water purification keeps rising.

Then again, the distribution of water is dogged by old and poor quality transmission and distribution networks and inadequately trained and equipped maintenance personnel. This results in heavy physical losses, low pressure and intermittent supplies, leading to back siphoning and contamination of water in the distribution network.

The inadequate, unreliable and inefficient levels of water supply in most Indian cities further reduces the consumers’ willingness-to-pay (WTP), and is the chief reason for the continuing impoverishment of municipal governments across the country.

Inadequate water supply makes a bad situation worse in the case of urban sanitation. It is estimated that across the world, over 5,000 children die every day from diarrhoeal diseases. In developing countries, the cost of not investing in sanitation and water are immeasurable, resulting in higher infant mortality, more school dropouts and lost work days.

In India, sanitation has low priority and there is poor awareness about its linkages with public health. Investments in sanitation are planned in a piece-meal manner and do not take into account the full cycle of safe confinement, treatment and safe disposal. Further, despite the elimination of manual scavenging, little or no attention is paid to health and occupational hazards faced by sanitation workers.

Although around 84% of urban India has sanitation coverage, the 16% that don’t, offer a formidable challenge in terms of absolute numbers, especially as the population of urban India now exceeds the entire population of the USA !

After water supply and sanitation, the second most universal task of municipal bodies is conservancy and solid waste management. A poor record here can totally mar a city’s image and destroy its local economy, as the 1994 plague in Surat illustrated only too well.

Estimates put the generation of solid waste in Indian metros at approximately half a kilogram, per capita per day. The characteristics of waste have also changed over the last decade, with the organic, ash and earth component reducing, and the non-biodegradable plastics and hazardous waste components increasing steadily to dangerous levels.

The commonest means of waste disposal remains landfills, and with land becoming increasingly hard to find, garbage has to be ferried further and further away from its source, thereby increasing transport costs. At the receiving end, the residents of selected sites are none too happy, and their resentment often explodes in violent protests and civil unrest. Thus landfills are becoming an inefficient and unsustainable option for waste disposal and other means must be found soon.

That urban planning and governance in India has been reactive rather than pro-active, is most obvious in the way that Indian cities handle garbage. Development Plans have singularly failed to provide for the needs of growing populations within city boundaries, and solid waste management remains peripheral to the city in both spatial and functional terms.

It also tends to be labour-intensive, with a disproportionately high ratio of 2-3 workers per 1000 residents. This adds greatly to the municipal wage bill, and a city with a population of a million could end up spending Rs 100 million annually, without visible improvement in services. Moreover the vested interests among the labour prevent the adoption of practices like separation at source, and modern technology like mechanical composting.

And underpinning it all is general public apathy and the legendary Indian tolerance of filth in public spaces, while insisting on spotless cleanliness at home.

Another aspect of poor urban planning is the road and transport crisis in Indian cities. With a British-inspired emphasis on decongestion and low urban form, town planning in India has not been able to meet the housing and livelihood needs of a rapidly growing population. The resulting urban sprawl to the fringes of the city has put tremendous pressure on urban transport.

The absence of affordable, efficient and well-connected public transport networks has led to a sharp rise in the private ownership of motor vehicles, which has in turn led to greater pollution. And the multiple modes of private transport have made traffic management a nightmare, leading to an unacceptably high rate of serious and fatal road accidents. Just look at the facts:

  • There are over 60 million vehicles on Indian roads and > 90% are privately owned
  • Percentage of land under road for Class I Indian cities is 16% compared to 29% in USA
  • Inadequate road length leads to congestion, pollution, higher fuel consumption, with peak hour speeds limited to 5 – 10 km/h
  • Suspended Particulate Matter in India’s 3 largest cities > 3 – 4 times WHO maximum acceptable level

A part of the reason for the growing crisis has been that urban transport management in India is a case of all responsibility and no authority for local governments. For instance, it is the State Government which formulates Development Plans which lead to urban sprawl, but it is the local body which must provide subsidised public transport. Yet again, registration of new vehicles being a very lucrative source of income for State Governments, there is no incentive to limit their number, and it is left to local bodies to provide parking and road space for them.

At the ground level we find that manufacturers use the same truck engine and chassis for all buses, and therefore, no Indian city has buses especially designed for intra-city travel, further adding to the inefficiency of the system.

Lastly, any city considering a rail-based transport system must depend totally for expertise and execution on the Indian Railways and its subsidiaries, which are under the Central Government, and seldom geared to handle local issues.

Affordable housing in urban India is yet another casualty of the country’s planning process. The 5-year plans spent pitiful amounts on urban development and housing through the years, and the Development Plans simply failed to make adequate provisions for the shelter needs of the poor. Secondly, the absence of mechanisms to incorporate the urban informal sector into the legitimate economy has resulted in a lot of dead capital, especially with the poor, which could otherwise have given them greater access to credit for housing.

In the context of urban housing, no fixed asset is more relevant than land. Sadly, even after 67 years of Independence, India is yet to evolve a representational system of land title, which irrevocably fixes ownership of a particular land with a particular owner. The 7 by 12 extracts currently in use are no more than a ‘buyer beware’ or ‘caveat emptor’ type of advisory. For instance, they do not tell you whether a property has been mortgaged or not. As it is not guaranteed or underwritten by a government agency, the 7 by 12 extract does not constitute land ‘title’ as understood in the rest of the world.

This lack of irrevocable title means that a poor migrant to a big city cannot capitalise on his land holdings back home to finance a house in the city, for instance, or claim secure title on any land he may ‘buy’ in the city slum, from a local slum-lord.

Besides the obscurities of fixing land title, the debt market for housing in India is not sufficiently developed to make affordable housing a reality; and the absence of laws for closure and seizure, further complicates the situation.

Then again, there have been few efforts to stimulate the growth of rental housing stock. While Central and State laws like the rent control acts discourage investors from adding to rental housing, many local governments levy prohibitively high property taxes on a house which has been rented out. As rental housing remains the most affordable option for the poor to move into formal housing, these disincentives simply spell bad policy and lack of vision.

Local bodies are also guilty of enforcing very strict development control rules with regard to open spaces, clearances, documentation and building specifications, which the poor simply cannot adhere to, because they build their homes in incremental stages, whenever money becomes available.

And Housing Boards aren’t helping either, as they fail to effectively transfer low cost building technology to the end users.

We may talk of building a 100 smart cities, but no amount of IT applied to an Indian city can make the citizens’ life easier if the resources being ‘smartly’ managed are grossly inadequate to begin with.

In my next post, I hope to share some painfully gained insights into why urban infrastructure in India cannot keep pace with growing needs; or other Asian countries like China and Singapore…


One thought on “Municipal services in India

  1. Exact picture of the existing status of urban infrastructure has been portrayed with the mix of authors inner feeling of an Emineient Indian with through dissatisfaction over the inferior Indian condition. .As city managers we are constatntly planning to meet the challenges.The current system should need a dramatical change, Today I read an aritcle in Tamil daily India should have been under British regime for some more years. Whatever left during their period remains as such.Poverty remains same and the disparities are growing to a large.We have to find out a mechanism to keep ourselves compete with China and Singa pore.It should come from each Indian soul.

    V. P.Thandapani


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