The Indian Premier League (IPL) has done a great job of pitting cities against one another in a healthy competitive spirit. Can there be an IPL-like forum which encourages the improvement of public service delivery, which has several gaps, in cities?
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
In Bangalore, for instance, only 1,100 of the 3,000 tonnes of solid waste generated per day is collected and sent to composting units, with the rest dumped in open spaces and on roadsides. Another widely accepted major problem in Bangalore (as with other large cities) is the rise in vehicular traffic, which has grown by 10% a year and currently stands at 1.6 million registered vehicles, resulting in massive traffic gridlocks. It is estimated that the one-way travel time in Bangalore increased from about 24 minutes in 1991 to roughly 40 minutes in 2001.
While the situation in other cities is similar, these problems are a little more pronounced in cities such as Bangalore which have become sprawling metropolitan areas overnight, and are not yet fully equipped with the requisite infrastructure.
A prediction of general equilibrium models of city growth that weigh in the impact of climate is that better climate induces migration, with the result that the city with the better climate is larger. A casual observer in Bangalore notes a highly salubrious climate through the year. Wherever migration occurs on a large scale, the question to ask should be whether to close the doors of a city to immigration or to merely correct the city’s finances and institutions, if indeed it were to be the case that these factors affect service delivery outcomes.
What can be done to improve service delivery in India’s cities? Apart from the issue of finances and the multiplicity of institutions that are well known to affect service delivery and expenditure, the literature shows that public service delivery is likely to be better in cities with a more informed public, which is more aware of the need for good quality public services. One of the direct outcomes of this is a more informed and proactive resident welfare association (RWA), which is a formal form of citizen participation.
Here, Adam Smith’s view of self-interest can be expected to apply. Cities, after all, are conglomerations of small local economies where local public service delivery is managed by RWAs. If true, then areas with relatively more proactive and self-interested RWAs would have better service delivery when compared with those in less proactive ones. The notion of self-interested RWAs calls for enhancing their scope to include not only locally provided public services, such as water supply and solid waste management, but also other Centrally provided services, such as telecommunications. Here’s why:
It is well known that landline phone services are provided by national public sector companies with competition from a wide variety of private service providers. However, even these services have to be locally provided.
For instance, for a house telephone connection to be provided, cables have to be laid locally near the houses, which RWAs can potentially facilitate.
Currently, in areas which do not have telephone cables, it does take a long time for the service providers to lay the wire and provide a connection. RWAs can play an investigative role and study whether all houses in their area are covered by phone connections, and periodically submit to the service provider a list of all the homes in their neighbourhood that don’t have connections. This can give service providers an aggregative view of telephone connections pending in any given neighbourhood — they can then manage their cable-laying plans and schedules better.
In fact, a variant of this idea is being implemented in certain cities where all calls within a neighbourhood, for which only a four-digit extension needs to be dialled (a facility called the local centrex facility), are free of local call charges. Such services are typically coordinated by RWAs.
For electrical connections, RWAs should play a role by coordinating with the electricity provider companies on power disruptions, specific circuits, metering and other issues of concern to local residents. Similarly, RWAs should play a more proactive role with respect to other important services such as roads.
Currently, RWAs play a role, if any, only as far as water supply, solid waste and street lights are concerned. It is possible they can become the one-point contact for multiple agencies involved in provision of the same service — even solving, to a degree, the woes of the residents in having to coordinate with several different entities.
All this is illustrative of the need for active citizen participation in overseeing the provision of basic services, and also of the fact that privatization is not a panacea.
Optimal city growth and size take into account both the advantages and disadvantages of the expansion. If certain drastic steps to improve public service delivery are not taken immediately, cities such as Bangalore are likely to lose their advantage in attracting both people and enterprise, despite their salubrious climate and pool of skilled resources.
We have seen a new forum in the IPL that spurs competition across cities in sports. That sets the tone: It is high time that the branding of cities should begin with competition in public service delivery. The model outlined here can be used as a pilot in some cities to make RWAs the fulcrum of activity not only with regard to local public services, but for a number of other important services currently being provided by the Centre, state governments and the private sector.
Kala Seetharam Sridhar is Ford public affairs fellow, Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore. These are her personal views. Comment at email@example.com