When was the last time you walked down a street holding your nose? If you happen to live in one of India’s burgeoning metros, that couldn’t have been too long ago. But for those of you who are lucky enough to live in two small towns deep in the interior of the country, that pervasive odour is now a distant memory. This is because these two little towns — Chalisgaon in Maharashtra and Ooty in Tamil Nadu — have become the first metropolitan centres in India to be declared “open defecation”-free.
Being far from the spotlight, they were unlikely pioneers. Yet, their urban officials saw the open use of the outdoors as a significant health problem and went on to deal with it. They raised awareness about the benefits of good sanitation, built new community toilets where people were too poor to build their own, and contracted local communities to maintain them. As a result, the health of the townspeople generally improved. And, while the women and children particularly benefited, passers-by, too, appreciated the difference.
But how did this come about? What sparked this great leap away from the old ways of thinking? Not surprisingly, these cities are run by energetic urban officials who’ve been exposed to fresh new ideas and specifically trained to do the jobs they’ve been assigned to do.
Although, historically, India’s urban areas have not received the attention they deserve, it is now abundantly clear that things can no longer remain this way. In fact, if economic growth is to be sustained, it is imperative for India’s towns and cities to become more efficient, productive and competitive entities — both nationally as well as internationally.
The magnitude of the task ahead is enormous. Currently, about 320 million of India’s people — one-third of its total population — live in some 5,000 towns and cities.
These numbers are expected to swell enormously as an ever- growing tide of migrants flocks to the urban areas in search of economic opportunity.
Already, water and sewage treatment is insufficient and urban transportation systems leave much to be desired. Not only is it essential to bring about vast improvements in infrastructure, it is also an urgent necessity to train urban officials to handle the numerous challenges that confront their booming towns and cities. When architects, engineers and accountants receive specialized professional training, why then should municipal officials, who must orchestrate a complex web of tasks to run today’s metros, be an exception?
In this scenario, two pioneering institutes stand out: the Hyderabad-based Administrative Staff College of India (Asci) and the Pune-based Yashwantrao Academy for Development Administration (Yashada). Both train urban officials in a broad range of subjects—from delivering services efficiently to providing good governance, ushering in change, managing municipal finances, and helping the urban poor.
Officials who have graduated from these programmes are now thinking big, and thinking strategically. Many have taken what they have learnt straight to the field. In Navi Mumbai, for instance, the corporation is supplying water 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in more than half its territory, including the slums. Over the course of the next year, they plan to scale this up across the city. Similar projects — a first for many — are being initiated in more than 10 other towns.
In West Bengal, graduates from these courses have simplified and computerized the issue of birth and death certificates. Services are now quicker, citizens are more satisfied and the staff is more productive. In Nagpur, the property tax system—an important source of city revenue—has been made more transparent. In Kerala, customer service has improved tremendously since the local water authority was made financially accountable to the local urban government. It is now the local government which decides where improvements are needed so that citizens receive better water supply.
In Karnataka, officials who’ve received the training are working to improve energy efficiency through public-private partnerships. They are also exploring new ways of dealing with garbage by creating regional landfills. Inspired by the success of Chalisgaon and Ooty, several other towns in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are now working to be free of “open defecation”.
The list goes on. Seeing the results, Asci soon plans to introduce similar programmes in state institutions in Kerala and Bihar. But, a lot more needs to be done to spread the benefits to more urban areas by training more, and eventually all, urban officials across the country.
In time, a new breed of managers will hopefully emerge, fully trained and equipped to transform India’s urban landscape in tandem with its booming economy. Then, Chalisgaon and Ooty will no longer be the exception but the rule.
Barjor Mehta is a senior urban specialist with the World Bank. Alexandra Humme is capacity development and partnership specialist at the World Bank Institute. Comments are welcome at email@example.com