Home / Politics / Policy /  India’s census towns face a governance deficit

Boisar/Samastipur/Malappuram: Boisar is a few minutes’ drive from India’s first nuclear power plant, the Tarapur Atomic Power Station. It hosts factories run by Tata Steel Ltd and JSW Steel Ltd, and its population of around 150,000 has access to schools run by Chinmaya Vidyalaya and Don Bosco, a Big Bazaar supermarket to shop in, and branches of HDFC Bank Ltd, Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd and Yes Bank Ltd to bank with.

Sufficient attributes to qualify as a town? Not quite.

For 10 years now, the Boisar Citizens’ Forum has been pressing the Maharashtra state government to upgrade Boisar to a municipality, or urban administrative unit, but to no avail.

Last year, it was designated a census town—somewhere between rural and urban, one of 2,500 villages that were so classified because they are areas where farming has almost entirely been replaced by other sources of livelihood.

Boisar attests to the unplanned nature of India’s emerging towns. Although it has the feel of an urban area, Boisar, like other census towns, is governed by a gram panchayat (village council)—or, in Boisar’s case, six panchayats, owing to its size.

The roads are riddled with potholes, the garbage piles up with no agency to dispose of it, and public transport is limited to polluting six-seater autorickshaws. The situation illustrates how unempowered and under-resourced panchayats find it impossible to provide the kind of infrastructure and services that in the normal course a town’s municipality would have provided.

“The problems of Boisar, like solid waste management, drainage systems and roads, are beyond the control of the gram panchayats," said Subhash Sankhe, a doctor and secretary of the forum. “What we need is municipal administration."

Limited powers and funds

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Surendra Singh, the sarpanch of Singhia Buzurg, Bihar, is frustrated by the lack of power granted to gram panchayats. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The question of who is best placed to administer census towns, many of which like Boisar have grown well beyond their rural beginnings, is one that is yet to be answered.

C. Chandramouli, who led Census 2011 as the Registrar General of India, compares the urbanizing census towns to early versions of the unplanned sprawl in Gurgaon, near Delhi, and other rapidly growing satellite cities. “You have these huge fancy buildings, but no sewerage or garbage systems, and you have not changed the characteristics of that local (administrative) body," he said.

Most experts agree that the panchayat is not the ideal governing body for areas beyond a certain size, with a diverse labour market and a healthy consumer economy.

“The panchayat itself possesses no institution for getting any real development work done," said Pronab Sen, principal adviser to the Planning Commission. “That resides with the state government. Villages have some funds from the state, which they can use for cleaning, desilting, fixing tube wells, but when we are talking about places that have all the characteristics of an urban area, like census towns, then you get into trouble. All of that stuff is simply not within the competence of panchayat."

In Boisar, Dhananjay Sankhe, who owns a logistics firm and runs a Hero MotoCorp Ltd two-wheeler showroom, says the town’s development has focused on private interests and not public.

“As a local person, I welcome all this development, but it needs to be planned," he said. “With large housing schemes coming up, we need planned development to provide for proper healthcare, sanitation, schools, public transportation, and this can be provided only by municipal administration and not by gram panchayat."

Governance constraints

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Despite the lack of amenities and overcrowding, Boisar is still a destination for real estate projects. Photo: Abhikit Bhatlaker/Mint

The problem of governing India’s census towns has two faces: economic and political. Panchayats have limited funds because of their tendency not to tax their communities—one of the boons of living in a rural area, for instance, is that there’s no property tax to pay.

Instead, panchayats access most of their funding through centrally funded rural development schemes such as the Total Sanitation Campaign, the National Rural Health Mission and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme— access they would lose if they became municipalities.

At the moment, village leaders tread a careful line between wrangling for funds from the Union government and power from the states, according to Surendra Singh, a sarpanch (village head) of the village of Singhia Buzurg in Bihar.

Singhia’s population has grown so large that although it remains one revenue village, its administration is now split between two panchayats, Singhia North and South, a common practice in Samastipur district, where there were 42 villages of over 10,000 residents in 2001 (there are likely to be many more now). As of census 2001, Singhia had a total population of 19,640.

And in the past 10 years, that growth will have continued, says Singh, who runs the smaller southern area. “The panchayats don’t have a source of income," Singh said. “They are supposed to have the most power, but the problem is that we don’t get the funds."

Supported by his fellow panchayat leaders, Singh has a vision for Singhia’s future, the realization of which remains uncertain.

“There are a lot of welfare programmes we’d like to do, but they cannot be done under the auspices of the panchayat...," he paused, frustrated, casting about for an example. “We are allowed to build a nallah (storm drain) and given funds for that, but we then cannot afford to get it cleaned. We can spend only under the headings we are allowed. In the state machine, there’s no provision for the tasks we need."

Political will

But from the state’s perspective, reclassifying a census town into an urban local body involves the devolution of a certain amount of authority, said Sen. “You relinquish authority the moment you declare an area to be a municipality, a certain amount of powers are transferred to the municipality for revenue raising, stamp duty, property tax and infrastructure spending, which otherwise would be under the control of the state."

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A Big Bazaar at Boisar. Residents argue that the town has long been developed enough to warrant municipal status. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

In June, India’s rural development minister Jairam Ramesh said the Planning Commission would provide 1,500 crore for developing infrastructure in census towns through a new version of the government’s Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA) programme.

Targeting the six states with the highest number of census towns, Ramesh said that 10-15 public-private partnership projects will be started this year to build and improve sanitation facilities, water supply, street lighting, roads, and solid and liquid waste management on a user-charges basis in the census towns. The gram panchayats will supposedly coordinate the work in partnership with private companies who get a 10-year lease on physical infrastructure works.

“All this is very fine," said Sen, “but at the end of the day, the governance structure is what one is really concerned about; we’ve had cases where external agencies have set up stuff, but in the absence of a governance structure where responsibilities are clearly laid out, they don’t succeed."

Without such a structure in place, the new funding for PURA could miss its target, Sen warned. “At central level, you pretty much confine yourself to what you can do, which is investment. Unless that investment ties up with operations and maintenance, then the money simply goes down the drain."

The gram panchayats in Bihar have been asked not to intervene in the appointments of teachers in village school or in the functioning of the anganwadis, or local community centres, said Singh, who feels that without the power to tax his community, real development is a fantasy.

“I’m always in favour of making Singhia an urban local body rather than rural," he said. “If you want to empower the gram panchayat or whatever body is in charge of administrating to the village, you have to tax. People will be willing to pay the taxes if you give them the facilities."

But not everyone agrees that villagers will see a trade-off between paying taxes and accessing facilities.

“Politically, it’s a very complicated scene," said Eric Denis of the French Institute of Pondicherry (a research organization that focuses on the South-East Asia region) via email. “In many cases, local elites in power are reluctant to claim or approve the municipality or town panchayat status notification. In Tamil Nadu, we observed the case of several urban local bodies who asked for denotification back to rural administration."

Local leaders understand that the shift from village to town will be a political decision.

Nitish Kumar visited recently," said Singh, referring to the chief minister of Bihar. “Everybody wants to elevate to a town status, but the political will is the most important thing."

The deputy sarpanch of Boisar, Neelam Sankhe, also said that the panchayat’s resolution to upgrade to town status was stalled in a political mire.

“Because of vested interests, other gram panchayats in the area are opposing our efforts," said Sankhe. Members of Boisar’s Citizens Forum claim that local politicians, loath to give up their fiefdoms in municipal elections, are blocking the progress.

But political influence bends both ways, according toPartha Mukhopadhyay, senior research fellow at the think tank Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, whose column on census town growth appears in today’s Mint.

“It’s possible that a town which is not formally urban may have a lot more local representation than a town that is," he said. “Panchayats can be quite creative about raising revenues."

And upgrading from rural status to an urban one may not automatically bring the development that villagers imagine.

“Some can expect positive developments, others will lose economically and in terms of power too," said Denis. Although the newly urban areas should be able to accrue tax and fix their infrastructure woes, they may lose out on attracting industry, which “presently has more interests to localize in rural areas", he said.

The process of becoming urban is slow. In the last 10 years, just 242 new statutory towns were created, less than one-tenth of the number of new census towns (at 2,532) and, as of 2011, there were nearly as many census towns as there are statutory towns in the country.

The town of Kottakkal, about 20km from the district headquarters of Malappuram in Kerala, was upgraded to a municipality in 2010. It was Kottakkal’s growing reputation as a medical tourism hub that brought about the changes that necessitated its upgrade.

Its town centre is a warren of jam-packed narrow roads overlooked by buildings that squeeze out any view of the sky—buildings that would have violated town planning norms in any municipality. The Kerala government eventually took note of these developments, and Kottakkal was reclassified straight from a village to a statutory town, even though it did not figure on the list of census towns in 2001.

There have already been problems with the new building norms. “Earlier, we would just receive applications for house construction, and, as long as there was no problem with the location of the property, we would approve it," said an official from Kottakkal who did not want to be named. “Now we need to go through the town planning norms and for us this is an entirely new challenge."

Anuja contributed to this story.

This is the sixth and final part in a series on India’s census towns.

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