Consider these numbers on the quality of civic services in India’s cities:

Average coverage of sewerage network in India’s top 11 cities: 68%

Average household coverage of solid waste management: 61%

Average coverage of storm water drains: 52%

Measured against the benchmark of 100% set by the ministry of urban development for these services, the numbers are a telling indictment of governance on the civic front when tested against basic yardsticks.

The average coverage of sewerage network and solid waste management indicates the proportion of properties, household and commercial, that have access to these basic civic services. The coverage of storm water drains refers to the proportion of road length covered with storm water drain network. These three indicators are only a snapshot from the 28 service-level benchmarks (SLBs) established across four key civic services: water supply, sewerage, solid waste management and storm water drainage. SLBs essentially define what a standard service level should be in quantitative terms.

Photo: Ajit Solanki/Mint

Why and what of SLBs

The silver lining is the emergence of service-level benchmarking itself as an institutionalized framework for service-level reporting by civic agencies. Listed by the 13th Finance Commission as one of the conditions for drawdown of performance grants by states, more than 4,000 cities and towns are now in the process of publishing their SLB data.

Also See | Performance assessment (PDF)

While hitherto there has been widespread acknowledgement even in the administration that quality of life in urban India is appalling and needs a makeover, historically, policy decisions and budgetary allocations have occurred in a relative information vacuum, especially in respect of performance data. This has affected efficiencies of spends, i.e. value for money spending and also in setting citizen service-centric priorities by civic agencies. SLBs, therefore, will help bring data to the fore.

Secondly, in a scenario where citizen experience of civic services has resulted in deeply embedded cynicism and governments are struggling to cope with the demands of urbanization. In this scenario, SLBs could well be the rallying point around which rational policy decisions and budgetary allocations in respect of civic services are made in terms of value for money, citizen centricity and service outcomes. Citizen engagement with urban local bodies and other parastatals (such as water supply boards) rendering civic services could be catalysed by SLBs as well.

Challenges

At last count, 14 states have notified their SLB data for 2010-11 and targets for 2011-12 (jointly hosted by the ministry of urban development and the Administrative Staff College of India). The disclaimer on the website that the information furnished is not comprehensive is borne out by the quality of the numbers.

Significant capacities need to be built for performance measurement of civic services: human, technical and information systems. Several data sets show up as “nil" or are erroneous due to lack of adequate understanding of benchmark definitions and measurement systems. For instance, Kolkata reflects “nil" coverage of sewerage network, while Jaipur shows 114% (when the benchmark itself is 100%).

Mumbai and Pune claim 100% efficiency in collection of solid waste, with four other cities showing more than 90%, essentially stating that they are free of garbage. To prevent and detect such incredulous claims, data collection mechanisms and the audit trail of SLBs need to be thrown open to public scrutiny. SLBs would fail to live their dream if they remain disconnected from ground realities and do not progressively become citizen-centric.

Besides deficits in both quality of data and the civic services they depict, the SLB data also provides penetrating insights into the gargantuan efforts required to measure up to global peer cities in specific civic areas.

For instance, the average extent of waste segregation in the top 11 Indian cities, at 15%, is reflective of issues as varied as collection inefficiencies, wastage of valuable recyclable resources, health hazards, and pressure on landfills. This is a fundamental reform area which will, in turn, enhance collection and disposal efficiencies of solid waste in a sustainable manner.

The way forward

It would be an understatement to say that the accountability framework of urban local bodies and other civic agencies requires strengthening. Disclosure of SLB data is a giant positive step in that direction and will accord performance data primacy of place in policymaking and monitoring of civic service delivery. Issues of data quality and consistency, however, need to be addressed before SLBs can be used widely. The SLB numbers for 2010-11 cock a snook at civic agencies and they have a tendency to get progressively worse with smaller cities and towns. They also accentuate the case for larger urban outlays (Union budget 2012-13 did not have anything significant) by delineating the civic service deficit between creaky or non-existent infrastructure and inefficient service delivery. SLBs, when embedded in a comprehensive accountability framework, present an opportunity for governments to drive decisions through data, ensure value for money spending given acute budgetary constraints and focus on service outcomes rather than just budgetary spends.

Srikanth Viswanathan is manager, Public Record of Operations and Finance (PROOF), Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. Janaagraha’s PROOF initiative was instrumental in formulating the service-level benchmarking framework and enactment of the Public Disclosure Law reform under the flagship Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, which mandates disclosure of annual and quarterly financial statements and service levels by urban local bodies.

Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

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