New Delhi: Pune came on top in the fifth edition of the Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS), edging out Thiruvananthapuram which had topped the previous two editions of the survey. Bengaluru was ranked at the bottom.

Thiruvananthapuram dropped two ranks to be placed third out of 23 cities spread across 20 states in the survey done by urban governance watchdog Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, which evaluated the quality of governance in India’s cities by assessing laws, policies and institutional processes currently in place.

The key finding of the survey is that India’s cities are improving at a snail’s pace, scoring between 3 and 5.1 out of 10 in the City-Systems framework. Global benchmark cities like London and New York score 8.8 on the same framework of evaluation, while Johannesburg, a city in a similarly placed developing country, scored 7.6.

Graphic: Ahmad Raza Khan/Mint
Graphic: Ahmad Raza Khan/Mint

Half of the 23 ASICS 2017 cities, which comprise a fifth of India’s urban population, do not generate enough revenue internally to even pay the salary of municipal staff. A third of municipal staff positions remains vacant. And the average tenure of a municipal commissioner is only 10 months. One reason for the persistence of poor delivery despite a wide consensus on the problems ailing India’s cities is the lack of local democracy, with only two of the 23 cities putting in place ward committees and area sabhas at least on paper, the survey pointed out.

“India’s cities have virtually no platforms where citizens can participate in matters in their neighbourhood. This impacts not just municipal accountability, but the quality of democracy itself," the report said.

Due to limited accountability, even the city budgets are largely “fictitious," said Srikanth Viswanathan, chief executive officer of Janaagraha. “The average variance between what’s budgeted and what is actually spent is as much as 50%," he said.

Only 9 of the 23 cities had a citizen’s charter, a powerful tool for accountability and grievance redress. Even in the cities where such a charter exists, there is no mention of service levels, or timelines for service delivery, or mechanisms for obtaining relief when service levels are not met, the report said. An ombudsman, specifically for resolving citizen’s issues, is also missing in all but three Indian cities—Bhubaneswar, Ranchi and Thiruvananthapuram.

As a result of this prevalent atmosphere of weak accountability, 19 of the 23 cities don’t release even basic data about their functioning in usable formats.

The report also pointed out that most Indian cities use town and country planning acts which were drafted decades before the economy was liberalized and the lack of a modern, contemporary urban planning framework may be costing India 3% of its GDP every year.

“These rankings may not correlate with the pace of implementation of schemes like AMRUT or Smart Cities because the scoring framework places emphasis on structural reforms," said M.Ramachandran, a former urban development secretary.“Bringing in substantial changes in the way governance is delivered has not been a focus. The immediate priority of cities has been implementation of specific, small-scale projects," he said.

In a few months, the government will release its own livability index, ranking 116 Indian cities for the first time. Unlike the proposed government index which will rank outcomes, the Janaagraha survey evaluates existing governance processes and frameworks to estimate whether good outcomes are possible in the long run. The 89 questions which the survey studied in each of the 23 cities included parameters that quantified whether a city has a centralized system of spatial development planning, adequate skilled human resources, and if city leaders are directly elected and have adequate powers.

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