Othakadai, Madurai (Tamil Nadu)/Hubli (Karnataka): S. Paramasivam, president of the Othakadai panchayat, has big plans for his area. “Rainwater harvesting, removal of encroachments on roads, waste recycling, covered drainage, bigger primary health care centres and community parks," lists the 58-year-old, who has spent 30 years in the stainless steel business that dominates industry in Othakadai (population 25,000), 18km from Madurai.

Paramasivam also has ambitions of establishing English-medium schools in Othakadai, which will lessen the long commute for children who now have to travel to Madurai town in central Tamil Nadu.

Elected president in 2011, Paramasivam says he has already successfully implemented facilities like laying all weather cement-concrete roads and waste segregation— efforts that Othakadai residents acknowledge. Most of his initiatives, he says, have been successful thanks to the fact that Othakadai is still under the panchayat system rather than a part of the Madurai town municipality.

“In fact, 15 members of our panchayat council opposed a proposal to include Othakadai into the Madurai corporation two years ago," he says. “At least in a panchayat I can think of things and execute them. In a corporation, you will lose the autonomy," he says.

His views are echoed by A. Shahul Hamid, vice-president of the Silaiman panchayat with a population of 10,000, 11km from Madurai. Hamid’s plans for development in his area include a community hall, waste recycling, a primary health centre and public toilets, having brought in cement-concrete roads and successfully upgraded the village school to the higher secondary level.

“A corporation is difficult to deal with," Hamid says. “There is a long procedure to get projects sanctioned. And then, you have to give bribes for projects that you want to undertake to various officials in the hierarchy. It’s only 35 paise out of every rupee that gets spent for the people and development, 65 paise goes as bribes. It is just a whole lot of trouble to be a part of the corporation."

In contrast, a panchayat president is better empowered to do things for his people, says Hamid. “There is also a direct interface with the people, this is a very important position."

Both Othakadai and Silaiman are listed as so-called census towns by the Tamil Nadu census commission website. By definition, they are populous areas—in between officially urban and rural India— where farming has been replaced by other professions or businesses as the main source of livelihood.

And Tamil Nadu is one among six states that have seen a proliferation of census towns, putting pressure on infrastructure and civic amenities. Other states where census towns have proliferated include West Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

“Tamil Nadu is most urbanized state in India, according to the 2011 census," says Karen Coelho, assistant professor for urban governance and reforms at the Madras Institute for Development Studies. “With 44% urbanization, Tamil Nadu has beaten Maharashtra which was at the top in 2001."

Urban pressures

Though the municipalities or city corporations should be better equipped to deal with providing people with services, “once you get into a larger body, you lose access to resources", she says, adding that the 74th amendment to the Constitution notified on 24 April 1993, empowering urban local bodies to work as vibrant democratic units of self-government, “is notoriously weak".

These are not “equipped to deal with the pressures of urbanization that comes with economic growth", she says.

The amendment passed by Parliament in December 1992— almost coinciding with the gathering of pace of economic reforms in India—provides for a nagar panchayat for areas in transition from a rural area to urban area, municipal councils for smaller urban areas and municipal corporations for larger urban areas “with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self government".

Members of all the three bodies have to be chosen by direct elections with seats reserved for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and women. The powers of these councils were to include urban planning, town planning, regulation of land use and construction of buildings, planning for economic and social development, roads and bridges, public health, sanitation and solid waste management.

George Mathew, chairman of Delhi-based Institute for Social Sciences, engaged in capacity building in local governance, describes the 74th amendment as “the most neglected" amendment in the Constitution.

“All municipalities and corporations across India have no powers. We don’t have mayor-centred municipalities and corporations. Take any case response to a crisis in Indian cities, where is the mayor? In New York (after the 9/11 terrorist attack) it was the mayor (Rudy Giuliani) who was there. In Boston (during the recent twin bombings at the Boston marathon) it was the mayor (Tom Menino) who was in the picture. In Delhi, where is the mayor when there is a crisis?" Mathew asks.

“In any country where local government and democracy have deep roots, there it is the mayor who is the most important person. In our system, mayors have no voice, they have been neglected," he says.

And for this turn of events, Mathew puts the blame squarely on India’s political system. “As long as political parties are out of power, they are all for local empowerment. Once in government, it’s a different matter," he says.

Rising aspirations

Given various predictions that India will rank among the top five global economies by 2020 and efforts afoot to establish cities across industrial corridors in several parts of the country, the pressures of industrialization and urbanization are only expected to rise exponentially. And “the ULBs (urban local bodies) are not equipped to deal with the next phase of growth and urbanization that is taking place in India. This is because the central government itself is not pushing state governments to do decentralize power," Mathew says, “Uniformly across India, the 74th amendment has been scuttled."

That the aspirations of “middle" India are rising is evident.

“Our locality is also being kept very clean which is good. The roads have also been laid well," says V. Priyanka, an Othakadai homemaker who husband runs a shop selling mobile phones. But “we want a bigger hospital and a bus stop", given that Othakadai stands on the highway connecting Trichy and state capital Chennai, she says. “We have to walk more than a kilometre to get to a bus stand."

Her neighbour, S. Maheswari, also an Othakadai homemaker, has employment opportunities on the top of her list of demands. “We have got a cement road now, what we need is more small and medium enterprises like a tailoring unit. There are many women here so it would good to have an employment opportunity," Maheshwari says, adding that the panchayat had organized tailoring and embroidery classes for local women under a skill development initiative.

When asked if their needs would be best met by a larger body like a municipal corporation, M. Amudha, another Othakadai resident, says that “as long as development takes place", it does not matter.

In Kannaendal, on the outskirts of Madurai town, resident P. Sriniwasa Raja heads a plastics wholesale business. Kannanendal is also listed as a “census town" but in 2011, it was added as one of the 28 new wards of the Madurai Municipal Corporation. There is no evidence of the village Kannaendal once was. Brightly painted, modern cement concrete houses—single and multistoreyed—border tree-lined blacktop streets. Small businesses—photography studios, restaurants and cafes—dot the neighbourhoods.

But scratch the surface and discontent comes to the fore. “It was better when we were part of the panchayat than the corporation," Raja complains. “We had direct access to the centre of power who got things done. Now, our taxes are doubled and when we take our complaints to the councillor, he says he has no power to do anything."

Institute for Social Science’s Mathew agrees that municipality and corporation councillors are less heard than gram panchayat members. “That is the tragedy of this situation," he says.

Bureaucratic hurdles

Raja’s wife Sunita says the couple would pay more for better services. As it stands, their demands include cleaning and widening of roads, mosquito eradication, sanitation, more opportunities for local employment. “But we are still asking for basics—drainage and drinking water."

She complains that there is “no form of people’s participation" in town planning and management. “We are also people and deserve the kind of amenities that people in Delhi and Chennai get," she says.

Kannaendal councillor S. Jeevanandam blames the multiple layers in the system for his inability to satisfy his 20,000 ward members. “People want quick solutions to their problems. In a corporation ward, to lay drainage, I have to get clearances from six people before this gets to the mayor for his approval," he says.

As a panchayat president—for three terms between 1996 and 2011—“I could sanction projects. I had the autonomy to make my own decisions. Development was faster. Depending on the funds available we would concentrate on one thing and execute it," he laments.

That Jeevanandam has to go through six government officials instead of elected representatives to press for the demands of the people is illustrative of failure of the 74th amendment, says Mathew.

Complicating matters in Tamil Nadu is local politics. Jeevanandam belongs to the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) while the Madurai mayor, Rajan Chellappa, is a member of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which is in power in Tamil Nadu. Given the sharp political antagonism between the two parties, Jeevanandam says the AIADMK deliberately ensures development funds for his ward are withheld—a charge refuted by Chellappa.

“No one is ignored or discriminated against. Councillors play an important role in development, they are given 10 lakh as contingency funds," Chellappa says.

He acknowledges that people’s demands and expectations are rising and his corporation was trying to meet them. “We are concentrating on basic needs like drinking water, underground drainage," Chellappa says, adding that one of his projects is a proposal for upgrading underground drainage infrastructure dating back to 1924. “We have plans to bring industry into Madurai to create opportunities."

“My vision is to make this a cleaner, beautiful and industry-friendly district," he says— to fulfil which he will need the backing of the state government, which may not be given because the lack of political will, according to Sujatha Srinivasan, senior researcher, infrastructure and governance, at the think-tank Centre for Development Finance, based in Chennai.

“By and large, state governments do not want to devolve a lot of powers, they want to keep control over the core functions like water, sanitation, town planning. These are all state subjects and the central government cannot intervene. It is up to the states to decide how much power it wants to devolve and that is the reason that in reality, there is no real devolution," Srinivasan says.

Karnataka picture

In neighbouring Karnataka— which under former chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde in the 1980s is widely reported to have made progress in establishing the panchayati raj system—- things aren’t much different today.

In the Hubli-Dharwad municipal corporation that combines twin cities in Karnataka, citizens say some measures taken by the corporation such as a continuous water supply and the Hubli-Dharwad One (H-D-One) initiative, facilitating the payment of all bills under one roof, have certainly touched their lives.

Pandurang Patil, the two-time mayor of the Hubli-Dharwad corporation, reasons that the ULBs in Karnataka are less active because they were not given many powers under the state Act nor are there provisions to provide them with adequate funds.

“Legislative powers are vested with the MLAs (members of legislative assembly). They do not want to enhance the powers of the local body members. Similarly the local body members do not want to share it with other public. So the ward committees, which are equivalent to the gram sabhas in a panchayat, is for name’s sake only. They do not meet regularly and the state does not have any legislation to ensure the public participation," says Patil, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader.

To be sure, there are reasons for residents to be pleased.

Under a World Bank-funded project done jointly with the Karnataka Urban Infrastructure Development and Finance Corporation, a water tank with capacity of 68.13 lakh litres has been built on a hilltop from where water is supplied with gravitational force to households living in apartment complexes up to the third floor continuously.

“Prior to 2005, when the continuous water supply was introduced under a demo project in eight wards, the residents in the twin cities used to get water once in eight days. The corporation has introduced new water meters which will ensure economic usage of the water and also gone for a complete overhaul of the pipes in order to reduce wastage with the project," Satish S. Phadke, executive engineer in the municipal corporation, said.

Around 100,000 families in Hubli-Darwad are getting water supply 24X7, said Y.S. Patil, Hubli-Dharwad municipal commissioner.

“We are trying to spread it to other wards also than the demo ward. An amount of 120 crore has been earmarked for expansion of this scheme," said Patil.

The H-D-One centre in Hubli is on the same lines as such centres in Bangalore city, facilitating the hassle-free payment of electricity bills, water bills, phone bills, property taxes and other bills.

“Life has been made much simpler with this facility. I live close by. I wanted to get my grandchild’s birth certificate for which I just came and put in my application and I received it in five minutes. Earlier there were long queues and long waiting period at least for 10-20 days. We can pay the telephone, electricity bills and even tax in few seconds in the counters here," Jamal Chacha, a resident.

Kalpana Jamawate, a corporation official, pointed out that the body has been decentralized into 12 zonal offices for faster implementation of public projects.

“Also computerization has ensured transparency in expenditure and payment for the contractors is issued directly to the contractors’ accounts in the order of submission of works. A software is developed for issuing birth and death certificated on-line which ensures their speedy delivery," Jamawate said.

But the effectiveness of the municipal corporation’s initiatives depends on the efficiency of the officials executing them, says S. Nagaraj, a Hubli resident.

City council members are not as active or efficient as those in the panchayat bodies, Nagaraj says—testimony to the fact that elected representatives have no say in day-today-corporation matters, according to Mathew.

“It only goes to underline that the municipalities and corporations are commissioner centric and not mayor centric—something we see from east to west and north to south in India," Mathew said.

Arundhati Ramanathan contributed to this story.

This is the fifth in a series of reports on panchayati raj 20 years after it was given a new constitutional framework.

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