By Shafiq Ahmed
The coronavirus (Covid -9) pandemic, a public health emergency declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has deteriorated the entire economy of the world due to lockdown of major and minor economic activities. Almost every country in the world is battling with this pandemic to save the lives of its citizens. In this unprecedented situation only few organisations, firms, and personnel are acting as corona warriors to combat the spread of Covid-19 in the society at large. Among those organisations and personnel, municipal bodies and their personnel are one of them. Municipal bodies have proven that they should not be treated only as organs of cleanliness; rather, they should be fully developed and equipped with modern techniques and technology to deal with the urban issues.
Like other municipal bodies of the world, Indian municipal bodies are leaving no stone unturned to battle against the pandemic. However, the Indian municipal bodies are not financially stable enough because there is a constitutional imbalance in terms of municipal functions and finance. This has been analysed by the various studies conducted by multiple organisations like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relation (ICRIER), the Centre for Good Governance and other academicians, administrators, and scholars. The Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992, which gave constitutional status to the urban local bodies of India, under article 243W, has given 18 functional items to ULBs. In the case of the revenue of urban local governments, this amendment left it entirely to the state government under its article 243X. This provision acts as a great obstacle in the way of municipal finance because it has been seen that the state government, in order to satisfy and safeguard their urban vote bank, does not allow municipal bodies to impose a reasonable rate of taxes and user charges, resulting in a negative impact on the municipal finance. Furthermore, due to the passage of Goods and Services Tax (GST) reforms in 2017, municipal finance has been the worst hit by this structural reform. In such a situation, especially during Covid-19, how do municipalities of this country run their day to day business?
In the case of urban local bodies of Jammu and Kashmir, the novel coronavirus pandemic has put more burden on the finance of the municipal bodies. The entire responsibility of sanitization, spraying and lifting of garbage of home quarantined people is being borne by the urban local bodies. During this time, they work round the clock to disinfect the cities with their limited income. Many types of chemicals, new machinery for fumigation, high quality of masks for municipal staff, specialized equipment, hazmat suits, instalment of decontamination tunnels and more petrol for municipal vehicles, etc. are required for this purpose. Earlier most of these things were not known to many urban local bodies, especially in the smaller municipalities. This has exerted a heavy pressure on their existing municipal revenue in the entire region of J&K.
In order to cope with providing civic services, a reasonable amount of money is required for the ULBs to remain operative for a long time. But as of now, no special package has been announced by the higher tier of government to pump up the fiscal muscle of these bodies. Moreover, the municipal revenue sources assigned and fixed by the higher tier of government are not being collected due to the lockdown. Even user charges, rent of business establishments, tax from vehicles entering into municipal jurisdiction, which were a great source of municipal revenue, are not being collected. Due to the closure of economic activities, all the remaining earning sources of municipal bodies have drastically come to an end, which has resulted in the worsening of fiscal health of urban local bodies across the region. The higher tier of government is well aware about the prevailing condition of urban local bodies. But as of now, not a single initiative has been taken by concerned departments to help them recover from this financial crunch, so that they can function properly and efficiently. The concerned department has not sent any proposal to the union ministry of housing and urban affairs for the release of extra packages for ULBs.
While this problem is being experienced nationwide by all the urban local bodies, the ULBs of J&K have always remained under financial distress for a long time due to several reasons. First, the non-conduction of urban local bodies election, which can be understood from the pattern of local bodies election. Since the independence of India, the election to urban local bodies has taken place only five times, i.e. in 1956, 1972, 1980, 2005, and 2018. Because of this, central grants were not issued several times. Second, the prevailing law and order situation in J&K has destroyed the urban infrastructure and eroded the municipal tax base in the region. Due to these concerns, urban infrastructure in this area is not up to the mark as compared to other parts of the country. Hence, the urban local bodies of the J&K need special care in terms of financial package from the higher tier of government, especially during Covid-19.
In addition to this, there is no provision of public private partnership (PPP) in the urban local bodies of J&K, under which the responsibilities of discharging the municipal functions could be shared with the private players. This provision has great potential to imbibe competition which increases the efficiency of municipal services and hence, the municipal revenue side. Like other parts of the country, this environment has not been encouraged in urban local bodies of J&K. Despite these hindrances, the urban local bodies have been performing their duties very well in dealing with the situation in the entire region. The way in which municipal corporations, councils and small urban local bodies of the region have shown their involvement in tackling the pandemic, they must be highly commended.
There is fumigation on a continuous basis in every nook and corner of the cities and instalment of decontamination tunnels in the hospitals to protect the doctors and paramedics, especially in Srinagar and Jammu. In addition to this, it is seen that as soon as a person tests positive, the civic bodies rush to where the patient lives, seal the neighbourhood and decontaminate those areas. Their pro-active role and citizen-centric approach have not let the spread of coronavirus in the cities at large. They have managed their functions properly and adequately so far. In the coming days, if the situation remains the same and the attitude of the government maintains status quo towards civic bodies, it would be very difficult for the urban local bodies to ensure their proper involvement in the battle against Covid-19. The way the municipal administrative responsibilities and functions have increased, it has been predicted that it will lead them to bankruptcy.
To avoid such type of situation, there is a great need to have a better municipal financial plan. It is possible that the government may have future plans for these ULBs to improve their fiscal health. If it is so, it should be an immediate implementation without any further delay. And if no plan has been made in this regard yet, it should be made on a fast track basis, so that the special package announced by the Prime Minister can also be utilized in the civic bodies. Otherwise, any negligence due to the lack of funds from the side of ULBs can deteriorate the entire battle against coronavirus.
By taking into consideration their proactive role against Covid-19, the Housing and Urban Development Department of J&K should release extra grant to ease their financial obstacles. In addition, the power to avail the facilities of borrowing and public private partnership to share their responsibilities must be given to them. On a broader perspective, the Government of India should come with a municipal financial reform plan so that the spirit behind the decentralization can be realized by allotting them their due revenue share across the country. The municipal bodies of Jammu and Kashmir should be immediately brought under the ambit of the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act to avoid the ambiguity and misconception of municipal functions. To enhance their morale and mark their contribution toward the development of cities, especially their role in dealing with the pandemic, a national municipal day like the National Panchayati Raj Day should be observed.
Shafiq Ahmed (Sagar), Ph.D. Research Scholar, Department of Public Administration, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. Email:email@example.com
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