Imagine a puppet whose strings are being pulled by different puppeteers: the hands by one, the legs by another, the head and shoulders by a third. Seen from the audience, the show would not look pretty. City governance in India is similar, being pulled and pushed in different directions - sometimes even torn apart - by a chaotic urban administrative set-up.

Consider the following examples:

  • The traffic problem in Bangalore is universally acknowledged to be getting worse. The wrath of the citizen falls on any available public agency: the local city government, the police, the bus transport company, the chief minister's office. What most people don't know is that - behind closed doors - these agencies are themselves pointing fingers at each other.

    "There were 2 lakh vehicles in Bangalore in 1980; this figure is now 20 lakhs. And, during this time, we have had a constant 1,700 constables. How can we manage this?" says the Police Commissioner. The city government has to widen the roads to meet this growing vehicular pressure, from which it gets no revenue! Not one paisa of the vehicle registration fee goes into the kitty of the local government. Who is responsible for vehicle registration? The Regional Transport Office (RTO), an agency that has no accountability to the local government, nor even to the State Government. So they merrily give out new registrations every day, at the rate of thousands of new vehicles that get out of the transport office to promptly get stuck in the traffic jam outside.

  • Water supply is a local government obligation, under Schedule 12 of the 74th Amendment. However, for a variety of reasons, most states have created special purpose vehicles that are responsible for the construction of water and sanitation assets, as well as for related services. In itself, this is an acceptable arrangement, given issues about technical skills and economies of scale. However, these agencies often have little accountability to the local governments, and take decisions on massive capital expenditure and pricing with minimal or no consultation with the concerned local governments. As a result, when it comes time to discuss tariff revisions, the local politicians have little incentive to engage in these legitimate discussions, since they have never been consulted in the process.

  • While urban planning is the first item in the schedule of responsibilities of a city government, most cities have a special city development authority that has been mandated with all spatial issues: development of the city's long-term plans, responsibilities for zoning and land-use, and approval of layouts and other developments. As a result, the city government has little strategic role in determining the destiny of the city, being reduced to a tactical service provider taking care of the garbage and sanitation of these mushrooming developments that it did not create in the first place.

Leave aside these "large" strategic issues. Even normal, day-to-day situations - e.g. restructuring a traffic junction, or creating a bus stop - have become complex multi-agency coordination problems.

This reality is old news. Many politicians and administrators agree that streamlining urban governance into the local government is the long-term goal; that in the meantime, there must be a credible coordination mechanism between different agencies. For example, Bangalore alone has six core agencies responsible for a variety of civic functions: BMP, the city government; BDA, the development authority; BMRDA, the regional development authority; BWSSB, the water agency; BMTC, the public transport provider; KSB, the slum board; BTP, the traffic police; BESCOM, the electricity company. There are other related agencies as well.

For years now, there has been talk of inter-agency coordination. The question is, "Why is this not happening?" All the heads of these agencies agree vociferously on the need for such coordination. However, the devil is in the details: how will this coordination be enabled at the ground level, between mid-tier executives and employees? This requires organisation structures that are synchronised. Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is far removed from this. Take a look at Bangalore's service delivery structures:

  • Public works are carried out under 12 engineering divisions
  • Garbage collection divides the city into 278 health wards
  • Property taxes are collected through 30 Assistant Range Offices
  • Electricity services are structured along 39 sub-divisions reporting to 10 divisions
  • Water supply is managed through 5 divisions, 17 sub-divisions and 74 service stations
  • Bus service is monitored through 24 depots
  • Law and order is dispensed via 88 police stations, and traffic through 29 of these stations
  • Slum Development is coordinated through 4 sub-divisions

In all these criss-crossing administrative jurisdictions, not one of them is a legitimate political unit. This is important, because the political unit has an inherent accountability associated with it. The smallest political unit in any city is a ward, the constituency for the local elected representative. Bangalore has 100 such wards. Unfortunately, in none, repeat none of the above is there overlap between the administrative jurisdictions of these agencies, or a congruence with the ward boundary. The result: the citizen is confused, the local politician is confused, the agency representatives are confused.

In all these criss-crossing administrative jurisdictions, not one of them is a legitimate political unit. This is important, because the political unit has an inherent accountability associated with it.
These administrative boundaries are not trivial lines on a map, they are powerful structures: they impact budgeting, planning, expenditures, patronage, transfers and so on. They reflect organisational energies and inertia. Hence, if we are to talk of coordination between agencies, all such talk is a pipe-dream unless we streamline these administrative jurisdictions. By extension, urban governance will remain a pipe dream unless this fundamental architecture is aligned. These solutions will not emerge from the lofty ideals of the 74th Amendment, they arise out of the grassroot realities of service delivery. Until we begin to focus on the grassroots and begin cleaning up these agency issues, words like transparency and accountability will remain empty rhetoric to be used in conferences.

And the average citizen will continue to watch the puppet show of urban governance being played out like a Shakespearean tragedy by a third-grade theatre troupe.