Digitisation, a prerequisite for good urban governance today

Digitisation, a prerequisite for good urban governance today

In the second part of the City Systems analysis E Jayashree Kurup spoke about the move towards collective action and sustainable practices in Indian smart cities. There has been an infusion of special funds to experiment with smart features in chosen cities over the past five years. Digital systems ...

In the second part of the City Systems analysis E Jayashree Kurup spoke about the move towards collective action and sustainable practices in Indian smart cities. There has been an infusion of special funds to experiment with smart features in chosen cities over the past five years. Digital systems and management is the glue that can hold all these initiatives together. With digitalisation and the Smart City movement, the effort is to bring all Indian cities onto a common platform, using common measuring systems to judge relative performances or non-performance. Says Vivek Ananda Nair of Janagraha in the NIUA podcast - ‘Complexity of City Systems’ - the city was simply an execution arm of the Centre or State governments. “Digitisation is a big word which should encompass technology and people. IT can help manage change with citizens and governments. We need a knowledge attitude and behaviour change for this system to work effectively. It is heavily driven by automation,” says Nair. The success is missing not because of lack of intent but because ULBs barely have enough manpower for governance. The ULBs have been hugely understaffed. Injecting a healthy amount of technology has the potential to drastically change outcomes for the better. Tech is a tool for all levels of government - urban and rural. For it to be effective, we have to consider what it takes for the ecosystem around the tool to grasp it and use it for better effectiveness. Across states, says Nair, “we have seen governments take huge leaps of faith in injecting technology to get things working with some success. State after state has invested in ERP to digitise a bunch of things.” In Pune Smart City, for instance, Baner, Aundh and Balewadi are the chosen Smart City areas. However, says Sanjay Kolte, CEO Pune Smart City, when things start working in these zones, other councillors also want similar initiatives in their wards. That is done at the municipal corporation level. This integration can actually turn around Indian smart cities. When councillors get involved, they bring the third arm of the ecosystem - the people - as partners in the execution of new systems. Changes in the ecosystem are required and people have to get used to it. Technology as a means of serving citizens is brilliant. Ignorance of people and integration with other policy aspects have been ignored in the past. For instance, Nair and his team found that mandating the digital way of collecting money was not enough. The old municipal law that demanded the use of a register had to be withdrawn? “Are we making enough ecosystem changes in the city to make that law effective, which is super critical for effectively bringing in technology,” he asks. Vachana of Janagraha says “We need to contextualise digitisation. There is currently little interest from the manpower perspective and strategies on how to retain them.” Just two cities have the provision to implement technologies on their own - Bangalore, which has recently amended the BBMP Act, and Guwahati. Success of governance also depends on how empowered the mayor and councillors are. Citizen’s participation results in transparency and accountability. In a world where the responsibility of creating Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), solid waste management and local security is moving to citizen groups, with penalty clauses pinning liabilities to presidents of Residents Welfare Associations, this councillor - MLA - MP participation at the ward levels is very important. The Janagraha team calls cities “one of the most complex systems created by man”. Tracking different activities and silos in the city are deterrents. With digitalisation, multiple silos can be breached and with tracking, silos can be broken down, they maintain. Urban complexity is compounded by the fact that the term urban local bodies does not feature in the Constitution of India or even in the 74th amendment,” says Nair in the NIUA podcast. Though there is reference to urban local self-governance in the Constitution. Success can be determined by a study of how it was envisaged and how it is administered. The urban state has been defined differently in the Constitution, census and even the statutory definition. “It is next to impossible to define urban,” says Vachana. The ULB is an administrative unit. There is no place-based approach. In India, cities are unable to track what the total expenditure is on, say roads for a city or on utilisation of assets or on the GDP of a city. The city in India is not identified as an economic unit at all. That still remains a problem. Like finance, “Differing tenures of key stakeholders also pose a problem, resulting in capacity issues. Big or medium cities have 30-40% vacancy rate and not enough learnings. It is too complicated a challenge and the conversation by people is missing. The different timelines of key executives also creates confusion. The elected representatives have a five-year tenure, after which they have to seek re-election. The bureaucracy is posted for 1-3 years in cities, on an average. A systems reform agenda needs more time - tens of years. Finally, it is the residents and citizens who are most concerned about the longevity of the installed projects”. Audited accounts from cities required to make governance more effective are: 1) Number of people 2) Kind of people in terms of expertise and ecosystem 3) Adequate performance management system 4) Organisation structure timed to deliver in an agile manner In the present scenario, this institutional memory is not evolved enough. Even if there are great technology solutions, it does not get institutionalised outside the tenure of the RFP. Sometimes, projects get stuck because junior officers framing the contract document do not have enough institutional memory to fall back on. Documentation and recording of outcomes on digital systems may be a good way forward. The problem has, however, been acknowledged in the 15th Finance Commission. The report spoke of the need for shared municipal data resources and also parked some money to encourage states to find solutions. Digitalisation is the brightest silver lining in the Smart City project. It has the potential to shine a light on future projects as well. E Jayashree Kurup is Director Wordmeister Real Estate & Cities and Communications Advisor, National Institute of Urban Affairs

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