The ULB Conundrum
The state of water and sanitation has considerably improved in the 21st century. The pandemic has re-established the relevance of water and sanitation in urban areas. Linking the 15th Finance Commission grant of Rs 25,464 crore (two-thirds of a total Rs 38,196 crore) for million-plus urban agglomerations and 60 per cent of the remaining Rs. 82,859 crore for other cities to performance indicators of water, sanitation and solid waste management is a step towards making our cities healthier.
At first glance, it sounds like a great opportunity as fiscal deficit is one of the major issues faced by most urban local bodies (ULBs), especially small and medium cities.
The state of water and sanitation has considerably improved in the 21st century. The pandemic has re-established the relevance of water and sanitation in urban areas. Linking the 15th Finance Commission grant of Rs 25,464 crore (two-thirds of a total Rs 38,196 crore) for million-plus urban agglomerations and 60 per cent of the remaining Rs. 82,859 crore for other cities to performance indicators of water, sanitation and solid waste management is a step towards making our cities healthier. At first glance, it sounds like a great opportunity as fiscal deficit is one of the major issues faced by most urban local bodies (ULBs), especially small and medium cities. However, this grant provision could be an opportunity lost if the other challenges faced by ULBs are not addressed simultaneously. This article highlights a few key challenges that need to be prioritised. Inadequate municipal staff Records clearly show that many ULBs operate at 50 per cent capacity or even less. There can be various reasons for this. In Gujarat, the town planning department takes care of many of the tasks of small towns in case they lack appropriate staff. The states of Jharkhand, Bihar, and Rajasthan face this issue even in their big cities. More skill-based recruitment rules, conversion of unfilled reservation seats to general category and increased budget allocation for human resources in the ULB’s annual budget can address the issue to a large extent. Alternatively, setting up a planning support technical cell with the help of training colleges and academic institutes can help overcome this gap in the short to medium term. Recruitment rules for municipal staff The recruitment guidelines for most ULBs are outdated. Most states allow BArch and BE (Civil) candidates for the position of assistant town planner, but do not accept BPlan as a valid qualification. Unfortunately, the degree titles do not ensure specific skill sets required for municipal staff. Having more skill-based descriptions for positions in the recruitment guidelines not limited to university degrees would appropriate the job market for such personnel. A greater job market would encourage more institutions to offer such courses without the fear of low enrolment. Employment consultants can trigger this change and help in better outreach to appoint more appropriate staff. Training professionals In the present times of innovation, city administrators, professionals and experts are constantly finding new ways to solve the burgeoning challenges of 21st century cities. It is critical to constantly upgrade the skills of existing municipal staff in the nation and find our own solutions to urban problems. Although there has been capacity building done under JNNURM and other programmes, it has not been able to completely upgrade the skill sets of our nation’s municipal staff. These efforts should not be one time but undertaken continually through increased synergies between educational institutions and ULBs. Training colleges and universities working in the development sector can be the leaders in undertaking this colossal task. Educating the appropriate manpower After almost two decades of working in the sector of urban planning, urban design and development, I have come to believe that there is a vicious cycle of job and education. The education system closely follows the industry demands. If there are less jobs for a qualification, few institutes will offer it. The private sector, contributing greatly to higher education in today’s India, faces a risk every time it attempts to launch an unconventional programme. Thankfully, there are enough successful examples that force us to think differently and design programmes that address the needs of the future. The good news is that the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is forward-thinking and encourages a multidisciplinary approach to higher education. As cities continue to grow, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deal with issues involving social and physical infrastructure. The only way we can address these issues is to have financially and socially healthy and technically robust ULBs. The grant would provide an opportunity to ULBs, but the concern is the inability of most ULBs to conceptualise, design, and implement large-scale infrastructure projects in a comprehensive and inclusive way. Could the ULBs, big, medium and small, be equipped with efficient and skilled manpower to utilise this funding and truly make our cities healthy and liveable for all? Do we even have the right set of skilled manpower, professionals who understand city development more comprehensively, provide solutions to urban challenges and are equipped to implement these solutions? The bigger question is, are we training the right people who can understand the multidisciplinary nature of rapid urbanisation and development of cities? So let’s review, unlearn, relearn, train and evolve a better India. To quote Albert Einstein, “If you want different results, do not do the same things.”About the author: Prof Ashima Banker, Director, Master of Urban Design and Development at Anant National University, is a postgraduate in Urban & Regional Planning from CEPT University. She is currently a teacher of planning and architecture, and has the experience of working with over 50 consultancy and research projects.