Pandemic Covid-19, a public health emergency declared by World Health Organization, 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 organizations, 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, it should not be treated as only cleanness purpose bodies of the society, but it should be fully developed and well equipped with modern techniques and technology to deal with the urban issues.
Like other municipal bodies of the world, Indian municipal bodies are not letting any stone unturned to fight with this curse. Ironically, the matter of fact is that the Indian municipal bodies are not enough financially stable and independent because there is a constitutional imbalance in terms of municipal functions and finance.
This has been analysed by the various studies conducted by various organisations like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relation (ICRIER), the Centre for Good Governance and various other academicians, administrators, and scholars.
The 74th constitutional amendment act 1992, which gave constitutional status to the urban local bodies of India, under its article 243W, has given 18 functional items to ULBs, but in the case of the revenue side of urban local governments, this amendment left it entirely to the state government under its article 243X.
This provision is acting 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, are not allowing municipal bodies to impose a reasonable rate of taxes and user charges which in turn has a bad 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 municipalities of this country are running their day to day business, is really a matter of concern.
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 on the shoulders of 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 equipments, hazmat suits, installment 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 the smaller municipalities. This all has exerted heavy pressure on their existing municipal revenue in the entire region of J&K.
In order to cope up 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 chargers, rent of business establishments, tax from vehicles entering into municipal jurisdiction, which were a great source of municipal revenue are not being collected.
Furthermore, due to the closure of economic activities, all the remaining earning sources of municipal bodies are drastically come to an end, which has resulted into 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 only 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. Moreover, 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.
No doubt this problem has been experienced nationwide by all the urban local bodies, but the ULBs of J&K have always remain under financial distress for a long time due to several reasons. First being the non-conduction of urban local bodies election for many times, this can be understood from the pattern of local bodies election.
Since the independence of India, the election of urban local bodies has taken five times only i.e. 1956, 1972, 1980, 2005, and 2018 because of this, central grants were not issued several times.
Not only this, but prevailing law and order situation in J&K has always destroyed the urban infrastructure and eroded the municipal tax base in the region.
Due to all these concerns, urban infrastructure in this area is not up to the mark as compared to other parts of the country. Most probably all these issues have not been experienced by any urban local body 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 the 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 the other part of the country, this environment has not been encouraged in urban local bodies of the region.
However, despite all these types of hindrances, till now, the urban local bodies are performing 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 situation with local administration is highly commendable. There is a time to time fumigation on continues basis in every nook and corner of the cities, installment of decontamination tunnels in the hospitals to protect the doctors and paramedics staff, especially in the main city like Srinagar and Jammu by Srinagar Municipal corporation and Jammu municipal corporation.
In addition to this, it is seen that as soon as a person is tested positive, the civic bodies rush to where the patient lives, seal the neighborhood and decontaminate those areas. Their pro- active role and citizen centric approach have not let the spread of Corona in the cities at large. Somehow, at this point of time they are managing their functions properly and adequately.
In the coming days, if the situation remains same and the attitude of the government remains status quo towards civic bodies. It would be very difficult for the urban local bodies to make sure their proper involvement in this battle against Covid-19. As the way in which the municipal administrative responsibilities and function has increased, it is predicted that it will leads them to bankruptcy.
To avoid such type of situation, there is great need of time to have a better municipal financial plan. Although it is possible that the establishment may have future plans with them for these ULBs to improve their fiscal health. If it is so, then 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 the Covid-19, the Housing and Urban development department of J&K should release extra grant in favour of them to curb their financial obstacles. Not only this, but also, 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 so that the spirit behind the decentralization can be realized by allotting them their due revenue share across the country.
Furthermore, the municipal bodies of Jammu and Kashmir should be immediately brought under the ambit of 74th constitutional amendment act, to avoid the ambiguity and misconception of municipal functions.
To enhance their morale and mark their contribution to the development of cities (engine of growth) and specially dealing with the pandemic. A national municipal day like the National Panchayati Raj Day should be recognized.
Author is a Ph.D. Research scholar, Department of Public Administration, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad