Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Jul 10, 2018
It is time to reimagine capacity building of ULBs

While the issue of paucity of infrastructure and technologies are often discussed in ministerial board rooms, capacity building of municipal bodies remains a largely ignored space and needs to come to the fore. The process of urbanisation is dynamic and cities are growing larger and more complex. Hence, any capacity enhancement is prone to quick depletion. Processes, technologies and innovations take their toll on knowledge and skills based on older models. Hence, there is a constant need to update and convert capacity building into an on-going process.

It is time to reimagine capacity building by creating a municipal capacity building management system for all stakeholders, including municipal employees, councilors and citizens. This system could be involved in conducting a training-need analysis, creating quality training materials and arranging for field training. The system could assess the need for lateral hiring of professionals, engaging private institutions, research agencies and corporates for capacity enhancement. And finally, for training, an urban local body needs funds. The system could create blocks which will look at tying up with national and international funding agencies and tapping into CSR to get this going.

Before we get into the specifics of such a system, we need to understand the concept and the problems that are currently crippling the present miniscule efforts that go into capacity building.

Good urban governance in India is somewhat of an illusion without the capacity of Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). No organisation can do without inputs of knowledge, skills and attitude and ULBs are no exception.

In this regard, the first issue that arises is who are the stakeholders who need capacity enhancement. The stakeholders may broadly be divided into three groups. The most critical are the municipal employees. They are going to be involved in the delivery of municipal services over their entire career period extending over several decades. The next are the elected councillors who as a body determine policy, work in municipal committees and review a range of administrative proposals. They impact the ULBs only second to the employees. A third and important constituent that needs to be added are the citizens towards whom the municipal services are targeted.

Despite very wide recognition that large gaps exist in capacities, cities themselves are loathe to encourage capacity building of their human resource. ULBs are reluctant to allow municipal staff to go for training sessions, even when they are not required to foot the bill. The capacity gaps in municipal employees is matched by capacity deficits in capacity building institutions. Training curricula are programme-centric or event-based limiting their utility. Surely, a proper training needs analysis is needed. Following from the needs analysis, quality training material offering a mix of classroom-based training and on-field training ought to be designed. Since a whole lot of municipal digitisation is likely to take place, web-based training has also to be imparted.

An added problem is that there are very few institutions capable of meeting the capacity building needs of ULBs. States’ training institutes focus on general and rural administration rather than on urban governance. The ULBs themselves appear to lack specialisation, especially among technical staff. For the larger corporations, a method needs to be devised for cadre development in specialised engineering streams so as to create a strong and efficient work force for those departments. A group of engineering disciplines can be created in which there is a possibility of vertical and lateral movement so that a broader base of expertise gets erected. It would also be prudent to allow some lateral hiring of professionals with special skills into the municipal cadre, especially the larger ULBs for fostering greater municipal professionalism.

Training institutions that would be engaged for capacity building in ULBs need not be from the narrow basket of governmental institutions. Private, academic and non-governmental training and research organisations will not merely help bridge the shortage of capacity building institutions but would also offer a whole novel perspective on issues that would enrich municipal thinking, a greater comprehensiveness in understanding management and technical issues and in ultimately finding solutions to issues. This would further lead to partnership and networking among these different kinds of institutions and help divide the massive load of municipal capacity building.

The huge task of ULB capacity enhancement exercise makes it necessary that there is sufficient decentralisation of the delivery effort.

Calling participants to the headquarters of training institutions and arranging their boarding, lodging and travel requires a colossal exercise and several costs that ULBs can hardly afford. A cheaper, decentralised solution has to be crafted that allows capacity building inputs to be provided close to the ULBs. Local arrangements through local institutions would have to be devised. This would give additional advantages in the form of a partnership of capacity delivering organisations.

Whereas the permanent employees spend several decades in the ULBs, the lot of councillors gets substantially renewed every five years. Fresh public representatives may be unaware about how the municipal councils function, about their statutes and their processes. Their capacity building, therefore, is of great significance to the efficiency of the ULBs. Their appropriate orientation in respect of municipal challenges, laws and processes are very significant. This evidently cannot be a mere duplication of what is delivered to ULB employees. An additional dimension in councillor capacity building is the large presence of elected women councillors. Since one of the purported objectives of gender reservations was gender mainstreaming in local government policies and gender justice in the ULBs, women councillors need to be equipped with adequate understanding of gender-related issues. This has not been in evidence in the last two decades and more since the Constitution made reservations for women mandatory.

The citizens themselves form the third constituent of ULB capacity. Since all governance is directed towards the well-being of the citizens, their participation would surely enhance the quality of governance rendered. This is easier in cities because cities are compact; decision making and action is in close proximity, stakeholders are interested and the domain of city governments is those subjects that vitally affect peoples’ daily lives. An appropriately oriented and informed civil society would, on the one hand, vastly augment its ability to be taken seriously in the city council. Correspondingly, municipal leaders and officials that have acquired a deep understanding of municipal issues and are able to articulate them would command ready respect of the civil society. Unfortunately, casual knowledge, unprepared replies and off the mark argumentation end up in cost, mutual frustration and poor quality of decision-making. All of these finally hurt the ULBs.

The paucity of funding for capacity building is a huge deficit. If we leave the large municipal corporations aside, the ULBs are scarcely in a position to set aside adequate money for the purposes of training.

The government of India, the State, CSR, other funding agencies and the larger ULBs themselves must tap all possible ways of identifying resources. The question has to be viewed in the light of the scenario staring in our face that the ULBs would house the majority of people. Operating with inefficient ULBs would result in inefficient economies, poor living conditions and a nation with unrealised potential.

Thus, it is going to take a concentrated effort from the government, and a much needed one, to put together a modern municipal capacity building management system that will envision what cities need for the next 50 years, and the need to create able and equipped people who will be able to hold these dynamic spaces together.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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