A year-and-a-half ago, the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) dropped a bombshell of sorts by announcing its intention to bid for an fm radio licence. The corporation with a population of over a million even set aside Rs 20 lakh in its annual budget for 2006-07 as capital expenditure. The brainchild of then municipal commissioner Sanjay Sethi, the proposal was not guided by commercial considerations but the floods of July 26, 2005 in Mumbai and its extended suburbs, and the havoc they wreaked. A radio station was seen as a perfect medium to alert citizens about rising water levels. Other than disaster management, radio could also prove useful in disseminating civic information related to garbage collection, traffic congestion and weather conditions. Sethi's path-breaking proposal is still hanging fire with the Central government.
It isn't just the TMC that's looking for novel solutions to many of the common problems of urban India. Of the 4,500-odd municipal corporations in the country, a number of them-more so the smaller ones-are emerging as innovative and efficient users of resources, which in most cases are meagre. Inimitable e-governance models, immaculate waste management systems, creation of modern infrastructure via public-private partnerships, and radical accounting reforms are just some of the projects being implemented by the municipal corporations of tier-II and tier-III cities like Visakhapatnam, Surat, Madurai, Nashik, Jamshedpur, Rajkot and Indore, to name just a handful. Amongst the bigger cities, the Bangalore corporation has used waste plastic to make more durable roads; and Ahmedabad continues to make strides in raising external resources to fund the city's infrastructural projects.
Surat, a small city of 2.8 million people, is a classic example of transformation in the shortest possible time. Hit by a crippling plague in 1994, the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) has succeeded in transforming the city into one of the cleanest-if not the cleanest-in India. That was possible thanks largely to a door-to-door garbage collection initiative, which today has been picked up by municipal bodies of other cities like Nashik and Mangalore. Says P. Jhala, Deputy Commissioner, SMC: "Surat was amongst the first few cities to have a bio-medical waste plant. We follow best practices in waste management." Surat is probably the only municipal corporation in India that follows a common dress code, with everyone right from the commissioner to the junior-most employee clad in the SMC uniform. "We feel proud to wear SMC uniforms as people here really respect the corporation for its work," adds Jhala.
Down south, the IT capital, Bangalore, is another role model for waste management. The corporation has been experimenting with plastic waste mixed with tar to make durable roads. The plastic waste actually acts as a strong 'sticking agent' for tar, which in turn enhances the longevity of roads. "We have now asked a committee to look into using plastic waste plus tar in the roads of the entire city of Bangalore," says K.R. Srinivas, Special Commissioner at Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagar Palike (BBMP), the garden city's municipal corporation. "Our tests have proved that plastic waste increases the longevity of roads," adds S. Subramanya, Commissioner, BBMP. Plans are now afoot to use the same waste for fuelling a power plant.
The Municipal Corporation of Visakhapatnam, rechristened the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation (GVMC) in 2005, was the first in the country to take e-governance initiatives in early 2000. The corporation reaches out to its citizens online for payment of property tax through a debit or a credit card, by making online deliveries of birth and death certificates and also by online tracking of garbage waste management.
Says T.Bhaskar, Additional Commissioner, GVMC: "There is no manual collection of bills by the corporation." Today, many municipalities in India have replicated Visakhapatnam's e-governance model. These days GVMC is busy with another ambitious project that involves segregation of garbage at its source, which is doubtless a Herculean task.
Being cash-rich is no doubt an advantage, and when it comes to financial muscle the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) today has the strongest balance sheet amongst all the municipalities. Mumbai's BMC is the richest with an annual capital outlay of over Rs 12,000 crore, but it is not rated by any credit rating agency (although it has recently approached Fitch Ratings for this purpose). The GHMC is amongst the few to take the lead in initiating accounting reforms by switching to a double-entry accrual method in a computerised environment from the old cash-based (single entry) system. "We will again approach the market with a Rs 1,000 crore-plus bond offering," says Dr B. Vishwanathan, Examiner of Accounts at the Hyderabad body. In 2002, the GHMC had tapped the bond market with a Rs 82-crore issue.
Raising money through bond offerings isn't a new phenomenon; the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) set the trend in the late nineties. The AMC is now implementing projects worth over Rs 3,000 crore in public-private partnerships; these include a rapid bus transport system, beautification of the Sabarmati river front, uplift of the Kankaria Lake and houses for the urban poor. "We have undertaken quite a few projects under public-private partnerships," says I.P. Gautam, Commissioner, AMC. For the Rs 1,200-crore Sabarmati project, the corporation proposes raising a part of the funds required by selling commercial land in and around the Sabarmati river.
The AMC's progress should be closely watched by the bigger municipal bodies. Mumbai's BMC has its hands full with ambitious projects in the areas of water supply, waste management, and high-quality asphalt roads. Says Manu Kumar Srivastava, Additional Municipal Commissioner, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai: "We are implementing civic infrastructure projects that will change the face of Mumbai in the near future." Most of these projects are long-term in nature with time lines between 2011 and 2025. Delhi, too, has plenty to do. "We are aware of the acute nature of the problems, including parking, solid waste management, transportation, roads and slums, and working out a solution is on top of our list of priorities," says Deep Chand Mathur, Director, Information, Municipal Corporation of Delhi.
To be fair to the big metros, their sheer size makes it difficult to come up with solutions that can be kick-started overnight. The smaller corporations in the smaller cities are better placed to innovate. What will help is the additional funding-for the first time since Independence-that's coming the way of corporations through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Renewal Urban Mission; it's expected to dole out Rs 50,000 crore in the next seven years. "The funds will bring about major changes in the municipal space," believes R.S. Ramanujam, Director, Urban Infrastructure, crisil Infrastructure Advisory. Hopefully an fm radio station for the TMC would be one of those major changes.
(additional reporting by Manu Kaushik)