Impact of decentralization on basic urban services in small and medium towns

This program is a Ph. D research(*) project aiming to assess the impact of urban governance reforms on small towns, especially regarding improvement of basic public services like water, sewerage, removal of garbage, electricity and street lighting.
Various research projects have dealt with these subjects in rural areas and large metropolises but little attention has been paid to the same issues in smaller urban settlements. Yet more than half of the urban population in India lives in these towns. There has been a bias within Indian urban studies against small towns, because the idea of “urban” has always designated large urban settlements. This scientific disinterest translates into a more characteristic way of thinking about the urbanization process and resource allocation in India where big cities have been glorified as part of “Shining India”, while at the same time forgetting the rest of urban India. However, small towns are vital to sustain the regional agricultural economy and to support the local industrial, manufacturing and service sectors. The hypothesis is that neglect of these necessary urban settlements has led more and more people to emigrate to larger towns in the hope of finding better jobs, better facilities, better environment and, simply, a better life.
At the same time, the various problems of infrastructure deficiency in big towns have led policy planners to seek new forms of urban management. Dissatisfied with the old centralized approaches prevailing since the Independence, they are decentralizing responsibility for urban services to the lower-level, locally elected governments. Improving service delivery is one the main goals of that reform. It is believed that it will bring more transparency, democratic functioning and efficiency in the management of public facilities. Through the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (74th CAA) and the corresponding legislation, this new paradigm has become the keyword in urban governance.
While the costs and benefits, in terms of service delivery, are not really known yet, results seem to be mixed, and most reports focus only on big towns and cities. It is because these reforms have primarily been created for these big towns. Indeed, this “Shining India” offers greater visibility and is the seat of policy makers. Therefore, enthusiasm for reform related to decentralization is not accompanied by an appropriate assessment of its impact in smaller towns. Given their disparity in economic strength and resource capacity, the latter could be disadvantaged by the new system. Nowadays, however, extensive research on this subject has not yet been conducted.
Hence, it is the objective of this research to assess the actual impact of the various reforms on smaller towns. In other words, have they led to better service delivery, especially for the urban poor, or have they lowered the general level of public facilities? The changing relationships between citizens, local politicians (or political representatives) and state-level actors should also be studied in order to understand why decentralization does not guarantee improvement of the existing situation. The social, economic, political and cultural contexts of various small towns need to be considered. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the 74th CAA in small towns in terms of public service delivery?

This research focus on some small towns in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP). The choice of eastern UP is justified by criteria ranging from the economic to the symbolic. The aim is to arrive at a general overview of the present situation concerning the management of public services like water, sewerage, roads, garbage collection. In the final analysis, the research should provide a more precise idea of the specificities of urban governance in the small towns of eastern UP, in the context of decentralization.

A sample survey has been conducted in a few selected towns comprising around 20,000 inhabitants. The choice of size is justified by the principal focus which questions the suitability of the 74th CAA for smaller urban settlements: not yet fully “urban”, yet not completely “rural”, between tradition and modernity, these small towns appear to be the ideal field for the analysis of the (non)effects of reforms.
Four towns have been selected: Chandauli (in Chandauli district) and Kushinagar (in Kushinagar district), Siddarthnagar (in Siddarthnagar district) and Phulpur (in Allahabad District).
The fieldwork has focused on urban local bodies and interviews will be conducted with political leaders, government officials appointed at different levels (local, regional and state) and other actors such as engineers. Other interviews have been conducted with citizens as users to verify the information collected on effective service delivery and to understand what their relationships are with elected public servants and service providers.
The preliminary results of the study under way town are:
-from a functional point of view: a lack of resources (financial but above all human) to undertake the new functions provided by the 74th CAA. Most of the responsibility for public service delivery (planning and implementation) still lies with the state agencies. When state agencies are not the real decision-makers with regard to network expansion, political interests rather than social needs are served. Furthermore, development of public infrastructure by private contractors chosen on the basis of clientelist rather than professional considerations seems to have an impact on the quality of infrastructure (like new roads which pavement is already broken after only one year of utilization).
-from a democratic point of view: although the reservation policy is implemented, this does not mean that the local government is much more accountable to the citizen. The representative system seems purely formal, perverted by appropriation by the elite. The Nagar Panchayat Committee seems dysfunctional because it is dominated by the figure of the Chairman and because councilors do not have any financial and decision-making powers. Given this situation, the councilors enter into political alliances with MPs and MLAs so as to bypass the chairman. In contrast, the executive officer (appointed by the state government) seems to be the only authority capable of countering the chairman’s misuse of power.
-from a spatial point of view: effective service delivery is not clearly differentiated in the town. The differentiation is less directly linked to the 74th CAA than to historical and social factors (such as the caste system and urban development). However, the actual expansion of some public facilities manifests a distinction between areas according to their political connections. Lastly, development of the most backward areas clearly does not depend on the Nagar Panchayat but on state involvement.
Thus, the 74th CAA, whose stated aim was to empower people and especially the urban poor, does not appear to be efficient in the case of service delivery.

In 2011, the analysis of the data collected since February 2008 is still currently in process and will be soon completed.

(*)The Ph. D supervisor is Sylvy Jaglin, Prof. of Geography at the University of Nantes and Researcher at the LATTS, Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris At the Centre de Sciences Humaines, Marie–Hélène Zérah, Researcher at the Institut de Recherche Développement detached at the CSH will co-coordinate this research work. The Ph.D is from the University Paris Est and “Laboratoire Techniques, Territoires, Sociétés” (Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, Paris). It started in February 2008 and will finish in 2011.