For Smart Cities, the Government of India has prepared a structure of hierarchy which is mainly bureaucratic. But the best possible way to ensure public participation is by including at least two elected representatives in the decision making process, says Davesh Mudgil, Mayor, Chandigarh, in conversation with Priya Yadav of Elets News Network (ENN).
As a representative of the people, what are your thoughts on Smart Cities?
If we want to build smart cities, a Smart City SPV should be made an independent entity without having any outside influence in its day-to-day operations. The SPV has been constituted to specifically undertake Smart City projects and to strengthen it we need to ensure its autonomy. There is also the need to enhance the partnership of elected representatives in the decision making process of Smart Cities. Chandigarh Smart City has formed an advisory forum, which includes me and the Member of Parliament from the city, but our recommendations are only advisory in nature and there is no guarantee that our suggested projects would be implemented.
For Smart Cities, the Government of India has prepared a structure of hierarchy which is mainly bureaucratic. But the best possible way to ensure public participation is by including at least two elected representatives in the decision making process. The Mayor and the Member of Parliament should be appointed to the decision making body to include the public opinion in the development of smart cities.
Under the Area Based Development, the maximum number of facilities should be built in the areas which require them the most. But presently there is lack of coordination when it comes to launching projects by different departments under ABD, which should not happen. Many proposed projects like the conversion of press building into an incubation centre, the proposed convention centre at Sector 17 have been dropped from the list of projects.
Signage road marking and way finding is the only project of Municipal Corporation that has been approved. The municipal corporation is entrusted with constructing roads, providing proper sewerage and water supply, maintain parks, and offer sanitation services through a dedicated department. When we as a civic service providing agency can undertake so many projects then why our projects are being dropped. The Smart City project should ensure that the standard of living of the people is improved, there is ease of availing civic facilities with reduced tax burden, and a host of other things.
On one hand Municipal Corporation has been facing cash cruch and there is a need to generate revenue from different sources, but on the other hand people are finding it difficult to cope up with the sudden increase of fee to avail services like smart parking, etc. As an elected representative, how can you ensure that there is a right balance between the two?
Every Mayor make an effort in this direction. When we talk of reforms, no institution can function without tax revenue because finance forms the backbone of any family, individual or institution. You cannot run an institution if there is no inflow of tax revenue. For example, the municipal corporation supplies water and charges a certain amount for it, but unmetered water and theft account for major loss of revenue to the civic body. Therefore, charges of every service need to be revised from time to time. To revise the income of the people we have come a long way from the First Pay Commission to Seventh Pay Commission, but there has been no such Commission for increasing the tax base. People should realise that if they want to avail quality services they need to pay taxes. People wouldn’t have felt the burden of paying more for availing certain services had every Mayor made an effort to take right decisions from time to time. But unfortunately it didn’t happen. I have checked the records of the past five years and have found that Municipal Corporation needs Rs 110 crores to Rs 150 crores every year to carry out developmental works. Every Mayor has contributed to the corporation in their own way. We had a fixed deposit of Rs 400 crores which was exhausted last year.
Using reserves to do development works is a wrong approach. When I took over as the Mayor on January 9 last year, the corporation was in a bad financial state with only two months of salary for staff remaining in corporation’s bank accounts. In such a situation, we decided to go for financial reforms. We introduced cow cess, electricity cess and sewerage cess to collect Rs 70 crore through these tax reforms. Secondly, we prepared a list of 1,470 defaulters, including private players, government organisations and others to recover around Rs 70 crores worth of pending bills of water and other amenities provided by the corporation.
In the past 8 months, we have been able to recover Rs 40 crores of the pending money from defaulters.
From the amount we collected, we have cleared the backlog payments of Rs 40 crores that was due to MC contractors. We were also successful in getting a record Rs 132 crores funding from the Chandigarh Asministration to spend on specific developmental projects like Rs 50 crores for building roads, Rs 26 crores for village development programme, Rs 21 crores for sewerage treatment plant up gradation, Rs 24 crores for LED stretlight project covering the entire city, Rs 12 crores for a 66 KV power station. With these reforms in place, the corporation is on a strong footing and the next mayor will have a solid backup of Rs 70-100 crores to start with. This momentum should be carried forward.
What changes have you observed in the mindset of the public in the past few months in terms of accepting initiatives like tax reforms?
The change in the mindset is definitely taking place in Chandigarh where the literacy rate is 100 percent and there is awareness among people, majority of whom either belong to middle class or upper middle class.
I don’t think that it will be a difficult task. It is the leadership that needs to take the initiatives to change the mindset of the people by building consensus on various issues. Political parties need to ensure the participation of people in the decision making process, so that there is a sense of shared responsibility when it comes to making reforms and taking development works forward.
According to you which smart city project will set Chandigarh apart from the rest of the smart cities in India?
The biggest problem that Chandigarh is expected to face in future is that of traffic congestion. I think the public transport system of Chandigarh needs to be strengthened further. The space for parking vehicles is increasingly shrinking with the rise in the number of vehicles per head. Another issue is that you cannot put concrete everywhere in the city as it will stop water penetration during rains, thus bringing down the groundwater level in the city. Every problem faced by the people is interlinked. We need a better transport system that can provide last mile connectivity, or develop road routes that can provide higher frequency of public transport. Smart pavements and cashless are other two projects that were also envisioned by our Prime Minister.
Healthcare is also a significant component of Smart Cities, under which every resident of the city should be issued a smart health card to avail the cashless treatment facility. This card can be linked to the bank account. The functions of debit and credit cards should also be changed to make them multi-utilitarian.
What is your opinion on the six smart schools being developed for the economically weaker sections of the society?
It is a very good initiative. A project named Kalam Express was also launched some time back on an experimental basis. I think the smart schools will provide an opportunity to underprivileged to join the mainstream. It will also help build their confidence level so that they feel equal to others. Globalisation might have reduced the poverty but it has failed to address the issue of inequality. To reduce inequality, underprivileged should be brought on the same platform with others.