As liveability has a key role to play in making cities sustainable, governments across the globe are taking stringent measures in- line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11.6 to specifically curb air pollution and improve waste management. Prof. Dinesh Mehta and Prof. Meera Mehta, Executive Directors, Centre for Water and Sanitation, CRDF share their perspectives on the subject in an exclusive interview for the eGov magazine.
● Please elaborate on how Performance Assessment System (PAS) has improved the measurement of urban water supply and sanitation services across urban local bodies in India and what benefits it has accrued so far?
In Europe and North America, assessment of water supply utilities is typically done using performance benchmarking frameworks. Some notable efforts have been made by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the International Water Association (IWA), and the International Benchmarking Network for Water and Sanitation Utilities (IBNET) of the World Bank. See a review of benchmarking approaches by Mehta et al. (2013).1 This experience provided a rich basis for drawing lessons for the assessment of water and sanitation service delivery in India.
However, it was not possible to apply these frameworks directly to the Indian context. This is because water supply services in Indian cities are generally intermittent, often unmetered and a large number of poor consumers depend on shared connections. Many cities in India do not have a sewer network but have onsite sanitation facilities. The typical benchmarks developed for sewerage systems do not work in such situations.
It was in this context that a performance assessment system (PAS) for urban water supply and sanitation services was set up by the CEPT University. When the programme was initiated, access to water and sanitation services in urban India was widespread, but little was known about service levels, quality and service coverage for poor households. Lack of reliable and updated information on these services often led to misallocation of resources. It was difficult to assess whether the new investments often led to improvements in the level and quality of service. For example, despite Rs 50,000 crore (US$7 billion) investment in water and sanitation during 2005–2010, under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) of the Government of India, little is known about how this investment improved service levels in cities.
In 2009, the performance assessment system (PAS) for urban water supply and sanitation was set up to cover all cities in the two states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. We worked with state and local governments to develop a reliable and sustainable system for assessing urban water and sanitation services. The indicators for performance measurement were developed through studies and stakeholder consultations at the state level and across cities. This framework was also aligned to and built further on the Government of India’s Service Level Benchmark (SLB) initiative. A dedicated web platform (www.pas.org.in) was created to host this information.
The PAS portal has been used by over 1000 cities in six Indian states—Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Jharkhand and Assam—as well as 100 cities of the Smart Cities Mission of the Government of India. It has supported these cities to track service delivery performance of water supply, sanitation and solid waste management services. Many cities have also used PAS to prepare their investment programme.
Publication of Service Level Benchmarks was linked to the performance grants provided by the 13th and 14th Finance Commissions. These also provided an incentive for cities and state governments to adopt and continue to use this framework. The 15th Finance Commission has also mandated this as a pre-condition for availing grants.
● In your opinion, what type of changes such as programmatic, structural, regulatory, or legal are required to enhance and improve the financial base of urban local bodies?
India’s urban population is expected to be around 800 million by 2050. It is estimated that investments of Rs 39 trillion are required for urban infrastructure. Mobilising this quantum of finance will be a major challenge. This is in part due to structural issues. It has been argued that the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA), has succeeded in ensuring political decentralisation but has not succeeded in financial decentralisation. So, despite the recognition of municipalities as the third sphere of government, the state governments have been reluctant to devolve functional and financial powers to municipalities. The State Finance Commissions (SFCs), which were charged with identifying this have also not been very successful.
Globally, cities typically finance infrastructure through Inter- Government Transfers (IGT), their own resources such as taxes and user charges and borrowings. However, the extent of IGT in India is only 0.45 per cent of GDP, as against four to six per cent in many developing countries. The successive Central Finance Commissions have increased allocations to ULBs, with the latest 15th Finance Commission allocating Rs 1.5 lakh crore in grants to ULBs. This allocation shows the increase from the previous allocation of around Rs 87,000 crore which was made by the 14th Finance Commission for ULBs. More funds in the hands of ULBs by the 15th FC is important, especially for smaller cities, whose dependence on grants is quite high due to inadequate sources of own income.
Some key reforms suggested by the 15th FC for the municipalities are important. These are timely publishing of annual accounts and service-level benchmarks. The PAS portal will support the publication of SLBs. The City Finance portal, where ULBs are required to publish audited accounts will enable transparency and catalyse the market for future fundraises, such as through the issuance of municipal bonds.
Other reforms suggested by the 15th Finance Commission include notifying floor rates for property tax and showing an annual increase in property tax collections. This is important as the share of property tax as total municipal revenues in Indian cities is among the lowest, implying that cities in India have not ‘exploited’ the full potential of property tax. There has been a gradual shift in many states to levy property tax on the basis of ‘capital’ value rather than annual rateable value. This can bring the needed buoyancy in property tax collection as property values rise in cities.
Another important reform is to levy appropriate user charges for water supply services. It is often argued that while the capital funds for infrastructure may come from grants, the operation and maintenance of infrastructure has to be funded by the own resources of ULBs. User charges, at present cover only a part of the operating costs. It is important that user charges or local own resources should at least cover the full cost of operation and maintenance.
In India, the Goods and Service Tax (GST) has been lauded as a major reform of indirect taxes bringing a large number of taxes under its umbrella and bringing uniformity across states. However, the ULBs have been adversely affected due to GST as it has taken away the independent power of local governments to raise their own sources of revenue such as octroi, including accounts-based octroi, in the form of local body tax, entry tax and advertisement tax. It is suggested by many scholars that the ULBs should get a specific share of revenues from the GST.
● Could you please highlight how the Centre for Water and Sanitation is contributing towards localising SDG 11.6 in cities and achieving SDG 11 agenda in India as a whole?
Safe sanitation is essential for health, from preventing infection to improving and maintaining mental and social well-being. While SDG 11.6.1 refers to “Proportion of municipal solid waste collected and managed in controlled facilities out of total municipal waste generated, by cities”, its scope needs to be expanded to cover other wastes, included in SDG 6.2.
It is in this context that CWAS has developed a concept of “San- Benchmarks”2. There is a wide prevalence of onsite and mixed sanitation systems in urban India. San-Benchmark is a new framework for performance assessment of citywide sanitation by capturing the onsite sanitation systems along with the conventional sewerage systems. It indicates a more realistic picture of an on-ground situation as well as facilitates the identification of improvement areas at a local level. This is an important indicator for localising SDG in India and other developing countries where on-site sanitation is a predominant mode of sanitation.
For Solid Waste Management in cities, the PAS framework provides information on “Efficiency of collection of municipal solid waste”. This indicator captures the total quantum of waste that is collected at the treatment and/or disposal sites. This is relevant as it forms a major part of the quantum of waste that can be treated/ disposed of.
Another PAS indicator is “Extent of segregation of municipal solid waste”. This indicator captures the segregation of waste, typically as dry and wet waste, but ideally as biodegradable and non- biodegradable waste. Segregated waste enables increased efficiencies in the treatment, recycling and scientific disposal of waste. The indicator of “Extent of municipal solid waste processed/ recycled”, measures the quantity of waste that is recycled or processed at the treatment plant.
Thus, the PAS indicators on Sanitation and Solid waste provide a basis for localising SDG 6 and SDG 11. We have also developed approaches to measure SDG 6.2 at the city level, based on the information from the PAS platform.
● As a forerunner in the urban sanitation sector, what are the key challenges you have faced especially with regards to data collection while preparing the indicators and reports? Which innovative practices would you recommend to improve the data collection system in urban water and sanitation services?
The PAS programme was an early starter to create a culture of data in the water and sanitation sector in India. It was the first benchmarking project in India to be implemented at scale. The project was initially to be implemented across all 400+ cities in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
In the initial years, there were many challenges of data collection. Cities had the relevant information, but it was buried in various files. The PAS team had to spend two to three days in a city to capture the information. Significant effort was made to build the capacity of the ULB staff to use the PAS portal. The industry-academia partnership with Tata Consulting Services (TCS) enabled us to set up an online digital platform for PAS. Its design with validation checks has enabled its use by even small cities for regular annual updates.
Today, around 1000 cities in six states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Jharkhand and Assam) and cities under the Smart Cities Mission of India use this online system for self-assessment for water supply and sanitation services. From two to three days per city, the information on the portal is entered by ULB officials in two to three hours. Large-scale training, capacity building and awareness generation at the state and local levels has helped to promote its use. The PAS team conducts capacity building of state and local government staff on benchmarking and trains them in the use of an online system for data input and query-based analysis. The portal also assesses the reliability of the information. Based on this, regular and continuing efforts are also needed to improve the quality of data.
PAS information is used by a variety of stakeholders. PAS portal offers one of the largest databases of urban water supply and sanitation services. It also hosts various online and offline tools for performance assessment and improvement. UWSS data, tools and research publications have been used by a variety of users for purposes like policy interventions, improvement actions, research, regulations, funding, etc. National, state and city government agencies have used this information for various policy interventions and improvement actions at the state and city levels. Regulators also use PAS information in assessing regulatory compliance. For example, the CAG audit report had assessed the impact of investment in service delivery through PAS data.
The PAS programme has helped create a culture of performance assessment. This is a long-term process as interest and confidence in data gradually get built. The recommendations of Finance Commissions on the use of performance indicators and recognition from the Ministry of Urban Development of the PAS framework has helped spread this culture nationwide. Further efforts are continually being made to demonstrate the use of PAS information for SDG monitoring.