Governance | Local Economy | Digital | Accountability | Local Planning | Election
IN SEPTEMBER 2021, A 10 YEAR BOY DIED after falling into an open sewer at Kapan, Budhanilkantha. Nobody was held accountable.
With the pandemic, businesses had to shut down, many jobs were lost and livelihoods were severely affected. But local governments lacked resources and capabilities to support them.
In cities, living costs are rising sharply, due to market inefficiencies and lack of oversight.
Despite many limitations of cities, around 66% of the population now live in urban centers, which was 17.1% in 2011. No wonder experts see cities as the “arena to build the next era of civilization”.
Leaders across cities are now once again vying for the position of mayors in the upcoming May 2022 local elections. After transitioning to federalism with the adoption of a new constitution in 2015, one thing that has been laid bare is that local governments lack competence at the moment.
Their commitments are big. But they are not able to offer any clear plans for achieving those and a clear timeline for delivery. The critical challenges we face today, such as migration, disasters, difficulty in making corporations pay their fair share of taxes and even pandemics are increasingly sub-national. It is for this reason cities leadership and expertise will matter a lot in the upcoming elections.
But are city governments who touch many facets of citizens’ lives and bear the responsibility to build future-facing cities doing enough? Can they?
Cities can keep it simple. To begin with, narrow down their priorities to a few achievable targets for the next five years.
Become pro-business, leverage the private sector. It's time for cities to become pro-business and aggresively vie for attracting businesses – from micro businesses, SMEs to large investments – by making doing business in their areas much easier. This will help them make up for the spending deficit and also boost the local economy.
One thing we have missed to learn in the last two decades is that every time there is an economic or political shock, businesses and livelihoods suffer badly and are deprived of support systems. Cities can come up with their own support system like provision of small business funds, seed funds and contingency funds and market linkage programs.
Cities should also look for ways to leverage the private sector to help bridge the financing and various other gaps. For instance, contract private firms for maintaining roads under performance-based contracts, or collaborate with the private sector and entrepreneurs to introduce urban-tech solutions.
Make air breathable. It’s the beast of the problems. A toxic mix of carbon emissions from urban transport, wildfires, constructions and industrial pollution (both national and cross-border) are making cities air quality worse, even unbreathable sometimes. This has cost Nepalis their lives. Every year, 35,000 people die due to diseases caused by air pollution.
Decarbonisation of public transport, and making it unlawful to burn waste and engage in haphazard construction works are important to reverse this. This challenge we face today is increasingly sub-national as cities suffer the most from bad air quality. The national government alone cannot find solutions.
Fund schools. Boost public ownership. The 2015 constitution delegated the bulk of responsibility in managing primary and secondary level education to the municipal government. Following that, the Local Level Governance Act and the School Sector Development plan of 2016/17- 2022/23 further stipulated increased decentralization in the education sector. But schools still fail to deliver quality education and key foundational skills.
Leaders must prioritize quality, efficiency, access and equity in education. Endowments to community schools and nutritious school meals are areas mayors should provide for.
Perhaps, implementing a zoning system where enrollment of students in schools is determined by proximity to schools, found commonly in the US, Australia and most recently implemented in Indonesia can encourage community participation, ownership and equity.
Or, teaching mother tongues, like the decision of KMC to make Nepal Bhasa mandatory across primary schools in the valley, can be beneficial in other regions, particularly those with ethnic homogeneity. Ultimately, though it may not be a quick and easy political cash in.
Govern digitally. Another area of importance is electronic governance. Though the country has started adopting the e-governance practice, it has been slow, and is not helping in making citizens’ lives any better.
Same old problems continue: standing in long queues and bureaucratic hassles, even for paying taxes. A paperless system will save time and resources at all levels of government, and also make them more productive.
Setting up regional databases is another important way to govern effectively. Collection of data helps in improving policies and during events like natural disasters and job losses to better target affected people for providing aid.
Address inequalities. Numbers aside, people are moving to cities, be it for labor, white-collar jobs or studies. But cities can be cruel to economically disadvantaged, women, children and youth, elderly and physically challenged citizens, minorities and marginalized groups.
Exploitation and sexual harassments, lack of access to decent jobs, unsafe working conditions and challenges in accessing housing and financial services and amenities such as transport, commuting, and water exacerbate inequalities and vulnerabilities. Recessions, inflation, pollution and disasters further compound challenges for them.
A dignified quality of life is a human right. Mayors should fight to address these challenges.
Reform public transport and traffic. Big cities are often the ones having to deal with bad road transport which seems to have reached its maximum capacity to meet the growing demand of successful public transport. The crumby transport system is on the verge of collapse. Prolonged traffic jams, traveling on crowded-vehicle and road accidents have become frequent. Traffic rules are still mandated manually rather than electronically.
Given all this, the would-be mayors would have to quickly manage peak hour traffic, ramp up coordination with traffic police, introduce new and stringent traffic rules, roll out new e-bus fleet including for night services, ensure last-mile commute services where applicable, and discourage private two and four wheeler ownership, among others.
Save from disasters. Increasing occurrences of disasters, like floods, made frequent by climate change, are life-threatening and economically challenging. And most parts of the country are unprepared and ill-equipped.
Disasters, though often natural, are also man-made. Though reducing their severity once they occur is hard, their chances of happening can be reduced by identifying the underlying drivers of risk.
They include poor economic and urban development practices, degradation of the environment, inequality and poverty. Addressing these drivers of risk will make disasters less frequent and reduce the impacts of climate change.
And for effective emergency response, cities must equip themselves with firetrucks, ambulances, more hospitals, early warning and communication systems, quick, rational and transparent post-disaster cash transfer mechanisms and so on.
Clean rivers and lakes. Kathmandu has failed extraordinarily in maintaining the health of the Bagmati river. Other regions must not allow their rivers to suffer the same fate.
In order to do this, municipalities must focus not only on enacting and implementing policies that regulate industrial and household waste and other pollutants, but also on increasing public awareness and responsibility for the health of rivers, lakes and ecosystems. Municipalities must be at the forefront here.
Increase community and green spaces. While community spaces breathe life into cities, green spaces literally allow citizens to breathe. Open spaces and greenery are essential to take a respite from the constantly increasing chaos of noise, dust and traffic and for quality of life. Today, most of the communal space that exists in major cities is a few meters of space around temples and ponds. Other cities are also experiencing various forms of encroachment of such spaces, which needs to be stopped at any cost.
For cities lacking land, lessons can be learnt from cities in Singapore and Mexico that have resorted to building vertical gardens, with greenery wrapping around poles topped with solar panels. Activist and artist Milan Rai has long been petitioning for vertical gardens and parks around the city. Others advocate for rooftop gardening, all of which make a good case.
New mayors should ramp up efforts to create more community and green spaces in addition to shouldering the responsibility of preserving ponds, patches of agricultural land and cultural practices in their cities, and introduce better incentives for rooftop gardening and solar panels.
Solve solid waste problems. The Kathmandu metropolitan city produces about 600 metric tonnes of solid waste every day. The Sisdole site cannot accommodate garbage anymore leaving the city without any dumping space anymore. Managing the ever-increasing waste is becoming hard. Other cities are likely to suffer the same fate if indifference persists among local policymakers.
Cities should upgrade the existing dumpsites, encourage small-scale waste recycling for recovered products, develop guidelines for operating a landfill and implement 3R Principles (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle), make polluters pay and most importantly place trash bins throughout the cities.
Implement building codes. Speaking of city planning, though it feels almost futile to raise the issue of building codes (especially in the context of Kathmandu) — it must be done. Even outside of the capital city, it comes as no surprise that the building regulations set by the national government are largely disregarded and failed in implementation.
Yet, the risk of earthquakes, natural disasters and the necessity to plan efficient cities that are intentional and not simply a product of haphazard organic growth (like Kathmandu) makes building codes and regulations all the more important throughout cities.
Focus on the basics. Adequate footpaths free of encroachment; more zebra crossings, road markings, traffic and street lights and overhead bridges in high traffic zones; managing parking space and street vendors; regulating haphazard construction works; placing garbage bins throughout the cities; making cities bicycle-friendly and governing nightcity are easy fixes, but often overlooked. By intervening in these areas, the new mayors can quickly make our cities more vibrant.
How to finance the development needs of cities?
After federalism in 2015, newly formed sub-national governments were entrusted with borrowing powers. But their internal borrowing capacity is capped to a certain threshold. Besides borrowing, other sources of revenues for local governments include revenue sharing, fiscal equalization, conditional grants and so on.
For municipal financing, internal borrowing hasn’t been enough for funding developmental projects given that local governments’ expenses reach billions of rupees. Local governments overdependence on the federal government isn't helping, either.
The gap between expenditure and revenue generation has created “vertical fiscal imbalance”. To bridge the gap, municipalities could request the government to make provision of issuing municipal bonds to raise money for fulfilling the needs of their people. It can make use of its constitutionally granted power to increase the coverage of the tax base through proper databases, make the informal economy small and become efficient in tax collection.
Local governments should spend resources on only important projects that generate steady revenues and can pay back the loan, invest in human capital and avoid profligate spending like buying extravagant vehicles.
So who should win?
City mayors will have to be action-oriented through the right set of policies and their implementation, good financial planners, understand the cruciality of building efficient systems and ones who don't have larger corporate interests or succumb to political pressure.
New mayors should know how to integrate different components of cities together and not work in silo or on temporary solutions. Policies and building systems should take an integrated approach and long-term perspective like combining a transport system with housing and industrial zones.
They will also have to be empathetic to consider the diverse needs of various segments of their people. Each of them deserves to live a dignified life — get decent jobs, have access to essential services and be looked after during the hour of need.
Above all, all leaders must be accountable. The buck should stop with them.
This work had input from Karan Poudel.
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