The rapid urbanisation in villages on city peripheries repeatedly compels state governments to merge such peri-urban areas into the neighbouring urban local bodies (ULB). This becomes necessary because of the inability of rural laws to guide urbanisation to unfold in a sustainable manner. The merger of these areas in a ULB brings them within the processes of urban development. A master plan or development plan for these areas would get drawn up. Furthermore, development control regulations of the ULB would become applicable for construction; economic and commercial growth; environment and quality of life benchmarks in terms of roads, water, sewerage, public transportation, education, health, gardens, recreation, and other amenities that a city requires. The process of the merger takes time, since it requires consultation with the concerned villages, the ULB, and the state’s rural and urban development departments. The timing of the merger may be dictated by political calculations as the ruling dispensation weighs in on the likely prospects of electoral gains and losses. However, the overall compulsions of urbanisation generally lead to a merger.
Development control regulations of the ULB would become applicable for construction; economic and commercial growth; environment and quality of life benchmarks in terms of roads, water, sewerage, public transportation, education, health, gardens, recreation, and other amenities that a city requires.
The latest example of this is the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) in Maharashtra. Ahead of the civic elections scheduled in February 2022, 23 villages with a total area of 181 square kilometre were notified to be merged into the civic body on 29 June 2021, thereby expanding the PMC limits to 518 square kilometre. This makes the PMC the largest ULB in the state by area. It is germane to point out that the process of the merger in the PMC has not been a one-time affair. The municipal corporation was formed in 1950 and till 1985, it had an area of 145 square kilometre. In the interim, the scale of industrialisation and the resultant urbanisation in Pune’s neighbourhood prompted the state government to establish another municipal corporation on the boundaries of the PMC. This was named the Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC), that was home to some major industries in Maharashtra. These industries propelled further urbanisation in the city neighbourhood and the region. In 2001, more area was added to PMC leading to the ULB having a total area of 243 square kilometre. In October 2017, the state government, by another notification, merged 11 fringe villages within the PMC limits, resulting in the addition of 81 square kilometre expanding the PMC limits to 331 square kilometre. The 2021 merger is just another installment of addition to PMC limits and may not be the last.
The latest merger will add 400,000 people to the total population of the city. Having become a part of the PMC, their fears would include enhanced taxation since a ULB invariably levies a higher charge on its population than a village. There would also be a positive expectation of improved infrastructure and better governance that would justify the higher levy. The question, therefore, that seeks investigation is—what is in store for the erstwhile villagers after becoming Pune citizens and what would be the consequences on the ULB itself?
In regard to enhanced taxation, there may be no major adverse impact on the ‘merged’ citizens in the short term. Once merged, the state government generally provides for a freeze on higher taxation for a period of five years and a graded increase to the levels of taxation levied on the rest of the city. However, once this grace period has expired, the populations of the merged areas would be liable to the same taxation. Additionally, the people would be subjected to the regulatory regime of the PMC. This would be a more complicated process than the earlier permissions granted by the village panchayat.
Once merged, the state government generally provides for a freeze on higher taxation for a period of five years and a graded increase to the levels of taxation levied on the rest of the city.
However, in regard to better infrastructure, the new citizens are likely to suffer disappointment. The remotest areas of the city are likely to be the last in queue and may not experience any improvement in services for quite time. Neither are they likely to get better governance at the hands of the municipal corporation. It is surprising that while decisions of mergers are taken, no prior assessment is made of the ability of the municipal body to serve the merged areas—what is the additional money that would be required and from where would it be generated.
When these villages were under the rural development department, resources were available to them from the state for services such as water supply, sanitation and village roads through schemes of the zilla parishads (district-level bodies servicing rural areas) and panchayat samitis (block-level bodies servicing rural areas). However, their merger into a ULB cuts the umbilical cord between the state and the village and the entire responsibility is passed on to the ULB with little state assistance. As the Chairman of the PMC’s Standing Committee stated, “We have given them (the state) a budget request of INR 9,000 crore to provide new villages with basic amenities of water, drainage, roads, etc.” However, “the state is yet to pay INR 300 crore from the stamp duty revenue and INR 300 crore from the development plan”. These are amounts that the state is required to share as a state-wide fiscal arrangement in regard to revenue sharing.
Once a city goes beyond a certain size it is difficult to ensure delivery of municipal services such as drinking water supply, sewage and solid waste management, roads, electricity, housing, and most importantly, transport facilities.
A further additional requirement for the ULB is more staff to man the merged areas and provide them improved governance. However, no help was forthcoming from the state. As the NCP city President admitted, “Even in the past, villages have been merged and there was no support from the state. It’s the responsibility of PMC to provide all amenities.” Unfortunately, unfunded mandates are not likely to be performed. Citizens who are already residents of the PMC realise this and, therefore, were not enthused by the announcement of the merger. The Chief of the Nagrik Hakk Sanstha, a citizens’ body, wrote to the state government that the PMC had been unable to give 50 percent of the proposed civic amenities to citizens who were already part of its jurisdiction. Hence, “the state government should not add more villages in PMC area as that would create further problem”. Another citizens’ group, the National Society for Clean Cities, stated, “ It is evident that once a city goes beyond a certain size it is difficult to ensure delivery of municipal services such as drinking water supply, sewage and solid waste management, roads, electricity, housing, and most importantly, transport facilities.” The group felt that it will be more appropriate for “these villages to strengthen their own local bodies, manage their land use policies and create decentralised centres for livelihoods.”
It is evident that ULBs that are already starved of funds will not be able to do justice to the merged areas. They will struggle both on account of resources and manpower. The councillors who are already part of the PMC will not allow diversion of funds or municipal staff to the new areas at the cost of their own political constituencies. New councillors who get elected from the merged areas after the civic elections will be weak, both in numbers and in political clout, to make a difference. In the given circumstances, it might be a better idea to have an interim process of declaring such peri-urban areas into independent municipal councils and support them with core administrative officers who would have the ingenuity to innovate and plan financial and governance instruments that would bring in better infrastructure and governance. The merger in the larger municipal body can ultimately take place after the merged areas have achieved desired levels of urban infrastructure and quality of life. The present method of outright mergers in the larger ULBs neither does justice to the ULBs or to the erstwhile villages.
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Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer ResearchRead More +