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Why our small towns are a mess

By Kalpana Sharma

Small towns can be developed as examples of sustainable urban development. Ensuring that a population of 100,000 gets adequate water, electricity and solid waste management systems is simpler than dealing with these problems in million-plus cities. Community participation is critical – but missing -- for better governance of our small towns

Read Part 1 of this report here

On the banks of the Ganga in Mirzapur
On the banks of the Ganga in Mirzapur, temples nestle next to garbage heaps

A challenge that all Indian cities and towns, big or small, face is garbage clearance.  Indians know how to defeat even the most efficient of systems.  And to see this vividly illustrated, you have to visit some of the smaller towns which are attempting some kind of solid waste management. 

The garbage heap remains the quintessential monument to urbanisation, with its generous sprinkling of indestructible thin plastic bags enmeshed in it.  Cows and pigs are additional adornments on this urban monument as they forage unperturbed, looking for edible morsels but often, as in the case of the cows, swallowing the inedible plastic bag.  In every one of the seven towns I visited for this study on small towns, I spotted the inevitable suar (pig) in a pile of garbage, except in Mirzapur where a generously endowed cow, in its anxiety to reach a nearby garbage pile, almost knocked me over!  

Solid waste management is one of the principal tasks placed on the shoulders of urban local bodies (ULBs).  Their ability to deal with it reflects on the quality of governance not just in small towns but also in the larger cities.  And on most counts, our municipal corporations, municipal councils and nagar panchayats -- the three types of urban local bodies -- fail miserably in their task. 

Community participation 

Some of the tasks allocated to municipal bodies would be made easier if they had support from local communities.  Indeed, the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act envisages area sabhas and ward committees similar to the gram sabhas in villages.  But in most small towns, these forms of public engagement have not yet taken root.  Part of the reason is the very nature of the towns.  Villages have old settled populations and even if they are divided along caste or class lines, they have a tradition of public consultation.  In small towns, the population is a mix of older residents and new entrants.  Bringing them together requires special effort as in addition to class and caste divides, political affiliations become an additional dimension that divides communities.  

In several towns, including those studied for this report, PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) and its partners have engaged with local communities and formed mohalla samitis.  The process has spanned several years and has involved engaging with women’s groups, youth groups, trade unions and other associations to create these neighbourhood committees. The primary concern of these mohalla samitis has been the cleanliness of their locality. They have devised systems to ensure that the garbage is regularly cleared from their areas, they have run campaigns to inculcate the habit of cleanliness in the community, they have raised funds to organise or supplement municipal efforts at garbage collection, and some of them have even built community centres and gardens with their own funds. Yet, keeping such groups active is a challenge.  As long as there is someone mobilising them, they are active.  When the organisation doing the mobilising withdraws, the mohalla samitis tend to become inactive.  

The exception to this rule is where there is an individual who is personally motivated enough to continue working with the community as in Madhubani, or where councilors are also convinced about the value of such local organisations.  In Madhubani and Jhunjhunu, local councilors, particularly those who have received training from PRIA, continue to carry forward the ideas that emerged from the mohalla samitis.   

The most effective outcome is when the local urban body adopts the ideas thrown up by the mohalla samitis as their own. This was particularly evident in Jhunjhunu where mohalla samitis had raised funds to institute house-to-house garbage collection. They also initiated steps to clean up empty plots that had become garbage dumps and turn them into gardens.  The local municipality has now incorporated this into its solid waste programme and a municipal sweeper collects garbage from individual houses.  However, there is a shortage of sweepers and hence the system does not work as efficiently as it did when the neighbourhoods managed it. 

The municipality has also initiated a scheme whereby it contributes 70% of the funds needed to convert an empty plot into a garden if the local community raises the remaining 30%.  As a result, Jhunjhunu has become a town with many gardens, to the delight of its local residents and it has set an example that others can emulate.  

In Jhunjhunu, mohalla samitis worked well in middle-income colonies where the residents saw the value of upgrading the cleanliness levels of their locality.  Thus, even when the municipality failed to send sweepers, in many areas the community continued to devise ways to maintain cleanliness.   

In poorer neighbourhoods the experience has been different.  Here too women have enthusiastically adopted the idea and have worked to keep their area clean.  In Rajnandgaon, for instance, in the Shankarpura slum, the local women’s self-help group keeps after the ward councilor to ensure that the municipal sweeper comes every day.  Such vigilance has ensured that even an area termed a slum is very clean.  Similarly, in Narnaul, the women of Nai Basti put up a spirited fight with the authorities for water and try and keep their area clean.  But they are handicapped by the absence of basic infrastructure like drains and sewer lines.  Even if they wanted to flush their drains, they simply don’t have enough water.  And even if they did, the wastewater has nowhere to go, as the drains are not linked to a sewerage system.  Thus, in poor communities external factors such as the absence of infrastructure severely restrict their ability to keep alive their own initiatives in solid waste management. 

These experiences, and scores of similar ones, emphasise the importance of community involvement in certain aspects of urban services like solid waste management where municipal services alone, no matter how efficient, remain inadequate.  But they also underscore the need for greater equity in the distribution of urban resources, such as sewerage, and cooperation between the municipal authorities and community organisations. 

A major challenge in the area of solid waste management is changing people’s habits.  For instance, many towns have experimented with large garbage bins located in different parts of the town where household waste can be deposited.  This has failed miserably as everywhere you see garbage all around the bins, rather than in them. Even door-to-door collection has not always worked as people continue to throw out the garbage they accumulate after the sweeper has gone.  The concept of storing garbage until it is collected has not yet been accepted. The most common place for depositing garbage is the drain outside the house.  Furthermore, open plots, water bodies, riverbanks are all considered suitable for throwing out garbage.  Thus, even towns that have a semblance of a system of garbage collection end up looking like places where there is no solid waste management.  

Community-led garbage collection in Jhunjhunu
Community-led garbage collection in Jhunjhunu

Municipal finance 

While there are several success stories in the area of solid waste management, municipal finance remains a grey area.  Urban local bodies are permitted to raise revenue through various forms of taxation such as property tax, water tax, commercial tax, vehicle tax etc.  In the past, octroi -- the tax charged on goods entering a city or town -- used to be one of the main sources of revenue for most cities and towns.  With its abolition – although state governments pay a compensation to urban local bodies – there is no equivalent source of revenue for smaller towns, particularly those with a larger percentage of poor people and no industry or business that can generate additional revenue.  As a result, many small towns fail to provide adequately basic urban services to their residents, particularly the poorer communities.  

Governance is critical 

The critical issue linking all these aspects of urban life – water supply, solid waste management, planning and finance – is governance. The quality of governance can transform these small towns into sustainable urban centres.  

The 74th amendment has devolved powers to Urban Local Bodies or municipalities.  Under the 12th Schedule of the Constitution, 18 specific functions or duties have been handed over to these bodies.  Amongst the tasks that even the smallest urban local body must undertake are: Managing the water supply -- domestic, industrial and commercial; drainage and sewerage; solid waste management, urban environment management; land use control; slum services; maintenance of roads and footpaths, traffic engineering; community health, markets and slaughter houses; promotion of education, sports and cultural activities and the aesthetic environment.  

Solid waste management is an obvious and immediate issue that comes up in any discussion on governance in small towns.  But equally important is the quality of the elected representatives who are required to manage the many tasks before urban local bodies.  The 74th amendment has reserved one-third of the seats on these bodies for women and also scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.  Has the presence of more women in elected office, for instance, made a difference to the quality of governance or are they mere proxies?  

Elected women representatives in urban local bodies have not received the same kind of training and attention as women elected to panchayats. As a result, most of the women who are elected to office, especially in the smaller towns, are quite obviously proxies for their husbands.  

In all the seven towns studied, the majority of women representatives did not participate in the meetings of the urban local body and even if they were present they rarely spoke up.  For all non-official functions, their husbands represented them. There were women whose husbands openly stood in for them on every occasion except at official meetings. In Madhubani, the father-in-law of a woman who had been elected came in her place for a meeting saying he had forgotten to inform her.  Many women are never told that they are expected to attend meetings. In Janjgir, a woman councilor stepped out of her home for the first time to visit her constituency during our visit.  Her husband had given up his business to devote himself full-time to “her work” and was even planning to make her stand for the position of chairman of the municipal council, a post that would be reserved for women in the next election.  He felt no sense of embarrassment when he was asked how a woman, who had never even visited her constituency, could fulfil the role of chairman of a municipal council.   

At the same time, a surprisingly large number of elected women representatives are educated.  Amongst those interviewed for this report was a medical doctor in Rajnandgaon who was able to follow the budget and ask questions about financial allocations.  Another in Mirzapur, a young woman post-graduate was enthusiastic about heading the standing committee on education. In Madhubani, a woman councilor was chosen for the District Planning Committee and was brimming with ideas on what needed to be done.  Many of these women members acknowledge that they have benefited from the training programmes organised by PRIA and continue to want more such programmes.  

The bureaucrats involved in urban local bodies were generally disparaging about the abilities of the elected representatives, suggesting that all they were interested in was making money and giving out contracts.  Such observations are difficult to substantiate but the state of the towns suggests that this would not be completely off the mark.  

For instance, it is evident in most towns that no one checks the quality of the work done.  So-called cement concrete roads revert to rubble within a few years.  Drains built without using proper material disintegrate.  In the meantime, funds are utilised for things that have not worked in the past.  In Sehore, for example, even as the secretary of the nagar palika admitted that garbage bins don’t work as people throw things all around them, in the compound of the nagar palika stood dozens on newly painted bins that would eventually be placed in different parts of the city.  Whose idea was this?  Who got the contract? Was it ever discussed in the council?  Where do the funds come from?

Similarly in Janjgir, one of the smaller towns visited in this study, a cleaning truck that sweeps the roads with rotating brushes has been purchased for Rs 45 lakh.  Even though this amount did not come out of the funds raised by the municipality and was a grant from the state government, the truck will only be able to sweep one road – the only one smooth and wide enough to accommodate it.  The sides of this road are unpaved.  So, even as the brushes suck up the dust, another layer will be deposited.  You wonder at the process of decision-making.

Elected vs selected 

The presence of political parties at that level, particularly in the smaller towns, could be viewed as a real obstacle in the way of good governance. In villages, candidates standing for panchayat elections do not stand on political party symbols even if these parties are present indirectly.  In contrast, in cities and towns, candidates contest under the symbols of political parties.  As a result, elected bodies are divided along political lines and decisions on governance issues are dictated by party affiliations. 

An additional complication is whether the head of the elected council – the mayor, the chairman or the president of a municipal corporation, municipal council or a nagar panchayat – is directly elected or indirectly elected by fellow councilors.  If it is the former, there is a greater chance of smoother functioning, as the person so elected cannot be removed for the term of five years of the elected local body.  If it is the latter, then a vote of no confidence can be tabled within the first two years if the majority of elected members feel the person is not suitable.  If they succeed, then another person is elected.  The entire process throws all normal functioning of the elected body into a state of paralysis.  No decisions are taken as members jostle to achieve this one goal.  Sometimes they do not succeed at first try.  But they keep on trying.  As a result more than half of their time in elected office is spent scheming about how to get rid of the head of the council.  In almost every one of the towns in this study where the chairman was indirectly elected, the council’s energies were totally subsumed in plotting his removal from office.  In Madhubani, all the councilors openly speak against the chairman, even to his face. In Narnaul a woman councilor who is educated and active in her ward frankly stated, “Our only work is to plot how to remove this chairman”.   

Role of bureaucracy 

Another common factor that came up in almost every place visited was the virtually non-existent executive officer (EO).  This position is assigned to a state services bureaucrat who is supposed to assist the chairman and the municipal council.  Budget-making, for instance, is an important task before the EO. Yet, most of the time, such EOs are known to spend their first year trying to get a transfer out of the job.  If they succeed, then the urban local body is left without an EO until another can be found.  In the meantime, the secretary, a lower level bureaucrat, has to fulfil this function. 

The chemistry between the head of the council and the EO determines how long the latter will stay.  Sometimes the chemistry is good between these two individuals but there is little coordination or communication between them and the rest of the elected representatives.  At other times, they are at loggerheads, and no plan gets passed as both have to sign on.  Thus, the day-to-day functioning of these urban local bodies is paralysed.  It is evident that efforts to smoothen the working of the bureaucracy with the elected representatives are an essential prerequisite for better governance. 


The needs of most small towns are fairly basic – systems of finance that allow the local urban body to undertake basic tasks of managing solid waste, maintaining roads and street lights, ensuring water supply and allowing citizens to have a say in governance.  Sorting out systemic problems so that local councils can move ahead with developmental plans.  And building the capacity of the urban local bodies and the elected representatives so that they use their powers efficiently and effectively. 

Improving the quality of life in smaller towns could halt the flow of people from rural areas to the bigger cities.  At present, these smaller towns are often the first stop for people displaced by droughts, floods, other natural disasters or acute poverty in the rural areas.  But finding no source of livelihood in these towns, they are forced to go further afield in search of work.  This need not happen.

More importantly, small towns can be developed as examples of sustainable urban development. Ensuring that a population of 100,000 gets adequate water and electricity and has systems of dealing with solid waste is a much simpler proposition than dealing with the behemoths that our larger million-plus cities have become. Small towns need not follow the patterns adopted by many of the bigger cities where non-existent or bad planning and lack of concern for the environment and for equity have turned most of them into crowded, polluted, stressful places.  Here only the very rich can survive by creating their own little islands of prosperity while the majority have no option but to accept an inferior quality of life because big cities offer better livelihood options than small towns.


(This is the second part of the report on small towns based on visits to seven towns in six states – Madhubani, Bihar; Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan; Narnaul, Haryana; Mirzapur, UP; Sehore, MP; Rajnandgaon and Janjgir, Chhattisgarh. Part 1 can be accessed at: 

InfoChange News & Features, May 2009