Opinion: Lessons from the corporate set-up that can improve Mumbai’s governance

Abhishek Thakore, founder of the Blue Ribbon Movement, writes about ways in which local governance could be optimised to serve the dynamic nature of the city.

Congestion and pollution in Mumbai is an ever-increasing, annual problem. By 2030, transport emissions will replace industrial fumes to become the biggest contributor to air pollution in Mumbai. One wonders, then, why the demand for a livelihood in what is now arguably a difficult city to live in, is still so high. Why do citizens put up with slow development and still pay the highest taxes? Metro work seems to have slowed down, while other bridges and coastal roads continue to be prioritised. Potholes, illegal parking and unattended vehicles obstructing pathways are ignored in many parts of town. As Mumbai moves into the future, as a post-pandemic city, how do we ensure that it not only survives but also thrives?

With the most expensive real estate in the country, Mumbai has still managed to attract large populations. People from all castes and classes migrate here for a better life. A city like Mumbai, lauded for its resilience and hard work, can never stop. Its government has to work overtime to keep up with the people and is appreciated for its responsiveness. The Municipal Performance Index of 2021 ranked Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) 8th in best performing municipalities in cities with a population of more than one million.

But, poor management in areas of infrastructure and environment could prove disastrous for a city already vulnerable to climate change. In the face of elections, this time is crucial for the government to incorporate citizen voices and mirror the needs of the people. 

Governments are infamously known to function slowly and inefficiently, especially in a city like Mumbai where there are so many independent bodies in charge of its functions. What are some ways in which we can optimise the urban local body? Perhaps we can take lessons, for some aspects of urban governance, from the working structure of a company’s corporate and profit-based model. 

Read more: Why you should care about BMC elections

Can we take lessons on governance from companies?

In a corporate entity, information is not restricted and flows as required. If an order is placed on Amazon, it passes through different departments – IT, warehouse, dispatch, invoicing – until you get the order at your doorstep. In Mumbai, information flow from the government to the citizens is opaque and difficult for citizens and other stakeholders to access. Processes like receiving tenders/bids, expenses, records of public spaces, complaint analytics are not computerised, and a lot of barriers still exist.

The lack of clarity in governance structure and process can make it difficult for the common citizen to understand which issue falls under which jurisdiction. Some parts of the city are run by the central railway, some by Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), some by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), etc. If you file a complaint with MCGM, you might realise that your issue falls under somebody else’s jurisdiction. In a company, there are very clear departments and responsibilities, for everyone to work together to solve a problem.

There are various ways in which companies measure growth. There is the employee satisfaction index, customer satisfaction index, profits, balanced scorecard, sustainability report and more. Companies measure themselves all the time and make comparisons to the performance of other companies. In the case of the MCGM, other NGOs and organisations measure its growth, but the MCGM itself does not measure its performance in comparison with other government bodies.

What is missing right now is the data to track work over a period of time. The onus of this currently lies on individual organisations and NGOs that measure growth in the form of ward audits, citizen manifestos, and thick data about the city. Organisations like Praja, Pukar and The Blue Ribbon Movement have worked extensively in the civic space and provided a bird’s eye view of Mumbai’s governance. 

The MCGM could learn from company structures to work on collaborative governance.

Lessons from companies for urban governance

Mumbai's sea link at night
The BMC can take lessons from a corporate company’s organisational structure | Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

1. Substantially increase the freedom that the city government has

MCGM used to have large surplus budgets, but over time, due to infrastructure projects, the surplus budget has reduced. In a couple of years, we’ll stop getting our share of octroi investments, through which the city would make a large sum of its profits. This stopped in 2010 when GST was introduced, and when octroi investments were removed, the state government provided compensation to Mumbai to offset losses. This compensation will soon run out and our shares will incur losses. Much like the union government is allowed to issue bonds to citizens as a source of revenue, we should also allow cities to issue bonds of the city. The city should create separate entrepreneurship-friendly regulations and disentangle it from the whims of the state and centre to replenish its autonomy.

2. Bring coordination into a single authority

17 agencies are coordinating to run the city: Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST), the western railways, MHADA, MMRDA, etc, and 6 agencies for land use planning. All these agencies don’t function at a ward level, but rather as independent bodies. Before we talk about decentralisation, the intermediate step is to have accountability pinned at one point and branched out from there. The process of decentralisation first requires coordination between all bodies. If all these come into unified, well-coordinated management, we could collaboratively run the city.

3. Empower the mayor at the level of a CEO

The closest we come to a single point of authority is through the municipal commissioner of Mumbai. But, the municipal commissioner is not an elected representative, and his actions are largely driven by the state government’s mandates. The ideal central authority would be the mayor. Currently, the mayor is only a title and has little to no executive powers. The mayor is a rotating position with no clear roles and responsibilities, none that are of significance, as equal to that of the municipal commissioner, at least. We should have a mayor’s fund, through which they could lead certain improvement projects that aren’t mandated by existing budgets. We should provide mayors with resources and executive powers in pursuit of decentralising Mumbai. 

4. Allocate budgets for citizen awareness and organising

Don’t wait for NGOs to do this immense task alone. Extend the responsibility of the establishment to organise citizens and make them aware of the schemes and possibilities. Introducing new schemes is not enough if nobody knows about them. The city should allocate a certain percentage of the scheme budget to raising awareness. There are a lot of provisions, for example, for gardens to be made available to citizens for maintenance, but there is no knowledge of this amongst people, and no clarity on how this can be executed.

5. Climb the Decentralised Finance curve proactively

Decentralised Finance, or Defi, is part of web3, a set of technologies based on the blockchain. This includes cryptocurrencies, peer-to-peer payments, blockchain-based applications and more. Defi is currently booming with the global attention on the blockchain. During the tech boom of the 90s, Mumbai created space in the SEEPZ for export oriented businesses like software and jewellery, but no companies settled there. Mumbai lost out on this opportunity to Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad due to cheaper real estate rates. But we can (and have to), as the financial capital, ride the next wave of the internet. It has much to do with finance, so this is our opportunity. Being the finance capital of the country, Mumbai needs to evolve with technology and maintain its supremacy as the finance capital. 

6. Measure metrics aggressively

Just like a corporation tracks its costs, profits and share-price actively, ensure that all metrics in the city are accessible and actively monitored. Measure year-on-year growth on citizen satisfaction, grievance resolution, new public welfare projects etc.

I close with a quote from late Gerson da Cunha, an activist who worked with Mumbai authorities to solve citizens’ issues, “We have destroyed India’s cutting-edge city of the fifties. We have slowly got used to a city that works less and less well. Bad news because today’s national economies depend on how well the nation’s cities work. If Mumbai and India are to get anywhere, Mumbai must get globally competitive, and we are nowhere there.”

It would be a fitting tribute to people like him and Shyama Kulkarni, both of whom we recently lost, to continue their work and take it forward with renewed zeal.

(Written with assistance from Radha Puranik)

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