With urban development being a state subject, the states determine the parameters required to qualify a settlement into a town, municipal council, municipal corporation or a nagar parishad. In Himachal Pradesh, the state government has taken the decision to transform three municipal councils (MC) – Solan, Mandi and Palampur – into municipal corporations.
The criterion for a municipal corporation in HP is that urban settlements should have a population of over 50,000 people. However, all the three proposed MCs have far lesser numbers, and hence an amendment was brought to the Himachal Pradesh Municipal Corporation Act, 1994, to lower the population criterion to 40,000. These towns, however, still do not qualify, and adjoining panchayats are being merged into them in order to qualify them on the basis of the population criteria.
There have been large-scale protests in Mandi and Solan by the adjoining panchayats against the proposed merger. The villagers have been protesting for a withdrawal of the decision and, through their elected panchayat representatives, have passed resolutions against this move of the state government.
According to the 2011 Census, the classification of a place is either ‘rural’ or ‘urban’. In urban settings there are statutory towns, census towns and outgrowths. A statutory town is a designated urban settlement with an urban governance model – for example, all places with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board, notified area committee and the like fall under this category. There are 4,041 statutory towns in India and 3,894 census towns in India according to the 2011 Census; the number increased from 1,362 in the year 2001. These census towns account for 30% of the urban growth in the given decade.
Non-statutory towns or census towns are places which fulfill the following criteria: a) a minimum population of 5,000, b) at least 75% of the male population working in non-agricultural pursuits c) a population density of at least 400 persons per square kilometre.
Outgrowths are areas which are contiguous to a statutory town and have urban features in infrastructure and amenities such as pucca roads, electricity, taps, drainage systems, education, banks and the like – examples are railway colonies and university campuses.
Another definition in urban classification is ‘urban agglomeration’, areas with a population of over a million people. What are left out are rural areas and their basic unit is a revenue village.
Hence, for an area or a place to be part of the municipal corporation – the highest in the ladder of urban governance – the place must qualify based on these parameters. In all the three towns that are being turned into corporations, the adjoining areas being merged into them are revenue villages. The government has not even categorised them either into census towns or outgrowths.
Reasons for Urban Transformation
One of the major reasons suggested by the government for transforming these municipal councils into corporations, is that there would be better governance. A few, well-meaning people from these towns believe that once the town is transformed into a corporation, there will be easy flow of funds from the Centre to manage and build much-required infrastructure. There are two pressing problems almost universal to all these towns, and a solution to them is being sought from an elevation to a municipal corporation. These problems are garbage disposal and sewage management. Some town folk believe that their longstanding woes of garbage and sewage management will be solved. Romi Khosla, one of the leading urban planners in India, does not believe that the transformation would address the problems of citizens living in the towns.
There is a larger agenda behind the decision, however. The three councils in question are running into huge revenue deficits. A cursory look at the budgets of these councils explains the reality. According to Khosla, there should be a larger vision to gauge the problem clearly. The reason why the government is trying to expand the urban areas to adjoining panchayats is to expand its tax base, so that a larger base area can be taxed to run the town administration. This is an unsustainable model.
Take Solan MC, for example. According to the budget figures, the town is running at a deficit of nearly Rs 2.78 crore out of a budget of nearly Rs 22 crore for the financial year 2018-19. In this budget, the grant from the 14th Finance Commission and the 4th State Finance Commission roughly comprise 40% of its total income. Its own source of income from property tax is Rs 1.03 crore – about five percent of the total budget – whereas the expenditure on salary and pensions is Rs 6.81 crore, nearly 36% of the budgetary income. Hence, the boundaries of the Solan Municipal Council must be extended to tax a larger population. Likewise, with a revenue of nearly Rs four crore and an expenditure that surpasses its income, the Mandi Municipal Council has a deficit which it wants to pass on to the adjoining panchayats.
Another reason for extending the boundaries of these towns is to encroach upon the village common land. In all these proposed municipal corporations, a large area – more than the existing area of these towns – is being taken in from the villages. In Mandi there are eight panchayats – Bhadyal, Chadyal, Behna, Chlah, Gutkar, Shuba Rippa, Dudar and Kaliar – which are being merged into it. In Solan town, the panchayat being merged are Basal, Padog, Salogra, Seri, Kothan, Shamti, Saproon and Anji. In Palampur, an astonishing 17 panchayats are being merged. The population of Palampur according to the last Census is nearly 3,375 people, and it is one of the smallest municipal councils in Asia. Despite that, the town is being considered for a municipal corporation.
Coming back to the village common land, in all these panchayats, large tracts of land are under the village common land category, called ‘shamlat’ in Himachal Pradesh. This land is used for common purposes like grazing animals, for fodder, and even to construct houses. In the eight panchayats adjoining Solan nearly 10,000 bighas of land falls under shamlat. Likewise, there is plenty of such land in the adjoining panchayats of Mandi and Palampur. The real-estate lobby, which supports the ruling party, is quite interested in using this land for construction as there is hardly any space left in the existing MCs. Once these villages are merged into the town, the villagers lose their common land. Once the forests are transferred to an urban management authority, all their special rights are snatched.
A Faulty Exercise
The HP government is being spontaneous rather than undertaking a planned development of these urban centres. None of these towns has a city development plan with a vision for long term development. These towns have developed in a spontaneous manner without basic infrastructure. As these towns grew there was a dire need for laying infrastructure, which is lacking. It is high time that the government engages planners and ties-up with planning institutes to ensure that development plans of the urban local bodies are prepared in consultation with the people instead of handing over the work to large corporates.
The towns need not look far for examples either. Both Shimla and Dharamshala are part of the 100 smart city network as laid down by the MoUD. In these towns, the push is for more capital intensive solutions rather than decentralised cheap solutions for the two basic problems of sewage and garbage management. Dharamshala does not have a solid waste management plant, all that it does is dump garbage in a landfill site. Shimla has a waste to energy plant which has not functioned optimally. Capital intensive solutions are not sustainable and tend to put the burden on the people.
Gokul Butail, a former IT advisor to the previous government in the state, while supporting the demand of Palampur being turned into a municipal corporation, said that there at least be some regulation in the region. He said all that the residents in Palampur throw their fluid waste into the traditional kuhls (water canal for irrigation), which pollutes the environment. “I do not think that just to ensure that the law to have a septic tank – which can be enforced even in the rural space as well – is a good reason for a municipal corporation. All that the government must do is to identify such census towns or urban outgrowths which can then be integrated into the town council,” he said. Opting for a municipal corporation without even knowing or having a plan would be like escaping a bullet and falling into a ditch.
The writer is former deputy mayor of Shimla. The views are personal.