Who runs a city? Who should run a city? Who should a city turn to for solutions? These questions are now being directed at policy makers in India.

As cities in India become even more populous, lack of planning and management is creating an urban crisis of unprecedented levels.

Management is further hobbled by the multiplicity of organizations that are responsible for different parts and functions of the city. At the National Strategy Day on India in November, a brainstorming session on the future of cities was held to discuss solutions for rejuvenating urban areas.

Resources are no longer a critical problem for Indian cities. The national government has offered $7.5 billion for a Smart Cities initiative. However, the ability of the cities to deploy the funds effectively is a serious challenge. The World Economic Forum’s Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI) is leading a multi-year collaborative project with the construction industry to identify and evolve solutions to corruption issues that plague urbanization. The Building Foundations for Transparency effort will assess solutions like the creation of a City CEO to ensure participation of the industry with urban bodies. It has chosen India for a pilot project to initiate change via a dialogue with industry leaders and policy influencers.

Under the current framework of governance, most cities in India are run by a municipal corporation or a council. A municipal corporation for a large urban area with a population of more than a million, a municipal council for a city or town with a population less than a million but more than 20,000. Added to these are several related bodies that do not work under a clear pyramidal structure of accountability. These include the water supplier, electricity board, and transportation department. There are many examples where there are multiple owners of city land. In the national capital, New Delhi for example, three different bodies own public land. So any infrastructure project can’t be executed without bringing more than half a dozen bodies on board.

The problem is compounded by lack of adequate regulation in the real estate sector, critical for private partnership for modernizing a city. Parliament is therefore preparing to introduce a real estate regulator, who will look to instill transparency in the construction industry while also persuade urban local bodies to offer simplified approval processes.

Often this leads to delays and lack of coordination. While Indian cities have a mayor, the role is mostly titular and lacks any authority. The mayor is elected by the municipal body for only one year, precious little time for achieving any change.

As a result, no one person is really in charge of any Indian city. At the National Strategy Day brainstorming, this issues was identified as the core reform that Indian cities need for urbanization to succeed. Each city in India needs an empowered Chief Executive Officer to be in charge. The CEO must be empowered by law to be able to direct all bodies to work towards a common goal in a coordinated manner.

Policy makers are encouraging the use of technology by allocating requisite funds. However the effort to digitize processes; to create transparent approval systems and use electronic auctions for public procurement can’t be harmonized without a single empowered authority. A city CEO should have the power to harmonize and create transparent systems. Civil society is confounded today by the many bodies who often fail to deliver simple projects to ease traffic, improve power supply and enhance citizen security.

The recent floods in Chennai that created havoc in the city is a good example of poor planning and governance caused by lack of clear accountability. Chennai is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu but doesn’t have a proportional voice in policy making. A strong city CEO could have a plan in place to deal with the aftermath of natural disasters.

More than half of India’s 1.2 billion population will soon live in urban clusters. An accountable governance structure will ensure that its citizens get the facilities they deserve.

Author: Pranjal Sharma, Consulting Editor, Businessworld. Member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Transparency and Anti-Corruption.

Image: A boy plays on a swing suspended from a tree in front of a residential estate under construction in Kolkata October 31, 2011. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri