Mar 19, 2009

Managing civic utilities

It is encouraging that the need to provide and strengthen municipal infrastructure in Pakistani cities is now receiving the attention of development planners. Given the rapid pace of urbanisation — 50 per cent of Pakistan’s population is expected to live in towns and cities by 2015 — it is time this sector was addressed seriously.
The priority must be to devise feasible strategies for water supply, sewerage and waste water management, and public transport systems which are crucial to the quality of life of citizens in urban areas. One would therefore welcome the Asian Development Bank’s interest in supporting the capacity of provincial and municipal governments in developing and implementing urban policies.
Focusing on these areas is significant because the country’s failure to develop an adequate municipal infrastructure in any city is attributed to flawed strategies and the inability of local governments to implement plans.
The ADB should also share the responsibility for this failure in the past because, as it has itself admitted, there have been instances when it financed projects unsuitable for local conditions. In view of this, one cannot be sure that the Country Partnership Strategy that the ADB signed with Pakistan last week will succeed. At a time when the trend is towards re-municipalisation the world over, the bank speaks of supporting private sector participation in service delivery and urban transport system investment. It plans to set up Urban Services Corporations jointly owned by local governments in some ‘secondary towns’.
The USCs will be staffed by professionals from the private sector with an emphasis on outsourcing, design-build-operate contract modalities and performance-based concessions or lease arrangements. The induction of the private sector in municipal services is a contentious issue in developing countries because it inevitably leads to the escalation of charges citizens have to pay for utilities that are often of poor quality. Karachi has experienced this in failed experiments of privatising KESC and solid waste management in the city.
It is time the government tested indigenous strategies which are based on the principle of participatory development and seek to induct local populations to build civic infrastructure on a self-help basis in various neighbourhoods. Under such an arrangement, municipalities provide and strengthen the strategic infrastructure by delivering bulk supplies. This approach has succeeded in areas where it has been tried — the Orangi Pilot Project being the most notable example.

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