“The job of a government is to collect waste and taxes”, so go the immortal words uttered by Joel Singer (Director of the International Law Department in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Judge Advocate General Corps and, subsequently, Legal Adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry) in the HBO drama called Oslo. Joel Singer negotiated the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine leading to the formal global acceptance of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
That, however interesting, isn’t the reason for the write-up.
What I wish to raise is that local governments in India, Municipal Bodies, have miserably failed in doing either well. This has led to multiple issues; bankrupt local bodies, mountains of waste across our landscapes both in urban and rural areas, and a complete lack of funds to redress any of the issues. Possible policy solutions may be regulatory or economic in nature. Revenue-based instruments such as appropriate pricing for the services municipal corporations provide might help with the funding problem and help in behaviour management.
Why Are Local Governments Defunct?
In summary, a combination of bad policies and populistic politics has kept our municipal bodies near bankruptcy and therefore unable to provide the services they are supposed to.
Let me expand them.
Citizen services depend on 3 main pillars
- Education and awareness of citizens
- Resources available to execute
- Political will to deliver
Education and awareness lead to demand for services, provision of feedback against services provided, and support in the expansion of services via a public-private partnership or knowledge sharing, or even community effort.
Resources could be funds or manpower or even leadership support available to continue to provide services effectively.
Political will is harder to define. If the last 10 or so years are anything to go by, there is a strong political will to drive change in both behaviour and execution of public service delivery by the government. Helped by transformative technology, India is changing the way public services are imagined and delivered. However, there are lots of areas of improvement especially when it comes to environmental services, and waste services. It is in areas of education/awareness and resource management that our municipal bodies have failed. Policies to inform citizens about waste segregation and better waste management have been too little and too late. Funding to build citizen awareness programs is minimal and delivered very cynically. Education and awareness should go hand in hand along with rewards and penalties. And neither of them has been used effectively to drive change. Every time an effort is made to penalize ineffective waste segregation from colonies, it is scrapped in the name of more education. There is a serious lack of political will to drive change using the strongest tool available.
Municipal bodies are headed by ward councillors who are elected officials. As a result, any proposal that recommends an increase in pricing or a changed pricing strategy results in strong opposition from those intending to protect vote banks. As one can imagine, inappropriate pricing of any commodity causes demand and supply imbalance and also signals an abundance of availability.
Globally, waste collection and waste management is funded through an overarching property tax rate. The major problem with financing waste collection out of general revenues is that the practice does not confront residents with either an average or marginal cost of waste generation, creating the impression that disposal is free, when in fact it has substantial private and social costs. Local public services including waste management are often financed out of central government transfers, which also weakens citizen perception of their cost.
As a consumer when I pay a pittance for roadside cleaning, I can simply throw more trash as the cost to pick it up is really less and what I pay is a fixed fee. It gets worse when I live in a high land cost area. The cost of providing services in richer parts of town is higher and yet I pay no premium for it. This has funding implications, behaviour change implications, and lastly also signals to the waste management staff that their work has no value. All of which is counterproductive to any long-term improvement in service.
In economic terms, when the service provider isn’t able to collect adequate funds for providing the service, there is no incentive to improve service, train workers, invest in equipment, and manage maintenance. Waste pickers and waste collectors also need to be paid a wage that is periodically revised to manage inflation. All too often, waste collectors aren’t paid for months which then raises several social issues. This has several downstream impacts such as regular strikes by waste workers, garbage strewn on roads, no regular cleaning or sweeping, and little or no waste segregation at collection centres. As more and more garbage remains uncollected, decay leads to a build-up of health issues in the local areas.
What Are The Possible Solution Areas For This Issue
Better pricing: the price is a very powerful tool to implement behaviour change. Pricing can be implemented in the form of better pricing of services, and rewards for the implementation of better waste management practices. Pricing can also be in the form of penalties for non optimal behaviour including no picking up of waste.
As mentioned previously, connecting the price of service to the local circle rate for the area may bring the revenues in line with the cost of delivery of the service hence providing an incentive to the waste management providers. However, this ignores the principles of marginal utility as each additional unit of waste doesn’t cost the consumer extra. Where charges are implicit, consumers will likely be unaware of even the average cost household cost of waste disposal.
A more effective solution that may be examined is the pricing of waste per unit of collection. This has been implemented quite successfully in countries such as Korea, Belgium, Croatia, and Israel. The concept is interesting. The municipal committee provides the colony / or the house with officially tagged bags. Waste will only be picked up if kept in those bags. The corporation prices the bags at an appropriate price point to cover the cost of collection. This is over and above a flat fee to manage service operations costs. This flat fee may be tweaked as appropriate for low-income communities or slum areas or managed via a subsidy that may be offered. Over time, this nudges consumers into reducing the amount of waste their house produces. As consumers pay more for the waste they generate, there is a strong incentive to recycle the waste, reduce mindless disposal and indeed even upcycle it.
None of the policy solutions suggested are not going to be easy to implement. There are explicit costs for designing the pricing mechanism and the setup of the billing and collection mechanism. There are implicit costs of separating service delivery and politics as well as citizen change management. However, the benefits of implementing an appropriate pricing policy to manage waste collection and over time reduce urban waste disposal behaviours far outweigh the costs. It just needs vision and focused execution.