As India considers flexible and reliable ways of paying for smart cities, the untapped municipal bond market can serve as a source of capital.

As India continues to experience rapid urban expansion, public and private leaders at the national, state and local level are looking at better ways of managing the growing urban agglomerations. Poor infrastructure in urban spaces drives away agglomeration economies and is inimical to the economic growth and productivity.

The Smart Cities mission, launched under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership in 2015, is an ambitious multi-year effort in this direction. This mission envisages to improve urban infrastructure and build world class living environment in 100 of India’s rapidly expanding cities by improving urban governance and deploying technological solutions.

The central government has pledged Rs 48,000 crore in support of these efforts, spread over five years, with the condition that an equivalent amount of funds have to be collectively raised by the urban local bodies (ULBs), the respective state governments and a consortium of private entities.

The urban development ministry has already selected 33 cities for development and the Union Budget 2016-17 has earmarked Rs 3,205 crore for the same. The improvement of smart cities in India, however, will essentially hinge on the ability of those cities to improve their own revenue, raise local finance and attract greater private investment.

Poor financial record of ULBs

In 1992, the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act paved way for the improvement of institutional capacity of ULBs and opened their routes for raising independent revenue by directly levying taxes, fees and accessing capital market. However, the ULBs in India heavily depend on grants-in-aid, subsidised loans from the state and central governments and support from successive finance commissions, for their financing needs.

Following a variety of reforms in past few decades – including the passage of 74th Constitutional Amendment Act and prior national urbanisation programmes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) – many regions across India have assumed greater control over managing and financing their urban development.

Nevertheless, states and ULBs still widely vary in the amount of control they exercise in these matters and are continually exploring new ways of raising their own resources and meeting their investment requirements. One predominant feature of ULBs in India has been the lacklustre flow of private capital. This feature not only affects the financial kitty of ULBs, but also disincentivises the participatory role of citizens in city improvement.

Tapping private capital

As India’s cities consider more flexible and reliable ways of paying for improvement of smart cities, municipal bonds can serve as a valuable future model for significant source of financial capital and citizen participation.

Currently, India’s municipal bond market is largely untapped, which is highlighted by the fact that so far only a total of Rs 1,353 crore has been raised through the issuance of municipal bonds. Because of severe constraints in both supply and demand, only a limited number of ULBs have the experience of raising funds through municipal bonds.

India’s ability to deepen its municipal bond market and to raise finance for its infrastructure needs several key reforms. The opportunity to expand municipal bond market is extensive in India, but the existing institutional and legal framework limit its potential growth.

As JnNURM data from November 2012 highlights, about half of Indian municipalities carry investment grade ratings. Further, recent central government efforts to urge state governments to notify and convert 3,784 census towns into statutory towns is only expected to raise the potential of the municipal bond market in India.

In principle, these ULBs should raise capital from market and propel their growth engines, but the individual and institutional investors do not find municipal bonds sufficiently rewarding for the associated risk.