Mind the gap: on Indian manifestos and urban governance

By Sundar Senthilnathan and Sudeep Surendra

A well-designed transport system

A well-designed transport system

India is no longer the place where one can romanticize sleepy villages. It is urbanizing at rapid pace. Out of a billion plus people, 377 million are living in more than 7,000 towns and cities. Over the next fifteen years, more than 200 million people could be added to the urban population. The number of million plus cities in India increased to 53 in 2011 from just 35 in 2001. 40% of the total urban populace reside in these 53 million plus cities. There is nothing unnatural about this spectacular growth as economic growth and urbanization go hand in hand. Despite Indian cities disproportionately contributing to GDP, the quality of life however is getting worse by the day. Roads, public transport, traffic regulation, housing, waste management, water distribution network, sewerage systems, health and educations services, and law and order – all in a state of seemingly irretrievable mess. In the 2013 liveability rankings by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Mumbai ranks 116 out of 140 cities. It fares just a notch better than violence prone Karachi and Damascus.

Resolving liveability problems require a systemic governance overhaul. At present, there are way too many city agencies that exist alongside Indian city governments. Planning and infrastructure provision for instance is under the control of bureaucratic bodies quite ironically called development authorities. The city governments have hardly any say in it. In most of Indian cities, water supply, sewerage and transport are not under the city government but under agencies that are accountable only to the state government.  Many city governments are responsible only for street lights, parks, approach roads and storm water drains. This existing system is against the spirit of the 74th Constitutional amendment passed in the year 1992 that mandated establishing directly elected city councils. They were to be given the necessary powers to carry out functions from city planning to poverty alleviation. These city councils were set up as mandated, but were not given adequate powers to govern themselves. Many of them do not have control even over their own budget. The continuing deterioration of quality of life in cities is a function of impotence and inefficiency of city governments.

In a Survey of City-Systems carried out for eleven Indian cities by Bangalore based Janaagraha centre for citizenship and democracy, it was concluded that the essential institutions and processes of urban governance are in terrible shape. Across the board, Indian cities are undemocratic in that there are hardly avenues for public participation besides the representatives themselves being toothless. There are other serious problems faced by all the cities in terms of unscientific planning, archaic processes, anaemic resources, poor fiscal management and high degree of control as well as neglect by the state governments. No amount of recommendations by governmental panels, academia and the business community has brought about meaningful change.

Even an incentive linked reform scheme introduced in 2005 – the top-down Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission that provided funds on the condition of satisfying key governance reforms – failed in relieving local governments and other service providing agencies from the iron grip of state governments. Many reforms implemented under the scheme were merely cosmetic exercises. PAD reforms – improving Processes, establishing Accountability and supporting local Democracy have been negligible. As a result,urban governance is in paralytic state. To illustrate, city roads get re-laid over and over again without any thought to the purpose and its sustainability. Many such projects go on without any work codes, facilitating corruption. Moreover, citizens are often clueless about why such a road was re-laid, and at whose behest. Life in Indian cities moves on even as city agencies carry out their works without even a common base map.

Urban governance and development is a key agenda for aspirants to the seat of power in Delhi. The incumbent Congress party makes all the right statements about empowering city governments. It wants directly elected mayors with longer tenures to be the CEOs of cities. However, it is difficult to believe the earnestness of the intent to empower city governments considering its pathological centralization mindset. In fact, none of the Congress ruled states have initiated real decentralization in urban governance. The Congress also wants to create 100 urban clusters around existing small and emerging cities with power and transport links to scale economic activities. One interesting point, which may not help the party, is that it recognizes the chronic under-franchising in urban areas and thereby promises to ensure equality.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) much awaited manifesto repeats the Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s assertion that urbanization is an opportunity and not a threat. On what it intends to bring about, some of the BJP’s ideas are very similar to those of the Congress. For example, while the BJP talks about satellite towns, the Congress proposes 100 urban clusters.  In addition, the BJP wants to build 100 new cities. One wonders how the number 100 was arrived at by both the parties. The CEOs of industrial corridors, heads of city development authorities and practising architects know very well that the existing system simply does not have the capacity to plan and execute dreamy ideas including integrated transport systems in this country. On devolution of meaningful powers to urban local bodies, the BJP seems to have no plan of action.

The aspiring Aam Aadmi Party, in line with its decentralization and participatory democratic ethos, vouches for empowerment of the neighbourhood itself through Area councils or Mohalla Sabhas. These Area councils will have the powers to identify beneficiaries for welfare programs, and spend untied funds on the basis of neighbourhood priorities. Local health, education and even police authorities would be accountable to the area councils. Once a sense of responsibility builds among the citizens, the area councils would be given the power to initiate legislation. This sub-localism, the party believes, will deepen democracy, and deliver better quality of life. However, there is a risk of this very sub-localism undermining local government, which the manifesto does not address. On urban development, it specifies that India’s tier-2 and tier-3 cities’ urban infrastructure should be given the required attention to facilitate the economic growth of peripheries.

On balance, none of the manifestos is comprehensive on urban governance and development. We find no merit in bringing up 100 more cities or building 100 urban clusters if the basic systems of governance will continue to remain as they are. There is a yawning gap between the manifestos of political parties, barring the Aam Aadmi Party to a certain extent, and the ground realities. The next government instead of pursuing dreamy projects should focus on the onerous task of systemic reforms in all aspects of urban governance – real devolution, community participation, metropolitan planning, strengthening of human and technological capacities and financial management.  It could develop replicable models of improved urban governance processes, with the ward becoming the basic institutional unit. That is, the ward is where civic service delivery issues are to be resolved, citizen participation methods concretized, and local area plans are made in conjunction with the metropolitan plan. This ward specific governance model should then be replicated as the cities grow. Only then the haphazardness of urban development could be overcome. We hope the discussion on India’s urban governance and development moves beyond the basics in 2019. By then the urban population in the largest democracy could be 500 million.

Sundar Senthilnathan is a Public Policy analyst and Sudeep Surendra is Senior Project Associate at Avantika Foundation. Views expressed are their own. Feedback can be emailed to doctorsundhar@gmail.com or kssudeep@gmail.com

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