Who rules the city?

Even as India marches to its city, local urban governance remains the missing link.

Written by KC Sivaramakrishnan , Bhanu Joshi | Updated: February 10, 2015 3:14 am
The contagion of industrial townships is not new. Gujarat tops with 26 of them. The contagion of industrial townships is not new. Gujarat tops with 26 of them.

As India is declared to be marching to the city, the question looming large is whether there is a system of governance that will enable or deflect this march. The Constitution (74th Amendment) Act (74th CAA) was intended to provide an umbrella of arrangements for taking care of many of the problems. However, under that canopy, several contradictions abound. Here are a few snapshots.

In September last year, the Supreme Court asked the Jharkhand government to let the court know whether Tatanagar wanted industrial township status or a representative municipality. Political parties, resident welfare associations and civil society, in unison, opted for company township status instead of a municipality. The idea of allowing an industrial township in lieu of a municipality is itself the result of a loophole clause introduced at the last minute as a proviso to Article 243 Q, after the joint select committee’s report was received and the bill was being taken up for clause-by-clause consideration. Tatanagar may be a favoured township, but that is not all of Jamshedpur. It is surrounded by Adityapur, Mango, Jugsalai and other settlements that suffer from all the deficiencies of an urban area, though several employees of TISCO and related industries live there.

The contagion of industrial townships is not new. Gujarat tops with 26 of them. The entire management of these townships is by a small board of industrialists and nominees of the government exercising executive powers. At one time, the sarpanches of the panchayats in the area were included, but they have since been excluded. In Maharashtra, the Town and Country Planning Act was amended in May 2008 to confer sovereign powers of planning and regulation on these boards. Even Marxist-ruled West Bengal was not above taking a portion of the existing Bidhannagar municipality and constituting the Nabadiganta Industrial Township just for Wipro and Infosys.

The Indian Census makes a distinction between statutory towns that are official and Census Towns, which fulfil urban characteristics but are not officially declared towns. The 2011 Census reports as many as 2,553 Census Towns and their share of population is about 14.4 per cent. Many of these Census Towns have no desire to become urban, as they stand to lose the large quantum of funding under various programmes of rural development, including MGNREGA.

Where municipal structures are provided, the elected political leaders have no executive authority and they cannot be held politically accountable. The terms of mayors vary from one to two  years in many states and, in some, up to five years. The election procedure alternates between direct and indirect elections in different states and frequently changes, as shown by Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh recently. If the government feels that bureaucrats and parastatals can do a better job, it should be candid about it and give up all pretences of elected self-government.

As for metropolitan areas, whatever may be the extent of crowding, dysfunctional infrastructure and other irritations, it is these areas surrounding the core cities that are expanding and continue to attract jobs and people. The five largest metropolitan areas contribute more than 10 per cent to the country’s economy. These multi-municipal areas are trapped in the sterile vertical arrangement of the Union, the state and the municipalities, whereas what is needed is a forum for the horizontal coordination of planning and development. The metropolitan planning committee envisaged under the 74th CAA as a coordinating platform has been a non-starter because of its defective composition.

The boundaries of individual towns and cities are changed casually, without much thinking. Merger, bifurcation and trifurcation of municipal jurisdictions are done without much forethought and for perceived political advantages, such as in Delhi and Bangalore, and now reportedly in Hyderabad.

These snapshots present some of the contradictions of urban India, which is a site for social and economic growth. At the core of this quandary is the issue of the political status of the city. At the national and state levels, the powers and political settlements are largely known, but when it comes to local bodies, be they urban or rural, the Centre and the state join in treating them as subservient dependencies.

The new Central government is visualising a Smart plan for our cities.Smart is a good approach for planning, building and running basic services, but it is not an answer to the challenge of urban growth or urban governance. Here again, the role of local bodies is not clear. Statements from political leaders from time to time indicate that local bodies are excluded almost by definition because they are not considered smart enough for “Smart Cities”.

All these contradictions abound and are flourishing, while the 74th CAA hangs above them all like a tent-house ceiling from which many things are hung. If the political spectrum does not realise these contradictions and decides what it wants to do, the enfeebled structure of urban governance will collapse under their weight. The country’s march to the city will then be merely demographic.

Sivaramakrishnan is chairman and Joshi, researcher, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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    Anuradha Kalhan
    Feb 11, 2015 at 8:22 pm
    Good article! But nobody loves partition,questions or democracy.... least of all high growth zones! They are made for the very opposite.
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      Robin Jeffrey
      Feb 11, 2015 at 3:08 am
      Outstanding piece. So very important. But is anybody reading or listening?
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