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Thursday, December 09, 2021

Building better cities

Nirman Bhawan in New Delhi houses the Ministry of Urban Development as well as the Ministry of Health....

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
July 26, 2009 3:28:58 am

Nirman Bhawan in New Delhi houses the Ministry of Urban Development as well as the Ministry of Health. But a look at the population clock installed at its entrance can trigger alarming thoughts about the worsening health of urban India. India’s population,at the moment of writing this column,is 1,142,680,751. It is growing at a rate of 30 per minute and 1.55 crore per year. By 2050,it will be 160 crores,more than China’s by at least 20 crores. Most of this explosive growth will take place in cities,raising our urban population from 35 crores now to over 90 crores in four decades.

Can we cope? We aren’t coping,even at today’s level of urbanisation. Our cities and towns are beset with multiple problems,which are well known. Why is India,whose hoary civilisation prides in having some of the earliest models of planned urban development (Moenjodaro,Indraprastha,Dwarka),unable to meet the crisis? The crisis will become worse if we don’t act now.

In my previous two columns,I had described a near-ideal model of rural development in Hivre Bazar,a village in Maharashtra,and reflected upon what constitutes an Ideal City. Too utopian to think of ideal cities? But can’t we create better cities? Yes,we can. Here are ten ideas.

1. Completely revamp urban governance in India,with an urgent Constitutional amendment. Lack of good governance is at the root of many urban problems-indeed,at the root of most national problems. Very little can change in our cities without better institutional structures of governance,with empowered roles,along with due accountability,for the elected representatives of municipal bodies. Let’s admit that the 74th Amendment of the Constitution during Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership has been woefully inadequate in decentralising powers to local urban bodies and in democratically empowering our urban population. In the present framework,mayors are merely ceremonial figureheads and corporators’ functions are perfunctory. Both play second fiddle to bureaucrats,who neither have live contact with the people nor,with exceptions,have deep emotional connect to the cities where serve in their frequently transferable jobs. Since our mayors have no challenging responsibilities,the quality and stature of the persons occupying that post have drastically come down. Willi Brandt,who was West Berlin’s mayor,later became West Germany’s chancellor. Paris’ mayor Jacques Chirac became France’s president. China’s former president Jiang Zemin was earlier Shanghai’s mayor. Tokyo’s mayor is the second most powerful person in Japan. In India,can you think of a single outstanding,nationally known,mayor?

Why does the crisis demand structural changes in governance? Take the case of Mumbai. The chief minister of Maharashtra appoints the city’s municipal commissioner and additional municipal commissioners. They have all the executive powers,but are not answerable to the people of Mumbai. Mumbai’s misfortune is further accentuated by the fact that the corporation’s powers are restricted by multiple parallel agencies like MMRDA,MSRDC,MHADA etc.,all of which are under the administrative control of the state government. The citizens of Mumbai have no say on how these organizations plan,finance,execute and maintain major infrastructure and housing projects. Then there are central government agencies like the port trust,railways,airports authority of India,and various defence establishments. They occupy large tracts of land (much of it inefficiently and indifferently utilised) and are not accountable to the corporation. With this maddening gridlock of structural problems,it is a miracle that Mumbai is still a functioning city! But it deserves better,just as all other Indians cities,which have their own set of problems,also deserve better. Clearly,the time has come for India to think radically and innovatively. We must raise the status of our municipal corporations to that of city and town governments,with empowered chiefs directly elected by the people. We should also consider the concept of having a city manager,who need not be an IAS officer. Don’t we have enough competent and committed professionals from the non-governmental sector to manage our cities?

2. Constitutionally empower enhanced citizens’ participation. Dr Jayaprakash Narayan of Lok Satta in Andhra Pradesh,Ramesh Ramanathan of Janaagraha in Bangalore,and other campaigners for urban good governance have put forth many sound ideas. One such idea is to have Area Sabhas,a second tier of elected representatives below the municipal ward level. Mumbai,for example,has 227 corporator wards. Each ward has an electorate comparable to the size of a typical Assembly constituency in our smaller states. Democracy works best when the elector and the elected have a close geographical and social contact. However,as Lok Satta puts it in its highly persuasive campaign literature,in a city like Mumbai democracy is totally divorced from city governance. “Stop and think. For every 425 people in a village there is one elected representative as opposed to one for every 66,000 in Mumbai. The local government is 155 times away!”

Lok Satta has proposed that the population of one polling booth in a municipal ward (each ward has,on an average,35 polling booths) should form one Area Sabha,with about 1,500-2,000 people,who will elect a representative to their local Ward Committee. Significantly,invoking a seminal principle of democratic accountability,it has also mooted people’s right to recall a non-performing or errant Area Sabha representative. The Area Sabha will act as a watchdog,monitoring the activities of the corporation at the grassroots level,assisting it in several important basic civic functions (cleanliness,efficient resource utilisation,maintenance of local markets,parks etc),promoting micro-level public-private partnerships,and encouraging voluntary service by local residents. Area Sabha,hence,serves as the equivalent of a Gram Sabha (which has a Constitutional status) in a village. If you have read my column on Hivre Bazar,you’ll know that an aware and cooperatively active Gram Sabha is the secret of its success.

sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com

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