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Friday, March 05, 2021


Why it will take extraordinary political will to fix our cities?

Written by Ramesh Ramanathan |
March 23, 2011 3:39:24 am

The world’s great cities weren’t born great. Consider this: “Household liquids and waste water were cast on the ground and flowed through the streets… It was common for city dwellers to use streets as a dumping ground for all manner of refuse.” (New York City,1900s,from Sanitary City by Martin Melosi.)

“The ‘Abyss’ is a pit of despair,into which pours a flood of vigorous life that perishes by the third generation. The city is a large maw into which tumble down the exploited millions,who eke out their lives in misery,dumb desperation and filth.” (London,1900s,from People of the Abyss by Jack London.)

These cities have come a long way from overflowing sewers and intergenerational hopelessness. The message: India’s cities can also be fixed.

However,this requires evangelising the urban cause and a great deal of hard work. Cities transcend traditional sarkari definitions of being social or economic sector; they engulf education,health,infrastructure,housing,economic activity,environment and sustainable development within their boundaries. Hence,the idea of fixing our cities is not about finding a magic elixir or a silver bullet. Rather,it is about defining an enabling framework within which cities will improve,and — when they face challenges — self-correct.

The first step is to make cities relevant,moving the locus of debate away from chandeliered conference rooms. Compared to the somnolence of the preceding decades,India’s urban narrative has come alive over the past five years. Today,most policymakers accept that urbanisation is a big challenge. Political parties acknowledge the importance of urban India. Media houses cover the travails of our cities with greater granularity. Corporate leaders regularly include “urban” in their “top 10 issues” lists. Academics and civil society institutions hold regular workshops on a variety of urban themes.

It is in this context that the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM,launched by the government of

India in December 2005) needs to be evaluated. If the mission were a movie,I would call it The Good,the Bad and the Ugly. While it is tempting to label JNNURM as having “succeeded” or “failed”,public policy is rarely black or white,and a single initiative rarely delivers a comprehensive outcome. JNNURM’s most significant value is that it made “urban” relevant,highlighting the challenges that confront urban India. Given how the process of any change in India is like the proverbial manthan — where the poison must first gush out before the nectar is extracted — JNNURM has unquestionably stirred the urban cauldron.

We now need to focus on moving ahead from JNNURM,which ends in 2012. Here,we need mature,nuanced debates,not pugilistic rhetoric that gets thrown across entrenched corners of the ideological boxing ring. The urban space,by its very existence,challenges ideological fundamentalism of both stripes — left and right. For any debate,context matters. And the recent report of the high powered expert committee (HPEC) on urbanisation is as good a context setter as any (visit to access the full report).

Among its recommendations,HPEC calls for a New Improved JNNURM (NIJNNURM),an idea that has stirred criticism.

Solving our urban challenges will require more money for urban infrastructure creation,more technical manpower for urban management,etc. The most important factor,however,is political will: state representatives willing to cede political space to mayors and corporators. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that politicians hate giving up power. Also,since 2008,our newly delimited electoral constituencies have had an unexpected effect on urban politics: positive for urban representation,with more urban MLAs and MPs,but negative for urban decentralisation,with bigger dogfights over political space. Add to this urban land and money politics,and the ground reality for “political will” is actually getting worse.

There are three — not necessarily independent — routes to solve this problem. One,get the courts to enforce constitutional amendments. Two,create public pressure. Three,design a mission that enables decentralisation,even if slowly and incrementally.

On the first,a recent spate of court rulings have not been positive for decentralisation activists. As to the second,generating public support is the sine qua non of a democracy. But our history as a “holding together” federal system has urban voters expecting the chief minister to fix their roads,and MLAs to clear the garbage — urban India’s knowledge of local government is inversely proportional to its importance.

This is exacerbated by error-ridden urban voter rolls. Two years ago,in collaboration with the Election Commission,my organisation Janaagraha undertook a study of voter rolls in Bangalore. We found error rates to be over 60 per cent. With high migration into and movement within cities,current systems of electoral roll management barely keep pace.

This is where NIJNNURM fits in. It would be wrong to position a central initiative like NIJNNURM as the answer to India’s urban problems. But it can be a sutradhar of urban change,catalysing responses and coaxing out the nectar,even as the manthan is churned.

One final point on our urban future,not about big-ticket infrastructure issues,but about individual urban residents,poor and rich. Whatever our “architecture” of urban reforms,we need to give people a voice in their mohallahs and neighbourhoods. The role of a government cannot just be about providing public goods,but also nurturing this sense of citizenship,by creating spaces for us to learn the art of collective decision-making.

In a feudal society like ours,citizens as well as governments see the state as a “provider” of services,at best treating citizens as “customers” but always outside the decision-making process. Given our development challenges and social heterogeneity,debates about deepening democracy are often seen as luxuries that we cannot afford,good only as esoteric ideas for drawing-room conversation.

In fact,the very origins of local government in India are rooted in training for citizenship. In Ideologies of the Raj,Thomas Metcalf writes of the sweeping local government reforms that Lord Ripon instituted: “As a liberal,Ripon introduced for the first time the objective of training Indians for self-rule. In the 1882 resolution,he said,‘local government is an instrument of political and popular education’.”

We cannot build a vibrant society only on one wing of economic liberalisation; we also need to flesh out our civic identities. If not,our coping mechanism when faced with challenging public issues is to withdraw,pulling ourselves into a tightly wound cocoon of ever-shrinking personal space that we can control.

If we treat local governments as political kindergartens for our citizens to learn the ropes of democracy,the benefits are enormous — better quality of life in our cities,with local problems being solved locally; better quality politicians; and,most importantly,more harmony among classes,castes and communities.

The writer is national technical advisor,JNNURM. He was a member of the high powered expert committee that recently submitted its report on urbanisation

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