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Dealing with Covid-19 requires more democracy, less bureaucracy

Democracy is messy but is the only way to answer demands that this transition will put on the state and society. Urban India, like anywhere else, needs more, not less of it.

Published: May 20, 2020 8:33:25 pm
Punjab has sent over 2.8 lakh migrants home, says govt Indian cities are a hodgepodge of rich and poor neighbourhoods located next to each other. (Representational)

Written by Bhanu Joshi and Shamindra Nath Roy

An urban-centred pandemic, stranded migrants, a stalled economy across cities have laid bare the perils of India’s urban transformation. An event like this forces us to ask: What happens to a society, its networks and power, when a transformation refuses to acknowledge politics and participation?

Famines, plagues and displacement have ravaged Indian cities in the past. Yet, what makes the current moment unique is that it forces us to confront how in the face of informality and demands for social protection — in the urban as a distinct category — is posing serious questions for the state and society.

These questions manifest in three ways. First, our politics refuses to recognise the urban. India is the only country in the world with an intersection of discrete criteria — population density, economic and/or administrative to declare an urban area fit for a municipal government. Research suggests that this arbitrary threshold creates perverse incentives for development trajectories leading to unacknowledged urbanisation and prejudiced funding for cities. For example, in 2001-11, more than one-third of the urban population growth happened in “census towns”, which are urban settlements in all characteristics but are governed by panchayats. Tamil Nadu, the most urbanised state, for instance, reclassified 566 town panchayats as village panchayats so that it could receive more funding from the Union and state governments. This fluidity of India’s urban transformation highlights the need for imaginative thinking which moves beyond bureaucratic processes.

Second, this unimaginative thinking is an outcome of a non-politicised urban sphere. Beginning the 1990s, power was decentralised for both urban and rural governments. Today, panchayats not only “do stuff” but also have a significant political and financial domain. An excellent reflection is how competitive panchayat elections have become. One of the present author’s work provides evidence to higher competitiveness of panchayat elections over city elections as measured by narrow margins of victory, the parties’ mobilisation efforts, campaign expenditures and turnouts. To compound the problem, even after the last delimitation process of 2008, urban areas did not have enough representation in the vidhan sabhas and the Lok Sabha. For instance, in the case of Maharashtra, where the level of official urbanisation is 45.2 per cent, the share of urban constituencies in the state assembly is only 35 per cent.

Third, at its core, a good city is a coordinated city. From “everyday” activities of designing an efficient public transport or garbage collection roster, to complicated matters like dealing with a pandemic or coordinating migrant relief requires coordination across line departments. COVID hotspot districts consisted of 87 per cent of the country’s urban population (as per the list released by May 1), with many of the cities accounting high mortality. Yet, from quarantine facilities to stranded migrant relief, most city governments have shown little capacity to articulate a coordinated vision on the pandemic.

The three challenges to the state are complemented by a transformation of society in urban India. Indian cities are a hodgepodge of rich and poor neighbourhoods located next to each other. This spatial fluidity reflects in the economic activity, its scale and co-location of formal and informal activities. In Mumbai, for instance, the share of the workforce engaged in regular salaried activities in slum areas is 61 per cent, which is not too dissimilar than non-slum areas (68 per cent according to the NSSO, 2018). However, about 40 per cent of the salaried employment in slums is personal and domestic care work or elementary occupations, which are structurally different from non-slum areas. What this means is that both the rich and poor though engaged in different occupations, live in various types of city neighbourhoods but have deep interlinks that run through the city. Cities controlled by bureaucratic minds often overlook these interlinkages, where the prosperity of the upmarket, planned areas is mistaken for the broader wellbeing of the whole city.

These interlinkages are missed because there is a gap between the form and the practice of democracy — citizens do elect their representatives but cannot be part of the effective citizenship, creating what is often referred to as a principal-agent problem. Preferences of the principal (citizens) are aggregated by the agents (councillors), who have no power since the true agent in a city is a bureaucrat or the state government. Political parties, local councillors, party workers, middlemen all operate in a world which aggregates voter preferences and set the agenda.

If a pipeline is to be laid in a neighbourhood, a political actor has the incentive to coordinate across line departments and intervenes when mundane but necessary negotiations between rich and poor interests clash. In contrast, the city bureaucrat has no capacity and little incentive to do that. The functional domain of the local political representative is limited in terms of service delivery, even when his ability and incentive to work around various line-departments is high. This results in the disruption of the crucial formal-informal linkage that drives the Indian city and veils the productive nature of the informal.

These limitations create weak forms of participation where the rich and the aspiring middle classes secede from the public sphere and see the poor and their demands as a nuisance. For the poor, these limitations create a situation of permanent disarray. The poor, who cannot afford to provide all of these public goods privately, must raise grievances with the state for basic civic service but in doing so reproduce dependency and vulnerability, and an absence of trust that drives the solid foundation for a city.

Fundamentally, therefore, by not allowing politics to operate in Indian cities, a major transformative challenge is being reduced to technocratic solutions. The challenge, therefore, demands an imaginative architecture which genuinely envisions citizenship-based governance and this pandemic provides that opportunity.

Democracy is messy but is the only way to answer demands that this transition will put on the state and society. Urban India, like anywhere else, needs more, not less of it.

(Joshi is a PhD candidate in Politics at Brown University and Roy is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research)

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