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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Reimagining cities

Revisiting the 74th Constitutional Amendment can address critical urban governance concerns in a comprehensive manner.

New Delhi | Updated: October 12, 2020 9:57:05 am
The mass journeys of migrant workers from cities to villages has highlighted how little the government knew and cared for their plight. (File)

Written by Pushpa Pathak

COVID-19 is an urban-centric phenomenon, concentrated largely in India’s metros, with some recent spread to smaller towns and villages. The unprecedented pandemic has exposed several pre-existing urban governance challenges as well as deep-rooted inequalities in access to housing, services, livelihoods and safety nets. The mass journeys of migrant workers from cities to villages has highlighted how little the government knew and cared for their plight. The National Capital and Mumbai Metropolitan Regions witnessed closing of the city borders restricting people’s travel for work or personal reasons. Delhi’s Chief Minister also attempted to limit access to the city’s health facilities to the residents of Delhi. Such exclusionary approaches highlight a fundamental governance deficit. Hence, it is time to seriously rethink the governance of India’s metropolitan regions.

The current health crisis has spawned wide ranging debates on reimagining cities. Some scholars are drawing attention to improving city planning and management, while others are arguing in favour of an entirely new settlement pattern. For instance, Anil Kakodkar makes a case for “more balanced distribution of income as well as population…and the creation of an ecosystem which has been conceptualised as a ‘cillage’ — a synergistic combination of city and village”. (‘It will take a village,’ IE, April 16). Rajiv Kumar and Srijan Pal Singh highlight the downside of large mega-cities and visualise a landscape of more spread-out smaller cities and villages as “alternative models of habitations, which are more frugal, more sustainable and offer more satisfying lifestyles and higher welfare levels.” (‘Re-imagining the city,’ IE, June 8) Responding to them in another media article, Om Mathur emphasises that “city-size is of no consequence, but well managed cities are important for economic growth and poverty reduction, and hence, the task is to accept the inevitable and work on making the process of urbanisation sustainable, resilient, inclusive and productive.” While agreeing with Mathur, I would like to add that if the city-size was a major determinant of the quality of urban governance, India’s small towns would have been well-served picturesque places, which sadly they are not.

Moreover, a spatially dispersed urbanisation pattern has already started emerging in India. This is partly due to the national industrial policy that prohibits location of large scale and polluting units in and around million plus cities and promotes decentralised industrial development. The metropolitan diseconomies of scale, manifested in high land cost, congestion and air pollution, are also driving out a significant number of people and businesses. This has resulted in lower population growth of core cities like Kolkata and Greater Mumbai as well as expansion of most metropolitan regions. However, the number of million plus cities increasing from nine in 1971 to 53 in 2011, as well as the emergence of 2,532 new Census Towns in 2011, clearly indicates that urban population growth is no longer concentrated in a few metros. These trends indicate that the existing metros will continue to be prominent while other urban spaces will emerge and thrive simultaneously as India becomes more urbanised.

By 1980s, it was realised that well planned metropolitan area development requires an inter-governmental platform. Hence started the thinking on the Metropolitan Planning Committees (MPCs), which was included in the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act 1992. Several states have passed the MPC Acts, but only a handful of MPCs have been established, which too have not functioned well and for long. Also, the MPCs’ focus was more on planning, rather than on overall metropolitan governance defined as: The authority to take policy decisions, planning and execution in coordination and cooperation with various stakeholders for the region’s overall development.

The MPCs fiasco led to a spate of studies and conferences to deliberate on well-known international examples and possible alternatives for India. One such study was the “Megacities Governance” led by K C Sivaramakrishnan at the Centre for Policy Research which recommended Metropolitan Councils (MCs) as an appropriate model for metropolitan governance in India. The idea of MCs requires strengthening and restructuring of the existing metropolitan development authorities to transform them into effective regional governance entities.

Taking the discourse forward, I propose Metropolitan Federations of Local Governments (MFLGs) as another suitable model for India. There are several successful examples of voluntary regional coalitions of local governments and other stakeholders, particularly in Western Europe and Latin America. This bottom-up model, rather than creating an additional layer of top-down power structure may be more feasible in the Indian context. One of the vital considerations for selecting any governance model for India’s metropolitan regions should be its potential to address the challenge of the existing arrangement fraught with institutional multiplicity, fragmentation and overlap.

The discourse on reimagining cities and metropolitan regions should not be limited only to population size, but must also encompass governance, planning and management. Both MCs and MFLGs have some merits, which need to be conferred widely to reach a consensus on the most suitable metropolitan governance option for India. MPCs cannot be substituted by another arrangement without a constitutional amendment. Therefore, I am reiterating my recommendation for revisiting the 74th Constitutional Amendment to address a range of critical urban governance concerns in a comprehensive manner.

(The writer is a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal)

i. Kakodkar, Anil (2020): “It will take a cillage: Covid-19 crisis can help us rework relationship between city and village,’’ The Indian Express, 14 April.

ii. Kumar, Rajiv and Singh, Srijan Pal (2020): “Pandemic offers chance to pursue an alternative model of urbanisation,’’ The Indian Express, 8 June.

iii. Mathur, Om P. (2020): “Work on getting the city-led growth right,’’ Financial Express, 13 July.

iv. Sivaramakrishnan, K. C. (2014): Governance of Megacities: Fractured Thinking, Fragmented Setup, OUP India.

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