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Everyday Governance And Institutional Heterogeneity In Indian Cities

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India’s cities have always had a long history. The place that once belonged to the “wealthy middle class” is now a rather different place. There are almost 8,000 cities in India and each city is unique in having its own requirements and shortcomings. However, on one hand, certain ‘bigger’ cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad carry the idea of a “perfect city” and the ideal model of development, there are other cities in the country which, despite falling under this category, have a long way to go.

But certain factors remain uniform across all cities. Sanitisation, health, waste management and other basic factors remain common among most cities, thus emanating a need for everyday governance and institutional heterogeneity in Indian cities, especially in small cities. At a webinar organised by the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) at the IMPRI and IndraStra Global, Dr Natasha Cornea, lecturer at the University of Birmingham, England, said:

“It is important to recognise the multitude of governance practices by heterogeneous networks of actors. The metropolitan cities apart from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore have a rather different way of functioning and have a strong and effective community service that makes the decision-making process rather easy and meaningful. But in smaller cities, this might not be the case. They might be locally linked to each other or, in some cases, even linked to internationally recognised rotary clubs. Therefore, while conducting research, one needs to collect data all cities other than the metropolitan cities.”

Dr Natasha Cornea _ #CityConversations with Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay

She further pointed out that institutional heterogeneity helps in learning about a more nuanced and grounded understanding of a city and its power structure enables us to face new challenges that new cities face.

What does Everyday Governance mean in the first place? It is basically “the actual practices of how interests are pursued and countered, authority exercised and challenged, and power institutionalised and undermined.” While exemplifying this term, Dr Cornea said that ordinary people in society, from a person selling newspapers to a person at the highest post in the bureaucracy, are all part of everyday governance. Each and everything that goes around in society adds to the larger value of governance.

Therefore, what do people do? How do they do it? What motivates them to do it? What benefits do they get from it? – all are part of everyday governance. Since all these actors in society work together, it kind of brings a notion why they never overlap with each other, and why every sector is completely independent in society? How are formal and informal sectors separated from each other?

While narrating a historical context, Dr Cornea quoted several scholars who explicitly mentioned how various working groups have always worked in perfect sync with each other. Therefore, she said that all these actors work and live in a common space and have helped India recognise a complex and heterogonous governance network that shape cities.

For instance, a village in West Bengal has ‘para clubs’ that act as an alternative to and intermediary with the state. The clubs are not formally recognised under the RWAs or any other organisation, but there is still significant value to people belonging to that particular section. They come together to celebrate local festivals and poojas in the community. However, the role of clubs in West Bengal is more unclear. People have trouble explaining how and where one club ends and a new one starts. More often than not, these clubs also have a role to play in the power structure.

Another aspect of these clubs is legitimacy. It is by no doubt established that the RWAs have more legitimacy and so as when it comes to decision-making and formulating different policies. RWAs also cater to the needs of a much larger population as compared to the clubs. But clubs, on the other hand, are ‘legitimate’ in their own local area and thus important for the smooth functioning of a particular (smaller) group. Therefore, the whole idea of legitimacy is quite complex. It solely depends on how the people perceive it to be as.

If even a small group of people accept the governance action of a particular group, they gain legitimacy through that. If a group of people belonging to a club ascertain the confidence in it, it becomes ‘legitimate’ for that particular section of society and begins to gain importance for them. As mentioned earlier, clubs bring together local people for poojas and local festivals in the community, but that has a larger goal of feeding the poor, distributing clothes etc. in that group.

Image has been provided by the author.

If one look at both RWAs and the clubs in a larger manner, they suggest that the ultimate aim of either of the groups is to establish power within the group that they are working in – through organising local functions, resolving disputes and, even in some cases, grant ‘access’ to those who can move into the community and those who cannot.

But none of this is to be seen in a bad light. There have been several examples that Dr Natasha mentioned while talking about how at times it is these groups that have come to the rescue of the people involved in the group by providing with an ambulance, supplying immediate first aid.

She points out that on one hand, there has been a drastic increase in research that has been conducted by rather smaller cities and people belonging to those areas. On the other hand, the numbers of those researches are very low. Some of these researches do not even see the light of the day. Whereas, some of the other studies from India’s metropolitan studies do not cover the realities of smaller/secondary cities of India.

Concluding her remarks, Dr Cornea said that in the post-Covid world, it would be interesting for us to see how and to what extent have networks in power and in the cities been shifted or reshaped, as compared to earlier. She further pointed out there is a need to focus on how we now recognise and mobilise heterogeneous institutions for more real and reasonable responses to future challenges.

Acknowledgements: Annmary Thomas is a research intern at the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. She is an undergraduate in History from Ambedkar University, Delhi and joining as a master’s candidate in International Relations at the University of Bristol, UK

Written by: Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Dr Arjun Kumar, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)

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