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How Can We Break The Status Quo In Indian Cities To Make Them More Inclusive?

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Written by: Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Dr Arjun Kumar, IMPRI 

Urbanisation is a contributor to a country’s economic growth. The realisation of the economic potential of urbanisation depends on the interplay of agglomeration effects and congestion forces. The potential for cities to create regional growth beyond their immediate boundaries depends on how they are integrated with their hinterlands and regions.

In India, the hierarchy of settlements is highly skewed with a few large cities and many small villages. This is due to the approach of city management that looked at urban development in the silo, rather than understanding it as the interplay of several programs across spatial scales. Urban India needs to break the status quo for a sustainable future.

The various aspects of breaking the status quo prevailing in Indian cities were highlighted by speakers Srikanth Viswanathan — Chief Executive Officer, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy — and Srinivas Alavilli — Lead, IChangeMyCity, The Civic Tech Platform of Janaagraha and Co-Founder, #SteelFlyoverBeda Movement of 2016 — in a joint talk organizsed by the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Indrastra Global.

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Chairing the session, Professor Tathagata Chatterji, Urban Planning and Governance, Xavier University, Bhubaneshwar, threw light on the 15th finance commission and its impact by saying that the commission in a way has created a new buzz around Indian cities and provided ways to take the reforms forward. Not only did the finances of the cities see quite a bit of a substantial jump from what was aggravated during the 14th finance commission, but there are also major changes with a better focus on metropolitan governance.

Specifically, Rs 38,000 crore have been earmarked for 15 metropolitan areas where the grants are subjected to performance. He further pointed that if implemented these changes can make a substantial impact on the way the Indian cities function. “The fifteenth finance commission definitely changes the status quo, but it can also trigger some tensions related to Centre-state relations,” said Prof Chatterji.

Elucidating his point, he said that the 15th finance commission has made it mandatory for the state finance commission to be set up and give recommendations within a finite date. This may cause Centre-state tensions. Also, state governments are now required to give reports of t he action taken regarding suggestions to state finance commissions.

One of the first speakers, Srikanth Viswanathan, started by stating that one thing to be noticed in the past two-three years is the palpable sense of helplessness among various stakeholders in the broad urban sector about how to break the status quo. Today, cities are becoming important in public discourse and also in politics, but the problems and challenges are fast outpacing the solutions.

Status Quo In Indian Cities And How To Break It?

The four broad aspects can be:

  1. Economic growth, jobs and skills
  2. Equitable access to both services and opportunities arising out of economic growth
  3. Environmental sustainability
  4. Engagement between citizens and citizens and the state

There is either no positive systematic evidence of any significant improvement in the quality of life in cities or there is evidence of some deterioration. There has certainly been a lot of political capital invested in cities than before and a greater degree of policy focus and resource allocation coming into cities. Many more projects are being outlaid and service delivery is improving at a slow pace.

“It is status quo in the sense that how well stitched is the fabric of democracy and citizenship in our cities and how well we are prepared for 10, 20, 30 years of life in our cities,” said Srikanth Viswanathan.

We are caught in a status quo where the incremental effort we are making is just not enough to provide an environment in our cities where citizens can fulfil their socio-economic potential, particularly the urban poor and disadvantage minorities, but by and large all citizens.

Three Broad Instruments To Break The Status Quo

It’s time for us to go one level deeper from sectoral and government priorities.

1. Strengthening Administrative Capacities at union state and local levels:

Administrative capacities, particularly in an urban domain, are extremely poor. Besides sectoral areas, the four areas where they are particularly acute care:

  • Spatial Planning and design — pretty much non-existent at the local level
  • Public Finance Management
  • Human Resource Management
  • Transparency and Citizen Participation
  • Engagement of Urban Leaders on Urban Political economy

To gain a much better understanding of the interrelationship between politics, urban economy, governance of cities and quality of life, the urban discourse in India is largely centred on infrastructure and service delivery. The definition of quality of life is being viewed through a fairly narrow prism of infrastructure and service delivery.

The intersection of the city as an economy, the city as a place where people come to earn their living and a place which attracts investments and talent and how that intersects with politics and governance of the city and, in turn, the consequences that we see as the quality of life as infrastructure and service delivery perhaps continue to remain in academic domain and research domain in India and need to be mainstreamed,” said Srikanth Viswanathan.

2. Nurture participatory Governance:

The third piece of participatory governance is essentially about mobilising citizens, mobilizing citizen voices and channelising that voice through the political economy to the administrative and political executive system. Engagement of neighbourhood communities and city counsellors to build trust and meaningfully built the third tier of governance in our country thereby nurturing grassroots democracies in our cities.

“In some ways, everything that happens within a city can effectively be subject to participatory governance,” said Srikanth Viswanathan.

Indian Cities

The second speaker, Srinivas Alavilli, started by underlining the fact that a political connection, connection with political class, especially with the corporate counsellor at a municipal, is a very essential ingredient that is sorely missing. By definition the understanding that all politicians are groups and local politicians are total groups itself creates a lot of problems in terms of changing the status quo in the cities.

Lessons should be learned by engaging with the political class and trying to bring about change in the city.

The city-systems framework is a new way of thinking about lingering challenges that plague our cities in three specific ways:

  • Focus on root causes rather than symptoms.
  • Recognise the need for a systems approach.
  • Facilitate periodic measurement of progress.

Elucidating further, he presented a ‘case study of streel flyover BEDA’, where a petition was started against the will of politicians to build flyovers. The petition became a huge campaign where almost 80,000 people came on streets resulting in which government cancelled the flyover project. The lesson learned is that when people come in large numbers, the government takes notice.

Lessons Learned During Mass Mobilisation

  • The only language politician understand is of numbers.
  • Always work with politicians.
  • To bring the change we need to keep aside our political ideology.
  • Making the political class understand public opinion and interact with them
  • Involving the political class in decision-making.
  • Articulate demands in a way that captures everyone’s imagination taking into consideration the voices of the voiceless.
  • Messages should be simple and yet hard-hitting triggering emotions that lead to actions.
  • Print media is more powerful than any other media.

If we want to change the status quo, we need to find other people willing to work with you,” said Srinivas Alavilli.

Possible Courses For Each Us All As Individuals And Organisations

  1. Recognise that system is not going to fix itself – what is required to break the status quo cannot come from within the system alone. There is a lot of push that is required from outside of the system.
  2. A need for networks and alliances of individuals and institutions to make the impulse for systemic change strong enough in our cities.
  3. Need for catalytic agendas: These are gender equality, climate change, water and sanitation, and public finance.
  4. Strengthen the hands of the politicians.

In the medium to long term, systematic irreversible transformational change will come only if we work closely with politicians.” said Srinivas Alavilli.

Who Runs The City Of Delhi? 

The first discussant, Mr Tikender Singh Panwar, Former Mayor, Shimla, talked about why inertia is so strong and the external forces are very important. It is essential to realise who runs the city to change the status quo and if one does not engage with that question, then we are missing one of the important elements. We need to go back to the basics to understand cities as engines of growth, city of entrepreneurs and for considering cities as the city of entrepreneurs we have to break that status quo. Cities are not just meant for the accumulation of wealth and accumulation of capital.

There exists the whole process of city development and accumulation of massive capital, but it is getting democratized back to the people which needs to be worked upon,” said Mr Tikender Singh Panwar.

Secondly, the whole process of city development especially in the present political environment where more ghettoisation is taking place, especially in the context of religion needs to be broken.

Ward Sabhas And Ward Committees To Engage People In The Process Of City Development

Thirdly, the whole process of elimination of citizens from the entire process of city development can be improved by using the concept of ward Sabha and ward committees, the tool that can play a major role in engaging citizens. Today, the whole question of inclusivity and owning your city is missing. Cities are planned by some exclusive pockets that are not so considerable about citizens. To address this elimination ward Sabhas, ward committees can play an important role in city planning.

Lastly, the whole process of governance is linked to the process of validation. It’s very important as governance doesn’t mean just the elected counsellors. Ward committees and ward Sabha can bring some amount of transparency in this entire process.

“We have to be the political class, why not the common people can set the agendas for the municipalities,” by Mr Tikender Singh Panwar.

It is very important to address the kind of paradigm shift that has taken place in the last decades and the huge kind of informality that has crept in which is 94%. The informal sector hardly reclaims its space like the working class.

Housing An Important Catalyst In Economic Terms

Housing is an important element and the pandemic has exposed the reality badly. The reasons for people’s migration were informality and loss of jobs. The second major issues were the lack of houses for them as there were no labour hostels or rental housing available. Over 78% of houses are still unoccupied. Housing has to be an important catalyst in economic terms.

Deeply Vested Political Interest That Stops The Status Quo To Be Broken

The second panellist Dr Lalitha Kamath, Associate Professor, School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, stated that in some ways there is a strong deeply vested political economy interest that stops cities from becoming more empowered.

Working at multiple levels for building capacity

Secondly, she pointed out that there exist so many agencies operating in the city, one of which is the urban local government. There also exists a host of different kinds of parastatals and special purpose vehicles and state departments; there is a need of strengthening administrative capacities at all levels. Even if we just look at the area of the city, the jurisdiction of the city itself, it’s important to work with all these different agencies and there is no point only focusing on the urban local government because it’s mandate, brief and narrow.

Just looking at city scale, we need to look at multiple levels of building capacity,” said Dr Lalitha Kamath.

Legitimate authority for running the city

Dr Kamath agreed on the question of who runs the city and said that while all capacities are needed to be built, we also need to think about one agency that has some legitimate authority for running the city. This is crucial as this legitimate authority can be said to rule or run the city, which doesn’t rule out the city government from coordinating and collaborating with other agencies.

Readdressing the imbalance and building common course

Lastly, Dr Kamath talked about harmony model of power, which is very much like building consensus and broad-based agreement. There exist very strong differentials as people are not equal; certain communities, poorer groups, marginalised groups and many citizen groups are not considered in big decisions. The possibility to redistribute or readdress this imbalance without any conflict is a major issue. Conflict needs to be talked about if we want substantive participation. All steps of building curiosity, building awareness, creating a story, building a campaign, broad basing it are important to bring the change.

Recentering The Cities For Allowing Local Actors To Play Role In City Processes

The third panellist, Dr Shubhagato Dasgupta, Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, started by highlighting that the  real fear is of looking at differentiation and divergence to create new opportunities for social change. Much of the participation is phrased in this characterism that kind of looks more orderly and allows for more orderly development. Historically, in terms of longer-term processes, it has larger differentiation that leads to more equity, which can be considered in the analysis.

Secondly, the key process in breaking the status quo is recentering the city with principles that allow local actors to have a greater say in city processes. The wider political economy, as India’s decentralisation came up in a regime that was already neoliberal by then has led to a set of fragmentation that did not possibly lead to the right outcomes. There exist longer-term processes that challenge each other as we take things forward.

How centrality of all these strategies and tactics kind of lead to greater differentiation versus convergence to create incentives for change on one side and on the other side how do citizens get more centrality in decision making around the city and its ripple effect is what we need to focus on.

Representational image.

Major Quantum Jump For Connecting Citizens With Cities

The fourth panellist, Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra, stated that we all tend to see the city from the specific control that one plays as an academician, activist, administrator or a politician. We tend to have our own perception as to what the city realities are. And they need not actually match with each other.

It’s hard to think about the word status quo when cities are changing at such a faster pace,” said Mr Sameer Unhale.

Things are changing but the larger issue is that of participation. Political participation need not be the only focus of engaging a citizen with his/her city. Though political participation is important, we talk about engaging the citizens with the city, the totality of engagement of citizens need not be looking only from this particular dimension of political participation. The larger issue is that how the poorest of the poor and weakest of the weak can influence the running of the city that would take care of inclusion is an important aspect. The large extension of quantitative changes needs to be re-think upon.

Technology is one of the players which could help a citizen connect in various aspects even political or non-political,” said Mr Sameer Unhale.

There is a need to find thinkers of our own century rather than just depending upon old traditional methods that are falling short. There is a need for a major quantum jump in the way of how cities and citizens need to engage with each other on various dimensions politically, non-politically, culturally, or any other aspect that we have.

Need To Focus On Committees Rather Than 74th Amendment

Srinivas Alavilli says that we should stop using terms like 74th amendment and perhaps focus on terms such as ward committees, and making things happen for the citizens, corporates and the mayor. For the most part, the 74th amendment has failed to inspire our citizens and cities, or improve the governance of the city. We must move beyond the inherent weakness in law and try to talk in terms of what we need. If we want to discuss the 74th amendment, we should talk about it in terms of what is missing there and how we are going to fix that, rather than trying to get the 74th amendment going any further. If we want more and more people to participate, we should talk more in the language of what people understand and want to participate in rather than the language of the legislation.

The problem of urban governance is not so much about lack of solutions but popular support for such transformative ideas,” said Srinivas Alavilli.

You need a market for reform and you create the market by highlighting the gaps in urban governance,” he added.

Clever Navigation Of Political Economy Ecosystem In Real Terms

Srikanth Viswanathan reflected by saying that there is a need to cleverly navigate the political economy ecosystem in real terms. For that, instead of the ideal state, we should begin by starkly admitting the current reality of power equations within the political system, particularly between the state government and the city, and also within corresponding political party structures and power equations with bureaucrats.

If there is one magic bullet as far as demand-side political economy is considered, it is between one third and half reservations for women in city councils in India,” said Srikanth Viswanathan.

More focus on Municipal laws

Responding to the 74th amendment and re-centering point, Mr Vishwananthan underlined that these are a consequence of political economy and one should use the amendment as an entry point for greater reforms rather than something that gives us hope. It would be good to refocus on municipal laws rather than the 74th amendment. We have ignored municipal laws at the cost of the amendment.

“Devolution, decentralisation or recentering is a captive of political economy and we need to release it,” said Srikanth Viswanathan.

migrants india

Focusing on smaller cities to catalyse urban change

On financialisation and real estate, there is a need to look at the spatial pattern of urbanisation. With the unique urbanisation pattern in India where we have few large cities and a long tail of smaller cities, it is useful for us to focus on relatively smaller cities and towns to catalyse urban change in India. We should cleverly pick the kind of cities where we think there is a good mix of citizen demand, which are growing rather than looking at very large cities.

Further, gender equality and climate change can be a win-win situation to force the hand of state-level politicians and state-level bureaucrats.

Decentralisation and devolution should not be seen as some ideological end goal but as a very useful instrument of change where they can show delivery,” said Srikanth Viswanathan.

Dr Shubhagato Dasgupta underlined that urbanisation in the kind of political economy we are in is kind of under-recognised as an instrument for social change. An alliance discussed above is the need of the hour. In terms of larger processes of urbanisation, infrastructure does have an impact, the story of the urban itself not only of the larger processes of urbanisation but how cities themselves are made.

The prime example of a new-age urban programme is the Jaga Mission. It is a prime example where post-Covid, the government provided a social protection and wage employment protection kind of a scheme, wherein slum dwellers are themselves upgrading their slums. They are using the state budget to create employment for themselves and building better infrastructure.

We need to look at the whole cycle of the economy, look at the co-benefits from all of these investments before we make the choices alone on these large infrastructure projects,” said Dr Shubhagato Dasgupta.

Dr Lalitha Kamath stated that the Jaga Mission is a landmark programme and the idea of a network is an excellent one. Also, it is useful to think about multiple different strategies and sort of entry points for change and to seize the opportunity that lies in front of us. The top-down unilateral one-size-fits-all mechanism rarely works effectively and fatigue sets in because people are not able to comply.

There is, in fact, the growing realization that actually more practical devolution of power needs to be given to cities and maybe even to district administrations,” said Dr Lalitha Kamath.

Sameer Unhale concluded the discussion by saying that finding a fit-all statement causal analysis is always difficult. Tackling with urban India is going to be an extremely collaborative activity where we all have to come together leaving aside our prejudices and framework, and try to find out what is actually going to work to make Indian cities liveable and loveable.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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