Covid-19 dawned upon us like a nightmare and caught us ill-prepared to face a pandemic of such a massive scale and magnitude. The entire system of governance has been rocked to its core and the most glaring inadequacy it exposed is the hollowness of the poorly build structures that run our cities.
Supply systems were chocked, basic necessities were running short and hospitals were working beyond their maximum capacity. Authorities were running pillar to post, trying to contain the outbreak and requesting people to remain at homes. This picture can be juxtaposed with an inexplicably large number of migrant labourers who took to the road, embarking on an arduous journey back to their hometowns.
The migrants are our real city-makers, who themselves had no place in cities barely 24 hours after the lockdown was declared. The cities failed to shelter them in times of uncertainty as they were never designed to handle such an eventuality. Even poor labourers owned no assets in the city to hold them back. The most viable option for them was to pack their bags and set afoot to their villages. This bears out a critical fact about our urban populace, that there exists a widening inequality in the society that has driven a deep wedge between the rich and the poor. The Oxfam report of 2019 on income inequality corroborates this fact and shows that India’s top 1% bag 73% of the country’s wealth.
Keeping these issues in hindsight, it is important to revisit the concept of city governance and planning, and rectify the mistakes that have resulted in the current failures. At the very outset, it is important to understand that when it comes to a city, both sustainable development and inclusive development are dialectically linked. Inclusive development is a sine qua non for building sustainable cities.
It is essential to study the inefficiencies in the current model of city building to have a clear picture of how inclusive development can be ushered in. Some of the key issues that deserve immediate attention are:
In this context, one of the most notable concerns is the change in the way cities are governed. It has evolved from a ‘city manager’ approach to a ‘city entrepreneur’ approach where each city is expected to be an investment attracting destination and pit against one other. This is highly undesirable considering that most city governments in India hardly have the revenue sources enough to meet their salary payment requisites.
Another aspect is the rampant commercialisation of certain elements/urban commons that are highly essential for society. These elements and public utilities that were earlier administered by the city governments or the parastatals is now in the hands of private players. This sort of privatization of the cities has caused the expropriation of a humongous amount of capital surplus from these cities to the private players. The people are robbed of their public assets leading to the creation of inequities. These factors suggest that the economic policy paradigm in place is not inclusive.
An important question to be considered here is: who is building our cities?
If you consider cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, developmental activities are carried out by the Delhi Development Authority and the Mumbai Development Authority respectively. These development agencies are often steered by transnational corporation consultants who decide the developmental path to be taken. These parastatal agencies are not elected by the people, are not answerable to the state or the municipalities, and have no responsibility with respect to urban governance.
Now, if you look beyond planning to the actual responsibility of running the cities, an interesting fact that surfaces is that the city governments lack teeth. Studies have shown that out of the 18 subjects under the 12th Schedule of the Indian Constitution that was created by the 74th CAA, hardly a few have been entrusted to the city governments. This has led to a scenario where the parastatals are running the city and the concept of a participatory form of city development is absent.
Cities should not be considered entrepreneurs or engines of growth. They have to be considered liveable work-cities. Shimla is a classic example of a reverse metamorphosis of urbanisation and urban governance. There should be a concerted effort to adopt such a model around the country. Emphasis must be laid on creating participatory governance and the people should own the projects and plans that are conceived for their cities. This will help in building cities that are inclusive and inclusive development will, in turn, create sustainable cities.
Note: The above excerpts are from the webinar organised by the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, and Indrastra Global on ‘Urban Practice in the post-Covid-19 Era: Towards Innovative Solutions and Participatory Governance’.
Acknowledgements: Nikhil Jacob, based in Goa, is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and pursuing a post-graduate diploma in Environmental Law and Policy from the National Law University, Delhi.
Nafisa Khatoon is a graduate student of public policy and governance, Tata Institute of Social Science, Hyderabad. She is a research intern at IMPRI.
YouTube Video for ‘Urban Practice in the post-COVID-19 Era: Towards Innovative Solutions and Participatory Governance‘
Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Arjun Kumar