In the month of March this year, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India, released the Ease of Living Index 2020. The index is an examination of 114 Indian cities to assess their livability and their citizens’ wellbeing. The position of Indian cities in some global urban rankings such as the Global Liveability Index of the Economic Intelligence Unit and the Quality of Living Rankings by Mercer is along expected lines. In the Global Liveability Index, the only 2 Indian cities featuring in a list of 140 were New Delhi and Mumbai, ranked poorly at 118 and 119 respectively. Similarly in Mercer’s Quality of Living Rankings, Hyderabad and Pune shared the 143rd position as best Indian cities, in a list of 231 cities worldwide. What is the reason for this abysmal state of our cities?
One explanation is the lack of political incentives, that politicians are driven by votes and do not find it politically profitable to invest in improving cities. One of the reasons for this is that a large majority of the electoral constituencies in India, both for the Parliament, and for state assemblies are rural. However, there are some ways in which we can institutionally restructure the incentives for political actors to improve governance in our cities:
1. The promise of decentralization
In 1993, the Indian Constitution was amended by the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, to mandate the establishment of urban local governments in the form of Municipal Corporations, Municipal Councils, and Nagar Panchayats in urban parts of the country. These local governments were supposed to be entrusted with the responsibility of economic development and social justice. They were recognised as a level of autonomous government with legal powers and responsibilities, fiscal resources, and direct accountability towards the people for their performance through elections. Nearly three decades since the introduction of this amendment, it has not been implemented in spirit. For example, the job of a municipal corporation’s commissioner is still reserved for an IAS Officer who is deputed by the state government. For its fiscal resources also, a corporation is still almost completely dependent on the state government. Such a centralized approach to urban governance stems from the fundamental misunderstanding that a city is a mechanical system to be designed by a central authority. No, a city is not a machine; it is an organically evolving ecosystem characterized by complex interactions between people, institutions, cultures, and the amenities which they use on a daily basis. Instead of central planning, it requires day to day monitoring, feedback and prompt adjustment.
Devolution of power in local governments ensures that local people who are aware of the local conditions are themselves responsible for resolving their problems. It motivates the interested actors, the politicians as well as the voters, to take local urban problems such as drainage, sanitation, street lighting, and general cleanliness with seriousness, and bring them to the forefront during elections. Besides this, decentralized decision making ensures that the possibility of harm caused by an intervention is the least. Dr. Milton Friedman best summarises this feature in the following words: “If I do not like what my local community does..I can move to another local community, and though few may take this step, the mere possibility acts as a check. If I do not like what my state does, I can move to another. If I do not like what Washington imposes, I have few alternatives in this world of jealous nations.”
2. Making large cities autonomous
Presently, India is home to 5 cities that have a population of more than 10 million. The UN Human Settlement Program (UN Habitat) estimates that India will have 2 more such cities by the year 2030. One of the ways to ensure better governance for these megacities is to free them from the control of states to which they currently belong, and make them autonomous units of administration under the direct representation of elected mayors. Megacities are a creation of people migrating to them in millions from all corners of the country, and are hence cosmopolitan, different in their demography from the state in which they are situated. Kelkar and Shah have also observed that “in the future, the identity of many individuals will be tied closer to a home city than to a home state.” The political issues and priorities of these cities will be quite different from the states in which they are situated.
Therefore, it will be desirable to have a separate mode of political organisation for their governance. The idea has been tried earlier in other countries in different forms and has yielded positive outcomes. China for instance, has categorised its large cities as “municipalities” that have the same economic, political and jurisdictional rights as the provinces. In the United States, city mayors are vested with considerable powers in terms of their ability to raise finances and provide public goods to the citizens. In India also, remodelling megacities as autonomous units of administration under an elected mayor can encourage active political participation from locals and bring competitiveness in urban governance.
3. Delimitation of constituencies
In India, delimitation of constituencies for the Union Parliament and the State Legislative Assemblies is based on the principle of equal representation for equal population segments. The last delimitation commission was set up in the year 2002 which conducted delimitation based on the census of 2001. Since then, there has been large scale migration of people from rural to urban areas. The 2011 census reflected a 51% jump in rural to urban migration, raising the absolute number of such migrants from 52 million to 78 million. One can only expect the number to have gone even higher in the last 9 years since then. Therefore, the delimitation of 2002 is not at all a true reflection of the demographic realities of India today.
Due to the substantial increase in their share in the total population, cities deserve a much higher number of seats in the Parliament as well as the state assemblies than they currently have. It is important that the government conducts a census and follows it with the delimitation of parliamentary and assembly constituencies. This will ensure that cities are appropriately represented in legislative bodies as per their proportion in the population, and issues of urban governance become important to the legislators when they make laws.
Cities are the engines of economic growth. It is urban dynamism and cosmopolitanism that engenders innovation and entrepreneurship. Through the three aforesaid institutional reforms in our political setup, we can incentivize political actors to invest more of their time and resources in improving our cities and making them more liveable.
*Views expressed are personal*
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.