Recently, while speaking in the Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy College of Arts and Architecture, Mumbai, I did an exercise with the students. Since the students of architecture are not much concerned about the governance structures in cities, they could hardly grasp the importance of devolution of powers in the cities, especially in the context of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (enacted in 1992, the Act, also known as the Nagarpalika Act, came into force on June 1, 1993. It aims at strengthening urban local bodies and municipalities).
But, when I shared it in an exercise, the students were completely shocked at the way cities were governed in India. In the exercise, the students were asked to imagine a hypothetical situation when they have to run a city government on a given day. In such a situation, and in order to make an ideal governance structure, how would they govern the city? Also, what functions of civic administration would they like to choose for good governance?
Then began real creativity in the city governance structure. The students wanted every element of civil administration to be part of the city governance structure. Starting from solid waste, city planning, roads, transport, public health, water, police, education and so on, they wanted all these functions to be run to ensure good governance to citizens. When they were told that a majority of the above functions were listed under the 74th Amendment and were supposed to be transferred to cities and that hardly a few functions had been transferred, they were shocked with the information.
Twenty-five years have passed since the 74th Constitutional Amendment was made. There are 18 functions that were supposed to have been transferred to city governments under the 12th Schedule of the Constitution. Some of these include regulation of land use and construction of buildings, city planning, including town planning, urban poverty alleviation, water supply, fire services, public health and solid waste management, slum improvement, urban forestry, roads and bridges, registration of births and deaths etc.
There have been several reviews of the 25 years of implementation of the 74th Amendment in the country, and almost all have pointed out at the minimal transfer of these subjects to city governments. A task force formed during Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, led by K C Sivaramakrishnan (former secretary, Ministry of Urban Development), of which I was also a member, did a detailed review of the transferred functions and pointed out at the gross weaknesses that exist at empowering the cities. Since urban development is a state subject, states, according to their priorities, have created their own urban development models.
A recent study in 15 cities of three states in North India, by a group of urban experts linked to the National Institute of Urban Affairs, found that only two functions were universally transferred to cities. The first is solid waste management and the other is the registration of birth and death. The remaining functions are either under the parastatals of the state government or even in private hands.
Since it took over in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government under Narendra Modi has launched various urban development schemes. Instead of strengthening the process of democratic decentralisation, by strengthening the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, Modi has further diminished the scope of democratisation of decision-making in cities.
The BJP, which wanted quick results in cities because it was politically important for them, worked on a project-oriented trajectory of urban development, without looking at a city as a holistic unit. Instead of going for city development with its overall features, such as planning, participation of the people, empowering them and ushering in an organic relationship between the city and citizens, the BJP worked on a business model for an alternative to the impending problems of city development. This was necessary for BJP because the overall paradigm of urban development in Indian cities is “privatisation of material wealth” -- mainly through monetisation of land, and with that a parallel was drawn by BJP for “privatisation of governance” in cities.
Modi government 1.0, with much fanfare, announced a 100 ‘smart cities’ project in the country. These ‘’smart cities were supposed to be the lighthouses for urban development in India. The premise was that cities were considered business avenues and were asked to compete against each other to attract capital for its development. Smart city plans were made, based on primarily on a project development approach. Area-based development, which is the quintessence of any ‘smart city’ plan, is not even 1% of the city’s geographical area, which was considered for development. None of the cities, except for one or two, opted for greenfield projects and were more in favour of redevelopment and retrofitting. The result, after a period of four years, shows that the ‘smart city’ plan has not brought in the desired results.
There is also a shift in governance structures under the ‘smart city’ plan, which entailed transforming of “city managers” to “city entrepreneurs.” The ‘smart city’ project is governed by a special purpose vehicle (SPV), which is not under the control of the elected council of the city. Rather, it is run by a bunch of non-elected bureaucrats and, in some cases, even by officials of multilateral agencies. The governance of cities, instead of being in the hands of the elected, is now in the hands of private company- the SPV. As rightly pointed out, the SPV’s formation in the cities is virtually like writing an obituary of the 74th Constitutional Amendment.
Are such models of governance and city development sustainable? The answer is ‘no’. Such alien structures of governance alienate the people from the whole process of city development. Many city councils, which were run by BJP, raised a bogie of demands, one amongst them being to get rid of the SPV model of governance. The city councils are feeling more and more suffocated with these structures and are raising their voices in different fora of city government, both nationally and internationally.
It also interesting to note how the Modi 2.0 government, which was keen to implement the National Urban Policy Framework, is now silent on its implementation. The best that can, as of now, be said about urban development is that there is chaos even as the Modi government is contemplating urban development 2.0 for Indian cities. We will have to wait and find out what is there for urban India. But, for the moment, the 74th Constitutional Amendment is virtually in the intensive care unit of the urban development department with very less chance of resuscitation.
The writer is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. The views are personal.