Lesson from Indian city systems survey: Divided, Delhi’s slipping

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 21, 2016 18:10 IST
Centre-state and inter-state quibbling have left the National Capital Region (comprising Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan) a fragmented zone. (Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)

Delhi came sixth in a survey of 21 Indian cities released by Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy last week. Mumbai topped the list, followed by Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata, Pune and Bhopal.

One thought the national capital would do better on such rankings. It did score high on investment in public infrastructure and use of information technology. But Janaagraha was rating the cities on their systems — laws, policies, financial management, skills of the municipal workers, delivery of services, powers held by political leaders and institutions and their accountability to the citizens. And Delhi struggled.

It may seem ironical that Delhi, the power centre of India, was second from the bottom as the city where ‘political leaders have adequate power’. But in the national capital, governance has long been a victim of multiple authorities. There are no fewer than 98 urban bodies serving the city, says the United Nation’s 2008 State of Cities report. With the trifurcation of the MCD in 2011, we added two more.

We have a chief minister, elected legislators and councillors, three mayors, and a Lieutenant Governor appointed by the Centre. So it has never been easy to fix accountability for any civic mess — be it the bad handling of the Commonwealth Games, a building collapse, a waterlogged road, a traffic snarl or a municipal strike. In the present set up, no government in Delhi can ring in any fundamental administrative reform unless the Centre obliges.

At the same time, Centre-state and inter-state quibbling have left the National Capital Region (comprising Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan) a fragmented zone. In 31 years since its formation, the NCR has not been able to ensure basic uniformity in the physical and social infrastructure such as transport, housing, law and order, water, power, telecom, etc.

The survey benchmarked the 21 cities it studied against London and New York. Not surprisingly, our cities scored in the range of 4.1-2.0 as compared to London’s 9.4 and New York’s 9.7. “This shows that we are still working with band-aid solutions, rather than fixing the root of urban problems,” the Janaagraha report concluded.

Today, both New York and London have strong city systems. Like Delhi, their suburbs were once outside their political control and multiple jurisdictions created problems similar to ours. The New York City redrew its boundaries in 1898 by consolidating five counties. Today, NY Metropolitan area extends beyond NYC to include 29 counties in four states.

Since 2000, Londoners are governed by “a relatively innovative and slim administrative structure”, explains Ricky Burdett of LSE Cities. The mayor sets the policies for all 33 boroughs and has executive powers over transport, policing, emergency services, investments, and, to a degree, regeneration and housing. Education and health are controlled by both central and local agencies, he wrote in The Guardian.

Even Paris, after years of deliberations and opposition, is following suit. On January 1 this year, the French capital formed Métropole du Grand Paris to bring together officials from 130 towns and suburbs who will make joint decisions on urban planning, housing, and environment. It will, however, take 20 years for the Grand Paris to gain financial and administrative independence.

In Delhi, the issue of full statehood and a unified NCR are hot potatoes no political party wants to touch except promising the same in election manifestos, year after year. A single power centre, after all, means forgoing power, and revenue, at different levels.

But, as Paris has shown, implementing such ideas requires shared political vision. The idea of Grand Paris gained strength under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. President François Hollande, a political rival, surprised even his party colleagues by implementing it.

The future of Grand Paris is still uncertain. Many city planners consider it just another administrative layer. Others fear ghettoization of the suburbs. National elections are due next year and nobody knows if the next French President will back the plan.

But Paris is willing to take a chance for a better tomorrow. Will Delhi ever bite the bullet?

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