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To improve our cities, have more assembly constituencies from urban areas

In major states, the legislatures are 15-25% over-representative of rural areas. The way to fix this is to bring back decadal revision of electoral boundaries based on each Census.

analysis Updated: Jul 12, 2017 10:34 IST
Ashwin Mahesh
Ashwin Mahesh
Cities,Local Self Governance,India
After torrential rain, New Delhi is waterlogged and choked with traffic. One way to work towards solving urban problems is ensuring more representatives from these areas (Saumya Khandelwal/HT)

Although Indian history includes some of the earliest cities settled by humans, in our imagination of post-Independence India, the city was an after-thought. Instead, what we did think about, as we began our new free lives, were the Centre and the states, and vast documents were penned to articulate and empower these. Local governance was for another time.

That time eventually arrived in the early 1990s; nearly a half century after we became a self-governing nation, the first broad strokes for local governance began to be developed. The anchor legislation to steer this new course in the cities was the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, which envisaged three new directions for the future of cities.

First, the planning of cities would be statutory and regional, encompassing the full spectrum of social and economic development goals that are vital to urban areas. Second, urban local bodies (ULBs) would be strengthened, and an increasing number of functions were to be transferred from state governments to the ULBs. And third, public participation in the governance of cities was to be strengthened through the formation of empowered ward committees of citizens themselves.

The majority of these goals have remained on paper, even two decades later. Metropolitan planning bodies and district urban planning committees are either yet to be established, or function only to a limited degree, in most parts of the country. State legislators and governments have resisted the transfer of functions and powers to local bodies. And citizens’ participation in decision-making remains weak.

Even the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, ostensibly established by the Centre to advance the goals of the 74th CAA by linking funds from New Delhi to mandatory reforms in the states, failed to make a significant change in this reality. The Smart Cities mission, its successor, doesn’t bother with even the pretence of the law with the Centre virtually directing the cities.

Some of this could have been avoided if we had more politicians elected to assemblies and Parliament from the urban areas. And it seems logical that this should happen; as people move from villages to cities, so too should their votes, and we should see more people elected from urban areas. And the original Constitution created a mechanism to do this, through redistribution of seats based on decadal Census.

But the state and central politicians who declined to transfer their power to the local bodies were about to voluntarily reduce the number of their seats. They’ve instead managed to ensure that such redistribution has happened only once since the 1970s, after the 2001 Census. Moreover, the current law is that this imbalance will remain until at least 2026. People may be voting with their feet in great numbers each decade, but representation in legislatures is slow to reflect this.

In major states, the legislatures are 15-25% over-representative of rural areas. Karnataka, for instance, would have 35 more urban representatives if the constituencies to the legislature were based on 2011 Census, and the number would rise to 45 by 2021. Neither of this will happen on current course, however, and by the time this is corrected sometime after 2026, the skew could be as high as one-third.

The way to fix this is to bring back decadal revision of electoral boundaries based on each Census. This is difficult to do in Parliament, given the different rates of population growth of poor and rich states. But it is very doable within state boundaries, so that each state assembly constituency has roughly the same number of people, and similarly each parliamentary constituency in a state is also home to equal numbers of voters.

Until that happens, urban problem-solving will receive less than the attention it needs.

Ashwin Mahesh is an urbanist based in Bengaluru, and heads the social technology lab, Mapunity.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 29, 2017 13:47 IST