India wants change but those voted to power can't deliver it

To understand why the fight for Delhi will not deliver the sweeping change that Delhi — or indeed any other Indian city — craves, you must go back to 1935, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Dec 05, 2013 10:52 IST
Government of India Act,Madras Municipal Corporation,Delhi elections

To understand why the fight for Delhi will not deliver the sweeping change that Delhi — or indeed any other Indian city — craves, you must go back to 1935. It was the year the colonial government passed the Government of India Act, which made some changes that are, in great measure, responsible for today’s crumbling footpaths, ramshackle roads and general urban chaos.

The first set of alternations related to territory. Burma and Aden were separated from India, the Sindh from Bombay. The second set related to elections. For the first time, Indians could directly elect political representatives.

The third set was damaging: municipal government, first started in 1687 with the Madras Municipal Corporation, was brought under the control of state administration. It was a decision that no Indian government after Independence had the foresight or, indeed, the inclination to repeal. The evisceration of municipal power is something that the republic of India has come to rue, 78 years later, as its teeming cities decline into shabbiness unparalleled in the emerging world. Those who have no choice cope, as they always have. Others, such as you and I of the great middle class, retreat into our private republics of gated colonies and apartment blocks, powered by standby generators and inverters, sandbagged against the bedlam beyond.

Ever since India’s great economic leap in the 1990s, the growth of metropolitan India has exploded. It is apparent municipal governments do not have the power or ability to cope. There are now more than 45 cities with a population of more than 1 million, double the number from a quarter century ago; 25% of the world’s fastest growing urban areas are now in India.

India’s future no longer lies in its once-romanticised rural areas. Although a majority of Indians still live in villages, cities now generate more than 60% of economic output and the country is undergoing an urban transformation unseen since China’s — enormously organised — move to cities.

The 2011 census defines an urban area as any place with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or town committee or a minimum population of 5,000, a density of at least 400 persons per sq km, with at least 75% of the male workforce engaged in non-agricultural occupations. India has also witnessed what some have called ‘subaltern urbanisation’, largely ungoverned areas independent of census or other official sanction. A third of India’s population now lives in urban areas, but by 2030 nearly 600 million or 40% of Indians will live in cities, which will generate 70% of all new employment and 85% of tax revenue, predicts a report from McKinsey, a consultancy.

Although urbanisation is now a general Indian phenomenon, the most challenging urban areas will be the mega cities, which is where Indians are flocking. The percentage of the urban population in smaller cities has steadily declined over the last half century. This means the mega cities will grow ever larger.

Delhi’s metropolitan region is now pushing 30 million people, yet the Centre continues to have an unhealthy say in its affairs. Whether the Congress’ Sheila Dikshit wins a fourth term or is replaced by the BJP’s Harsh Vardhan or the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s future will continue to be in the hands of the Union government at Delhi, which oversees recruitment and deployment of even the junior-most police officer and pays for much of the city’s buses and metro, all run by independent agencies. Nothing represents the confusion of Indian urban authorities better than the inability to issue a ticket that is good for all modes of transport.

The Mumbai metropolitan region — which by 2030 will have a larger GDP than Portugal or Malaysia, according to McKinsey — is similarly riven with conflict. Here, too, Delhi plays big daddy, vetoing, for instance, air-conditioning in Mumbai’s suburban trains.

Ramesh Ramanathan, a noted urban expert, once likened urban governance to “a puppet whose strings are being pulled by different puppeteers”. Such is city governance in India, he wrote in 2004, pulled, pushed — even torn apart — by administrative chaos. If you were in the audience, the show would not be pretty.

We are in the audience today (which is why it is a good idea to get involved), and what we see is terrible. Consider the inability to build a good city road, footpath or drain. Urban infrastructure is constructed by gangs of contractors. In almost every city, there is a cartel, powerful, politically connected and, often, incompetent. Ordinarily, a mayor and the municipal government should be able to control projects, demand efficiency and in turn be answerable to voters. But Indian mayors, unlike the West and in many emerging-world nations, are not directly elected by the people they serve. Their usual tenure is a year, and most of the powers they should have vest in state and even central governments, a ridiculous but convenient colonial legacy. It is ironic that even authoritarian China puts politically powerful mayors in charge of cities while India must suffer powerless lightweights.

This week in Bangalore — a garbage-strewn city of disintegrating roads — the mayor met his counterpart from San Francisco (immediately announcing a ‘study tour’ to study that city’s ‘superior technology’). But looming over Bangalore’s mayor in every photo opportunity was the man with the real political power, the minister in charge of Bangalore. State ministers, as many experts have observed, could not be more disinterested in the Indian city because almost none of them derive their political power from it.

Do not expect old hegemonies to change. Delimitation, the occasional rejigging of electoral constituencies, ensures political power will continue to remain overwhelmingly with rural voters till at least 2030. You will get a few metros and buses — courtesy Delhi — but, in general, expect a quicker retreat into those private republics.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Dec 05, 2013 00:04 IST