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Indian cities need robust governance mechanisms, not titular heads

Great cities are driven by great mayors. Eventually, India will also have to empower local governance. Till then, increasing the capacity of civic agencies will be better for our cities rather than creating multiple agencies.

gurgaon Updated: Sep 26, 2018 12:55 IST
gurugram,World Bank report on urbanisation in South Asia,MCG
Vehicles wade through a waterlogged street after heavy rains at Golf Course extension road near Emaar building Sector 66, in Gurugram, Monday, September 24, 2018. A World Bank study has described India’s urbanisation as messy and hidden. (Yogendra Kumar/HT Photo )

The World Bank’s 2013 study on urbanisation in South Asia described India’s urbanisation as messy and hidden and suggested that the urban sprawl in the country accounts for over 55.3% of total population. However, the official census 2011 stated the urban population at 31%. This is due to the discrepancy around how we classify our urban areas.

The World Bank may have described our cities as messy on technical grounds, but the residents of our cities will happily agree to this tag as most of pour cities are in a mess. Both residents and the city managers are not happy. Private sector has its own long list of grievances, so is the case with public sector. In short, everyone is unhappy, yet urbanisation cannot be prevented.

The question, therefore, is if urbanisation is inevitable then why can’t we make cites that work for all? I think one of the key issues that needs to be addressed is urban governance. Let me explain why.

Who leads the city

When it comes to the country we have the prime minister as the head, in states we have the chief minister, but who leads the cities in India? No one. Yes, we have the mayors who are symbolic figures with no power or authority. The 74th amendment to the Constitution of India was done to give constitutional status to the municipalities and strengthen democracy at the grassroot level, but it is still a distant dream. As per the recent reflections from Niti Aayog, only 11 states have dissolved functions to urban local bodies, but none matched governance in cities like Seoul, London, Johannesburg etc. Because there is no devolution of power and wherever powers have been devolved, states have created multiple competing institutions that makes them ineffective. For example, in Gurugram we have the municipal corporation, HUDA, HSIIDC, private developers and now, the Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority as well. Many of these institutions are doing similar functions, but under different structure.

How the city is managed

A city is a complex setup and if you look at our municipal corporations or development authorities, you’ll find the technical staff mostly consists of civil engineers. While they are an important part of the manpower, they’re definitely not the only ones needed. Let’s take the example of Municipal Corporation of Gurugram and the GMDA. The bulk of the work these institutions do revolves around planning and construction of roads. Yet, they do not have a single transport planner in their setup. The result is obvious. Places like the flyover at Subhash Chowk, and the U-Turn at Iffco Chowk where crores of public money was spent, are grossly underutilised. In fact, the list of underutilised road infrastructure is endless. These institute don’t have the capacity to even understand basics of planning. Whereas cities such as San Francisco have a position of Chief Innovation Officer whose job is to foster innovation in the city.

When the city solves its problems

Great cities around the world have one common thread which is public participation, which gives a real time feedback to city administrators about the problems and brings out effective solutions. Our cities don’t have a monitoring or evaluation system or any structured citizen feedback mechanism. The result is that we have continued wrong implementation of projects, thus creating havoc for residents. For example, few months ago, someone came up with the idea to have continuous service road without entry and exit points to major complexes on Sohna Road. This created a problem which never existed and now residents have to live with it every single day. Even as the city’s transportation problems are far from resolved, we have created a new problem instead of a solution.

Globally, cities contribute to over of 70% of the GDP and the Indian urban areas produce over 63% of GDP. This will grow to 75% by 2030. While cities provide economic growth, the political growth is still dependent on rural votes. Therefore, it is not surprising that cities in India are governed by states which feel that any devolution of power to Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) will loosen their control over power and money. While this may have worked when the urban population was small, it is definitely not working now because the urban population is increasing and so is the complexity in urban areas.

Great cities around the world are driven by great mayors, be it New York, London or Seoul. Take for instance the mayors of Chinese cities, who have far more power than mayors of Indian cites. It is imperative that eventually, India will also have to empower the third-tier of governments i.e. local level. This urbanisation of politics will take time. Till then, increasing the capacity of civic agencies and creating a robust monitoring and evaluation system will be an effective governance system for our cities, rather than creating multiple agencies with similar responsibilities.

(Amit Bhatt is the director­ integrated transport, WRI India)

First Published: Sep 26, 2018 12:54 IST