Urban areas should be given fair representation in political economy
Reviewing the process by which urban population is counted, allocating more seats in Lok Sabha and strengthening local governments are steps that need to be undertaken to make our cities engines of growth.
The dates for the 14th Lok Sabha election have been announced and the Model Code of Conduct is in place. On May 23, we will come to know (most likely) who will form the government. The bigger question for me and people like me who work in the field of urban transportation is this: Will the outcome of this general election significantly change the way our cities work?
The reason why I am asking this question is because the 2018 revision of World Urbanisation Prospects by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) suggests that currently 55% of the world’s population live in urban areas. This is expected to grow to 68% by 2050. India, China and Nigeria will account for more than a third of this projected growth. Therefore, managing urban growth is going to be the most important challenge for this century, especially for the next couple of decades, in these countries.
The problem will be even more challenging in India. This is because apart from technical capacity, the country needs to address some of the structural issues as well. Let’s highlight three issues pertaining to the same:
As per 2011 census, about 31% of the population lives in urban India. However, a couple of years back, a World Bank report described India’s urbanisation as ‘messy and hidden’ and estimated that India’s urban population in excess of 55%. The reason for this discrepancy was on account of the fact that cities, such as Delhi, have seen the maximum population growth on the fringe areas. What was interesting in this finding was the fact that a lot of such fringe areas were technically outside the administrative boundaries of the city. And hence, such areas may exhibit all the characteristics of an urban area but are not classified as urban as such. The census findings are widely used for planning, program design and outlay decisions at the national level. For example, the total allocated expenditure for the ministry of rural development for a particular year was around ₹41,765 crore as against ₹1,07,758 crore for the ministry of housing and urban affairs. This impacts the politics as well. Therefore, we need to take a fresh look at the process of documenting urban population and plan accordingly.
Currently, 91 seats in Lok Sabha are purely from urban areas. This means that one in every six seats or 16.5% of total seats in Lok Sabha are from urban areas. Out of this, seven mega cities represent 41 Lok Sabha seats, while the remaining 50 seats come from 41 cities that have a population ranging from 1 million to 4.5 million. Therefore, on one hand, there is an under-representation of urban voices in the parliament. On the other hand, the distribution is skewed and in the favour of mega cities. Delimitation, or the process of redrawing boundaries for constituencies is one of the reasons for this underrepresentation. Delimitation was suspended by the Government between 1976 and 2001. This was done so that family planning programmes done by states don’t affect their political representation. This skewed the distribution of constituencies by size. Some of the constituencies are around 3 million, while some are around 50,000. The next delimitation exercise is scheduled for the year 2026. We need to make sure that it happens, and that it uses the latest population figures and not some old and outdated statistics.
The Indian constitution, like other federal constitutions, initially provided a dual form of government, i.e. the central government and the state government. The 73rd and the 74th amendment of 1992 added a third tier of government called the local government to the constitution. This is important because the decisions about a city should be taken at the city level. However, the ground situation is totally different. Majority of the municipalities in the country are in a bad financial health. They are dependent on the states and the Centre for financial assistance to carry out their programs. Those that have money enjoy a very limited autonomy to perform their function as cities are still controlled by states. Currently, there is no mechanism to check the sabotage of the 74th amendment by state governments. Neither the central government, nor the courts can empower the local government. Therefore, we need not expect a US like situation where states have dissolved a majority of their powers to cities. Even a modest urban empowerment will do wonders for cities.
City residents and local governments don’t have much of a say in how the cities are run or managed and a lot of it is due to their underrepresentation in the political scenario. This is causing political neglect. It is time we give cities their fair representation in the political economy, else these engines of growth may come to a grinding halt, sooner than later.