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Naive Prescriptions for Reforming Cities
by Proloy Bagchi Bookmark and Share

Amitabh Kant, CEO of Niti Ayog, wrote the other day in a national daily about the criticality of cities in pulling the country up by its boot straps. They are critical to most of the missions of the government that seek to boost the country’s economic growth and economically lift its people. Whether it is the flagship programmes of “Make in India” or “Skill India” or “Digital India” or “Smart Cities”, in each one of them it is the cities which would play the most vital role in rolling them out and accomplishing them. They will also be critical in tracking economic growth, job creation and delivery of good quality of life to citizens. Kant thinks in today’s world it is not countries but cities that compete for resources and investments and he thereby wants cities to become distinct units of governance and economy. It is, therefore, necessary, he says, to track the performance of cities in terms of GDP, job creation, private and public investments and consumption.

Kant laments that Janaagraha’s annual reviews show Indian cities in very poor light. While London and New York score 9+ in a scale of 0 to 10 Indian cities largely score only a poor 4. “Janaagraha”, Wikipedia says, is a non-profit that aims to strengthen democracy in the country by working for citizen-participation in urban local government. Janaagraha aims to spread awareness of the benefits of engaging local governments and to lobby the Centre to enact legislation to extend the 74th Amendment of the Constitution of India for more representative local urban government.

Kant has enumerated four key systems of good governance of cities: 1. Urban planning and design, 2. Municipal finances and staffing, 3. Effective political leadership 4. Transparency, accountability and citizen-participation. Because of the poor reflection of our cities as witnessed by the Janaagraha assessment Kant comes forward with solutions. To rectify and to overcome all shortcomings Kant has come up with “what” and “how” to achieve that. According to him, chief ministers should attach greater importance and priority to cities and also pay more attention to them. They should prepare a blue print for the city’s long-term development for 20 to 30 years. At the same time, they should devise a short term plan with sectoral objectives for 3 to 5 years fixing roadmaps and milestones allocating responsibilities for delivery. They would also be required to monitor the progress of achievements of objectives and, presumably, if necessary, take action for course correction.

Not satisfied with the current staffing of municipal corporations Kant says that the short terms of municipal commissioners are not conducive to productive work. He is also against the culture of obtaining officials / officers on deputation from the state governments. He feels it vitiates the organisational culture as, he says, the “rolling stock of deputationists” destroys the “coherence” of the organisation. He, perhaps, feels that deputationists seldom develop any stake in the organisation.

All that is well and good! True, cities are reckoned as the drivers of the economy. In describing the modus operandi for making cities units of economic growth, however, Kant seems to have missed out on one vital link. He has written about what is wrong with them and how to go about mending the breaches that have occurred but he has not said who will go about correcting everything that has gone wrong. To his “what” and “how” what needs to be added is “who” will accomplish what he wants to be done with the cities, critical as they are, as he thinks, to the country’s economic progress.

Kant wants the chief ministers to pay more attention to the cities. But the fact is that the city administration is already beholden to the state governments for reasons of lack of finances. Some years ago even the prestigious The Economists had opined that the local bodies in India are subsumed in the government that surrounds them. In the highly politicised environment politics in India is the art of sycophancy and every political animal tends to ingratiate himself with the powers that be. Larger interests of the city and its people are supposedly not all that important. Besides, the chief minister has his own agenda – obliging his sycophants, relatives and friends, men from industries or construction or builders’ lobbies. The last are more important as they contribute moolah to the chief minister for his personal use or for use by the party. Because of them the City Development Plan for Bhopal, for instance, has been delayed by ten years. Thus, the World Economic Forum found these sectors highly corrupt in India with mark-up of project costs being as much as 50%. Quality thus suffers: roads develop potholes within months of building/re-laying, water pipes repeatedly leak with unconscionable loss of millions of gallons of precious water and sewers breakdown. But nobody is ever brought to book.

That being the case, and the chief minister being an out-and-out political animal, that too of Indian variety, who will take care of the cities? That is a big question. In the current system every individual or the organisation has developed vested interests. They hardly ever act according to the needs of the general public. In this mess there is no accountability.  One minister in Bhopal admitted to your reporter once that the state had no system of accountability. No wonder, Indian cities are in such poor shape.

In such perverse processes, planning and design or transparency and accountability – Kant’s first and fourth systems of good governance – are pushed out of the window. There are numerous instances of cities acquiring ungainly sprawls without any concern for urban design or planning, conservation of environment, availability of civic services, etc. The precious commodity of land is distributed using rules or bending them to cronies who have deep pockets and have no hesitation in emptying them as favours to the politicians. The cities are, in fact, milked by the chief minsters and their cohorts to fill their coffers and/or of parties they belong to to achieve aims of capturing and/or retaining power. Expecting the busy-in-politicking chief ministers to actively involve themselves in building citizen-centric cities is a dream that only Kant can see sitting in his Niti Aayog.

Kant’s two other key systems of governance – municipal finances and staffing and effective political leadership – also suffer from the malaise that has been only outlined above. State politics ensures depressed civic taxes to keep the municipality always in financial doldrums – dependent on the state. Vested interests take care of staffing. Deputations are not sinful per se; they are so only when deputation is used to fill posts that can well be manned by the municipalities’ own employees. But no, here too sycophancy and politics take over so that political lackeys could be provided with sinecures. As for political leadership one can only look up to the Mayor who, in fact, in most cases is the chief minister’s or the party’s man and yet is largely ineffective, more so if his party does not have majority in the municipal council.

Politicians have vitiated the system of governance in the country, including of the city governments. Having done so they have only one objective – that of maintaining status quo so that the system could remain a milch cow. Having seen the government functioning from close quarters, Kant strangely expects politicians to disturb the status quo to their own disadvantage - a naive thought by any stretch of imagination.

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