City Plights

Indian states’ tight leash on urban governance

Indian cities are facing fundamental challenges in addressing basic civic issues. Each time a city such as Mumbai is inundated with floods triggered by average amounts of rainfall, we realise how ill-equipped our cities are. Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
Elections 2024
01 November, 2018

On 1 June, HD Kumaraswamy, newly sworn in as the chief minister of Karnataka, met the former Infosys chief Narayana Murthy at the latter’s residence in Jayanagar, a plush neighbourhood in southern Bengaluru. Before Kumaraswamy even had a cabinet in place, he was at Murthy’s door, seeking guidance on constituting an expert committee to solve Bengaluru’s civic problems, particularly those related to infrastructure and waste management.

Kumaraswamy was aping the many similar state initiatives that have sought to address problems of Bengaluru’s governance by creating “expert bodies” headed by information-technology czars. This trend started in 1999 when the then chief minister SM Krishna constituted the Bangalore Agenda Task Force, headed by the Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani and continued with BS Yeddyurappa constituting another expert body—the Agenda for Bengaluru’s Infrastructural Development.

While the Siddaramaiah government also constituted a body called the Bangalore Blueprint Action Group, with many of Bengaluru’s corporate elite, it was opposed by several civil-society groups and never really took off. On 7 June, the Karnataka High Court struck down the constitution of Siddaramaiah’s group, stating that such a body was “illogical and unwarranted.” A division bench of the high court questioned the need for creating such parallel groups when statutory bodies have already been assigned civic responsibilities. Given this legal precedent, if Kumaraswamy constitutes another expert body for Bengaluru, it is likely to be similarly challenged and struck down by the courts.

The proclivity of Karnataka’s chief ministers cutting across party lines to constitute such parallel-governance institutions is part of a larger problem. Across India, state governments rely on parastatal agencies such as urban-development authorities for administering cities rather than allowing elected local governments to function independently. This reveals a larger malaise within the Indian state’s thinking about how our cities should be governed. State governments are unwilling to let go of the tight control they maintain over cities and by creating parallel institutions for solving civic problems, they further disempower elected urban local governments.

Indian cities were early laboratories of democracy with limited franchise during colonial rule. In 1882, the British passed a resolution widely known as Lord Ripon’s Resolution on Local Self-Government, which laid the foundation for municipal governance in India. Many leaders of India’s freedom movement, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose cut their teeth on municipal politics. Mohandas Gandhi advocated for “gram swaraj-,” or village self-governance, in which he envisioned the village as the basic unit of governance. However, after Independence, India adopted a federal system with a bias towards the centre, where the political relevance of municipalities declined and central and state governments became the epicentres of political power.

Panchayati Raj, a system of self-governance for villages different from what Gandhi had envisioned, was eventually embraced by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who pushed for institutionalising it through a constitutional amendment in the late 1980s. The government recognised the need for a similar provision for urban areas. While Gandhi could not raise enough support in the Rajya Sabha to pass these constitutional reforms during his tenure, they were ultimately institutionalised through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the constitution in 1992, empowering panchayats and municipalities respectively. These amendments sought to make panchayats and municipalities work as “institutions of self-government” by mandating the state to devolve to them necessary functions, funds and functionaries.

Over the last 25 years, while the Panchayati Raj has had a mixed record, with some states empowering their panchayats more than others, most states have failed to realise the vision of the 74th amendment. Even though the amendment directed state governments to devolve 18 functions to the local government—including urban planning, regulation of land use, water supply, among others—many of these functions are still being performed by state government-controlled parastatal agencies. State governments continue to hold the political, administrative and financial control over its cities.

The fundamental issue in India’s urban-governance system is that municipalities are not politically empowered to act as autonomous units of government. There is no political leader at the local level vested with the power to shape a city’s future. While mayors of cities across the world are tackling issues ranging from housing to climate change, a mayor of an Indian city is merely a ceremonial head of an already weak local government. In most cities in India, mayors are indirectly elected by the municipal councillors and do not serve a full five-year term. More importantly, they are not given any executive powers in the municipal legislations of their states.

In India’s mega-cities, the person vested with executive powers of the municipal corporation is the commissioner, who is typically an Indian Administrative Services officer appointed by the state government. This system of municipal administration is a colonial legacy—earlier, the commissioner reported to governors appointed by the British crown—that has not been removed even 70 years after Independence and the passing of the 74th Amendment. The state government controls the appointment and transfer of the commissioner and all key officers of the municipal corporation, implying that it maintains significant administrative control over the city.

Municipal corporations also have limited financial powers. Since the 74th Amendment does not provide municipalities with an autonomous domain of taxation, state governments determine the taxes that local governments can levy. Currently, as municipalities have been vested with very few revenue-generating powers, it is heavily reliant on financial resources in the form of grants and loans from the state and central governments.

Instead of strengthening the urban local governments and giving them the freedom to address local concerns, new initiatives tend to exacerbate India’s urban-governance crisis by erecting parallel institutions for governing cities. In Bengaluru, as we have seen, state governments have often created expert bodies headed by corporates to guide the city’s development. Across Indian cities, the state government’s influence is so overarching that even in the limited areas where the local government has been empowered, the state continues to call the shots. Mumbai, which is one of the few municipal corporations in India that has urban-planning powers, has seen the planning process hijacked by the state government. The development plan made by the municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai was superseded by the government of Maharashtra, which recently released a vastly different development plan.

However, it is not just state governments that undermine local democracy. Other actors, including the central government and the courts, have also played a role and been aided in this by civil-society groups. Delhi has over the last two decades seen an insidious process by which the courts have taken an active role in urban governance, often in a manner detrimental to the interests of the urban poor. In response to public interest litigations filed by middle-class residents’ groups, Delhi High Court has overseen the demolition of a vast number of slums and informal settlements. While the ostensible aim of such judicial interventions is to protect the environment, as scholars such as Anuj Bhuwania and Gautam Bhan have argued, the nature of judicial decision-making in such PILs does not allow the interests of affected parties such as slum dwellers to be fairly represented.

The most ambitious urban programme India has seen lately is the Smart Cities Mission launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2015. This programme, with its tagline “Mission Transform-Nation,” seeks to create 100 “smart cities” across India over five years. However, its idea of urban transformation also involves the creation of another set of parallel institutions instead of strengthening the existing urban local governments. Under the Smart Cities Mission, each selected city is required to constitute a Special Purpose Vehicle, a company where the private sector can also invest, to implement smart-city projects.

Programmes such as the Smart Cities Mission further centralise the governance and development trajectory of Indian cities. This path was set by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, or JNNURM. Launched in 2005, the city-modernisation scheme forced states to carry out a set of reforms that the centre was constitutionally prevented from carrying out, by making them conditionalities for the release of central funds. However, while JNNURM at least tried to ensure the implementation of the 74th Amendment, the notion of empowering local governments is absent in the Smart Cities Mission. The programme not only violates the principles of local democracy but also adopts a very narrow view of urban development, with an overwhelming majority of its funds going for the redevelopment of a tiny fraction of each city.

Indian cities are facing fundamental challenges in addressing basic civic issues. Each time a city such as Mumbai is inundated with floods triggered by average amounts of rainfall, we realise how ill-equipped our cities are. Instead of pursuing techno-utopias and exclusionary urban-development projects, the focus of the state should be addressing basic infrastructure and service concerns and ensuring that its marginalised inhabitants have livelihoods. This cannot be done without fixing the city’s governance system first.

Presently, our municipalities are weak, and operate alongside multiple other authorities that pull the city in different directions. Thus, new measures that empower the municipality politically, administratively and financially are essential. Granting the mayor executive powers is perhaps a good starting point for urban-governance reform. Rather than relying on top-down programmes and deferring to the wisdom of a few people who are considered experts, it is important that solutions to local problems emerge organically from democratic processes in the city. Empowering local governments will not ensure that all civic issues are fixed, but it would at least assign ownership and fix accountability at the most basic level.


Mathew Idiculla is a lawyer, researcher and writer whose work focusses on issues around Indian cities and their governance systems. He is a research consultant with the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru.