City Plights

Indian states’ tight leash on urban governance

01 November 2018
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
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

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.

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.

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