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Designed to fail! The truth about the Indian city #urbanization #governance

I am not terribly excited by conspiracy theories. But when reality stares at you in the face too often and reality resembles a gigantic conspiracy theory, it is hard to ignore it. And that’s when life gets exciting!

I had my curtain raiser moment this morning, when I was attending a discussion on JNNURM and Indian cities this morning in which a group of very credible citizens and activists from Gurgaon were interacting with experts from rating agency ICRA to see how data could help influence a more robust citizen movement to improve this city.

What made this morning’s experience different from other presentations was the clarity it offered on core issues that have bothered me for a while. In our sector, we constantly run into systemic issues. Working with the government and running up against non-transparent ways of functioning is one source of frustration, of course. But more than that it is the growing awareness with every assignment you work on, that every inefficiency is part of a carefully orchestrated alternative system that is designed to render the official processes non-functional and redundant.

This is certainly true of Indian cities. As an entity, the city is getting short shrift in the Indian bureaucratic and political system. Despite being of enormous importance, cities are largely poorly governed, lagging behind in infrastructure and offer low quality of life and poor efficiencies.

The big questions we constantly ask are:

  • Why are cities such a low priority for state government despite the growing importance of the ‘urban’ as a source of income and growth?
  • If urbanization is a reality, as we know it to be today, why are city governments not more autonomous and powerful? Why is the Mayor a persona non grata in the Indian city?

Without going into a long historic discussion of this issue (one that has been written about extensively), let me offer the few points that emerged that struck me as interesting.

Shailesh Pathak from SREI, who has  many years of government service behind him, offered an interesting thesis. One that surmises that the growing importance of cities threatens the existing political establishment. Therefore, despite the 74th amendment, attempts to convert to systems where the Mayor is directly elected and therefore a powerful representative have actively been reversed or suppressed. He offered Maharashtra as an example.

Moreover, Shailesh also explained that the system of rotational reservation in city government ensures that councilors cannot stand for elections from the same ward twice in a row. It is therefore, we surmise, impossible to build a strong electoral base and commitment to a single ward and quite hard to get re-elected. This effectively prevents a class of city-level powerful political leadership from rising and MLAs and MPs can continue to be centers of power, often stepping in to give largesse or take decisions that councilors have been pushing for months without success. This sort of situation has been corroborated during my discussions with councilors in Gurgaon, including Ward 30 councilor Nisha Singh who was present at this morning’s meeting.

Cities at present are seen by State governments as the proverbial milking cow. Sources of revenue, to be blunt, both above the board and largely below it! Given the short term view that politicians usually have (by definition, I might add), this revenue is maximized in the ‘growth’ phase of a city, when land is available to be urbanized, zoned as per a Master Plan and much money is to be made for those who have access to this privileged information beforehand! Even above the table, money is to be made building real estate and setting up infrastructure, providing services, etc. Once this growth spurt is over, governments (read politicians and bureaucrats) tend to lose interest in performing the mundane functions of governance and service provisioning, as there are no big bucks in this any more.

In most cities across India, this is the situation. Of all the items that must be under the local government’s ambit, as per the 74th amendment, the most vital functions of urban planning, development control and infrastructure development are usurped by the State government using parastatal agencies like development authorities. The city is reduced to small functions, usually to be performed in a fractured landscape of jurisdictions. This is intensely frustrating for all those who operate at the city level (planners, bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, professionals, etc) and the general sentiment becomes one of cynicism and despair.

We cannot continue to live this paradox in which cities full of energy, enterprise and promise are log-jammed into an uncompromising political scenario. Yet, every conference and talk you attend, every report that is released re-iterates this situation of extremes, but offers absolutely no solutions! Take for example, this news item.

Delhi HT BoylePaul Boyle, who heads UK-based ESRC, spins the big story about the future of Delhi’s development as a mega city even as he outlines nearly everything that contributes to life as we desire it (all sorts of infrastructure basically) as a ‘problem’! I find this sort of position absolutely ridiculous and a fallout of a vision that is only driven by economic development figures like the GDP without an eye out for overall inclusive growth. But the essential message is about the importance of the city as a driver of growth, which we cannot and must not deny.

We have no choice but to ensure that cities function well given the trend towards urbanization that we cannot stem (another fact that the political class keeps turning a blind eye to). If cities in India need to meet their potential, it is pretty clear that some significant changes need to happen. In political mindsets, in legal and administrative processes, in institutional mechanisms and in the attitudes of urban citizens who must be more discerning and more demanding for a quality of life that they most certainly deserve.

Gurgaon rape: 5 points for a petition to demand facts and improve policing in the city- March 15, 2012

As the momentum built up through the day among Gurgaon’s citizens to protest against police apathy towards the recent rape and of course, many other rapes, molestations and other crimes against women in the city, I began to wonder about what a petition to the government would look like if I were to write it.

Well, with regards to safety, my first concern would be to examine the quality of policing and the condition of police reforms in the country, especially Haryana. After all, policing is one of the central functions of governance, public health and safety being the overall objective of good governance.

Here are some of the points I would put in.

1. Police-population ratio: As per data from the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2010, there are only 130 policemen in India per 100,000 people, way below the stipulated UN norm of 220. Fewer policemen are recruited in most states than the sanctioned number of posts. This also means most policemen never get a day off and this hugely impacts their performance and motivation. A petition to the Haryana government would need to ask (or find out beforehand) what the figures are for Gurgaon and demand a better ratio for an upcoming urban area that is a lucrative source of revenue for the state government.

Poor quality of policing is also closely linked to the mode of recruitment. Widespread corruption and the usual practice of ‘buying’ jobs means there is no control on the quality of recruits.Which brings me to reforms, the main point on the agenda.

2. Adoption of police reforms as dictated by SC in 2006: Policing in India was governed by archaic laws made in 1861, until in 2006, the SC laid down seven directives for states to adopt. These included functional autonomy for police (via tenure security, streamlined appointment and transfer processes, a buffer body to delink police from government), more accountability (organizational and individual).

The petition should ask the Haryana government whether any of these reforms have been implemented and urge them to do so. Less political interference would directly result in better policing as rapists and perpetrators of other crimes with political patronage would not get away as easily. Recruitment process should also be addressed.

3. Training programs and general capacity building: Does the Haryana government regularly train its police force? A research exercise conducted by MIT and IIM in Rajasthan in 2008 shows that public perception about police force as well as actual performance can improve with small interventions like training in hard and soft skills, giving policemen a day off, etc. Building motivation, sensitizing police to social conditions is especially important in Gurgaon, which is urbanizing rapidly, creating stress between existing and new populations. The petition must demand information on existing training and suggest capacity building programs.

4. Creation of a mechanism to engage with community: Citizen groups must demand a cell within the police that will engage with citizens and seek to understand issues, address problem and foster an environment that is capable of evolving creative solutions for the long-term issues threatening the city’s socio-economic fabric. This cell must communicate outwards to offer correct information to the public. Citizens can help provide professional PR and communications support so the police don’t keep goofing up on what they have to say!

5. Protection of victim’s identity: ‘No loose talk by police personnel’ must be included the petition. It is important to protect victims if we are to get more rape cases reported, investigated and hopefully more rapists convicted. The petition must urge the government to make this a legally binding order. Citizen groups also need to take it upon themselves to specifically protest if this is violated. Media should take voluntary responsibility to refrain from publishing identifying details.

I guess I could go on, with more research. But I will stop at this for tonight.

My point is that, as citizens, our approach should be well-researched and we should be willing to get involved in this through till the end. Perhaps it is the job of a focused citizen task force to pursue this, but it needs to be done in a sensitive and sustained manner. It’s our city and we need to rally together to ensure these questions get answered and reforms addressed and implemented. Otherwise, it is our lives at stake!

 

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