Home Event Reports The Status quo in Indian cities: How to break it?

The Status quo in Indian cities: How to break it?


Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

Urbanization is a contributor to a country’s economic growth. The realization of the economic potential of urbanization depends on the interplay of agglomeration effects and congestion forces. The potential for cities to create regional growths beyond their immediate boundaries depends on how they are integrated with their hinterlands and regions. In India, the hierarchy of settlements is highly skewed with a few large cities and many small villages. This is due, to an approach of city management that looked at urban development in the silo, rather than understanding it as the interplay of a number of programs across spatial scales. Urban India needs to break with the status quo for a sustainable future.

The various aspects of breaking the status quo prevailing in Indian cities were highlighted by speakers Srikanth Viswanathan, Chief Executive Officer, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy and Srinivas Alavilli, Lead, IChangeMyCity, The Civic Tech Platform of Janaagraha; Co-Founder, #SteelFlyoverBeda Movement in 2016 in a joint talk organized by the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Indrastra Global.

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Chairing the session, Prof Tathagata Chatterji, Urban Planning and Governance, Xavier University, Bhubaneshwar, threw light on the 15th finance commission and its impact by saying that the 15th finance commission in a way has created a new buzz about Indian cities and provided ways to take the reforms forward. Not only the finances of the cities have seen quite a bit of a substantial jump from what has been aggravated during the 14th finance commission, but there are also major changes with a better focus on metropolitan governance. Specifically, 38000 crores have been earmarked for 15 metropolitan areas where the grants are subjected to performance. He further pointed that if implemented these changes can make a substantial impact on the way the Indian cities function.

15th finance commission definitely changes the status quo, but it can also trigger some tensions related to centre-state relations.”

Prof Tathagata Chatterji

Elucidating his point he says that the 15th finance commission has made it mandatory for the state finance commission to be set up and give recommendations within a finite date which may create centre-state tensions. Also, state governments are now required to give action taken report regarding suggestions to state finance commissions.

One of the first speakers, Srikanth Viswanathan, started by stating that one thing to be noticed in the past two three years is the palpable sense of helplessness among various stakeholders in the broad urban sector about how to break the status quo. Today cities are becoming very important in public discourse and also in politics, but the problems and challenges are fast outpacing the solutions.

Existence of the Status quo in Indian cities and how to break it?

The four broad aspects can be:

  1. Economic growth, jobs and skills
  2. Equitable access to both services and opportunities arising out of economic growth.
  3. Environmental Sustainability
  4. Engagement between citizens and citizens and the state.

There is either no positive systematic evidence of any significant improvement in the quality of life in cities or there is evidence of some deterioration. There has certainly been a lot of political capital invested in cities than before and there is certainly a greater degree of policy focus and resource allocation coming into cities. Many more projects are being outlaid and service delivery too is improving at a slow pace.

“It is status quo in the sense that how well stitched is the fabric of democracy and citizenship in our cities and how well we are prepared for ten, twenty, thirty years of life in our cities.

Srikanth Viswanathan

We are caught in a status quo where the incremental effort we are making is just not enough to provide an environment in our cities where citizens can fulfil their socio-economic potential particularly the urban poor and disadvantage minorities but by and large all citizens.

Three broad instruments to break the status quo

It’s time for us to go one level deeper from sectoral and government priorities.

  1. Strengthening Administrative Capacities at union state and local levels:

Particularly in an urban domain, administrative capacities are extremely poor. Besides sectoral areas, the four areas where they are particularly acute are:

  • Spatial Planning and design-Pretty much non-existent at the local level.
  • Public Finance Management
  • Human Resource Management
  • Transparency and Citizen Participation
  • Engagement of Urban Leaders on Urban Political economy:

To gain a much better understanding of the interrelationship between the urban economy, between politics and governance of cities and quality of life, the urban discourse in India is largely centered on infrastructure and service delivery and the definition of quality of life is being viewed through a fairly narrow prism of infrastructure and service delivery.

The intersection of the city as an economy, the city as a place where people come to earn their living and a place which attracts investments and talent and how that intersects with politics and governance of the city and, in turn, the consequences that we see as the quality of life as infrastructure and service delivery perhaps continues to remain in academic domain and research domain in India and needs to be mainstreamed.”

Srikanth Viswanathan
  •  Nurture participatory Governance:

The third piece of participatory governance is essentially about mobilizing citizen, mobilizing citizen voices and channelizing that voice through the political economy to the administrative and political executive system. Engagement of neighbourhood communities and city counsellors to build trust and meaningfully built the third tier of governance in our country thereby nurturing grassroots democracies in our cities.

“In some ways, everything which happens within a city can effectively be subject to participatory governance.”

Srikanth Viswanathan

The second speaker, Srinivas Alavilli starts by underlining the fact that a political connection, connection with political class especially the corporate counsellor at a municipal is a very essential ingredient that is sorely missing. By definition the understanding that all politicians are groups and local politicians are total groups itself creates a lot of problems in terms of changing the status quo in the cities.

Lessons should be learned by engaging with the political class and trying to bring about change in the city.

The city-systems framework is a new way of thinking about lingering challenges that plague our cities in three specific ways;

  • Focus on root causes rather than symptoms.
  • Recognizes the need for a systems approach.
  • Facilitates periodic measurement of progress.

Elucidating further he presented a ‘case study of streel flyover BEDA’, where a petition was started against the will of politicians to build flyovers. The petition became a huge campaign where almost 80000 people came on streets resulting in which government cancelled the flyover project. The lesson learnt is that when people come in large numbers, the government take notice.

Lessons Learned in Mass Mobilization

  • The only language politician understands is numbers.
  • Always work with politicians.
  • To bring the change we need to keep aside our political ideology.
  • Making the political class understand public opinion and interact with them.
  • Involve Political class in decision-making.
  • Articulate demands in a way that captures everyone imagination taking into consideration the voices of the voiceless.
  • Messages should be simple and yet hard-hitting triggering emotions that lead to actions.
  • Print Media is more powerful than any other media.

If we want to change the status quo, we need to find other people willing to work with you.”

Srinivas Alavilli

Possible Courses for each of us as individuals and organizations

  1. Recognize that system is not going to fix itself – What is required to break the status quo cannot come from within the system alone, there is a lot of push that is required from outside of the system.
  2. Need of networks and alliances of individuals and institutions to make the impulse for systemic change strong enough in our cities.
  3. Need for catalytic agendas – These are gender equality, climate change, water and sanitation and public finance.
  4. Strengthen the hands of the politicians

In the medium to long term, systematic irreversible transformational change will come only if we work closely with politicians.”

Srinivas Alavilli

Important to realise who runs the city

The first discussant, Mr Tikender Singh Panwar, Former Mayor, Shimla talks about why inertia is so strong and the external forces are very important. It is important to realize who runs the city to change the status quo and if one does not engage with that question then we are missing one of the important elements. We need to go back to the basics for understanding cities as engines of growth, city of entrepreneurs and for considering cities as the city of entrepreneurs we have to break that status quo. Cities are not just meant for the accumulation of wealth and accumulation of capital.

 “There exists the whole process of city development and accumulation of massive capital, but it is getting democratized back to the people which needs to be worked upon.”

Mr Tikender Singh Panwar

Secondly, the whole process of city development especially in the present political environment where more ghettoization is taking place especially in the context of religion needs to be broken.

Concept of ward Sabhas and ward committees to engage people in process of city development

Thirdly, the whole process of elimination of citizens from the entire process of city development can be improved by using the concept of ward Sabha and ward committees, the tool that can play a major role in engaging citizens. Today, the whole question of inclusivity, the whole question of owning your city is missing. The cities are planned by some exclusive pockets which are not so considerable about citizens. To address this elimination ward Sabha’s, ward committees can play an important role in city planning.

Lastly, the whole process of governance is linked to the process of validation. It’s very important, as governance doesn’t mean just the elected counsellors. Ward committees and ward Sabha can bring some amount of transparency in this entire process.

We have to be the political class, why not the common people can set the agendas for the municipalities.”

Mr Tikender Singh Panwar

It is very important to address the kind of paradigm shift that has taken place in the last decades and the huge kind of informality that has crept in which is 94%. The informal sector hardly reclaims its space like the working class.

Housing an important catalyst in economic terms

Housing is an important element and the pandemic has exposed the reality badly. The reasons for people migration was informality and loss of jobs. The second major issues were the lack of houses for them as there were no labour hostels or no rental housing available. 78% of houses are still not occupied. Housing has to be an important catalyst in economic terms.

Deeply vested political interest that stops the status quo to be broken

The second panellist, Dr Lalitha Kamath, Associate Professor, School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai,stated that in some ways there is a very strong deeply vested political economy interest that stops cities from becoming more empowered.

Working at multiple levels for building capacity

Secondly, she points out that there exist so many agencies operating in the city of which some of them are the urban local government. There also exists a host of different kind of parastatals and special purpose vehicles, state departments and there is a need of strengthening administrative capacities at all levels. Even if we look just at the area of the city, the jurisdiction of the city itself, it’s important to work with all these different agencies and there is no point only focusing on the urban local government because its mandate, brief and narrow.

Just looking at city scale, we need to look at multiple levels of building capacity.”

Dr Lalitha Kamath

Legitimate authority for running the city

She agrees on the question of “Who runs the city?” and says while capacities are all needed to be built, we also need to think about one agency that has some legitimate authority for running the city. This is very crucial as this legitimate authority can be said to rule or to run the city, which doesn’t rule out the city government from coordinating and collaborating with other agencies.

Readdressing the imbalance and building common course

Lastly, Dr Kamath mentions about harmony model of power which is very much like building consensus and broad-based agreement. There exist very strong differentials as people are not equal, certain communities, poorer groups, marginalised groups, many citizen groups are not considered in big decisions. The possibility to redistribute or readdress this imbalance without any conflict is a major issue. Conflict needs to be talked about if we want substantive participation. All steps of building curiosity, building awareness, creating a story, building a campaign, broad basing it are important to bring the change.

Recentering the cities for allowing local actors to play role in city processes

The third panellist, Dr Shubhagato Dasgupta, Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, starts by highlighting that what really is the fear is of looking at differentiation and divergence to create new opportunities for social change. Much of the participation is phrased in this characterism that kind of looks more orderly and allows for more orderly development. Historically in terms of longer-term processes, it has larger differentiation that leads to more equity which can be considered in the analysis.

Secondly, articulating that the key process in breaking the status quo is re-centering the city with principles that kind of allow local actors to have a greater say in city processes. The wider political economy, as India’s decentralization, came up in a regime that was already neoliberal by then has led to a set of fragmentation which did not possibly lead to the right outcomes. There exist longer-term processes which challenge each other as we take things forward. How centrality of all these strategies and tactics kind of lead to greater differentiation versus convergence to create incentives for change on one side and on the other side how do citizens get more centrality in decision making around the city and its ripple effect is what we need to focus on.

Major quantum jump for connecting citizens with cities

The fourth panellist, Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra, states that we all tend to see the city from the specific control that one plays as an academician, as activists, as a politician or as an administrator. We tend to have our own perception as to what the city realities are. And they need not actually match with each other.

It’s hard to think about the word status quo when cities are changing at such a faster pace.”

Mr Sameer Unhale

Things are changing but the larger issue is that of participation. Political participation need not be the only focus of engaging a citizen with his/her city. Though political participation is important, we talk about engaging the citizens with the city, the totality of engagement of citizen need not be looking only from this particular dimension of political participation. The larger issue is that how the poorest of the poor and weakest of the weak can influence the running of the city that would take care of inclusion is an important aspect. The large extension of quantitative changes needs to be re-think upon.

Technology is one of the players which could help a citizen connect in various aspects even political or non-political.”

Mr Sameer Unhale

There is a need to find thinkers of our own century rather than just depending upon old traditional methods that are falling short. There is a need for a major quantum jump in the way of how city and citizens need to engage with each other on various dimensions politically, non-politically, culturally or any other aspect that we have.

Need to focus more on ward committees rather than 74th Amendment

Srinivas Alavilli says that we should stop using the word like 74th amendment and perhaps focus on words like ward committees and making things happen for the citizens and corporate and mayor. For the most part, the 74th amendment has failed to inspire our citizens, cities or improve the governance of the city. We must move beyond the inherent weakness in law and try to talk in terms of what we need. If we want to discuss the 74th amendment, we should talk about it in terms of what is missing there and how we are going to fix that rather than trying to get the 74th amendment going any further. If we want more and more people to participate, we should talk more in the language of what people understand and want to participate in rather than the language of the legislation.

The problem of urban governance is not so much about lack of solutions but popular support for such transformative ideas.”

Srinivas Alavilli

You need a market for reform and you create the market by highlighting the gaps in urban governance.”

Srinivas Alavilli

Clever navigation of political economy ecosystem in real terms

Srikanth Viswanathan reflected by saying that there is a need to cleverly navigate the political economy ecosystem in very real terms. For that, instead of the ideal state, we should begin by starkly admitting the current reality of power equations within the political system particularly between the state government and the city and, also within corresponding political party structures, and power equations with bureaucrats.

If there is one magic bullet as far as demand-side political economy is considered, it is between one third and half reservations for women in city councils in India.”

Srikanth Viswanathan

More focus on Municipal Laws

Responding to the 74th amendment and re-centering point, Mr Vishwananthan underlined that these are a consequence of political economy and one should use the 74th amendment as an entry point for greater reforms rather than something that gives us hope. It would be good to refocus on municipal laws rather than the 74th amendment. We have ignored municipal laws at the cost of the 74th amendment, as we are over-focusing on the 74th amendment and under focusing on municipal laws.

“Devolution, decentralization or recentering is a captive of political economy and we need to release it.”

Srikanth Viswanathan

Focusing on smaller cities to catalyse urban change

On financialisation and real estate, there is a need to look at the spatial pattern of urbanisation. The unique urbanisation pattern in India where we have few large cities and a long tail of smaller cities, it is useful for us to focus on relatively smaller cities and towns for us to catalyse urban change in India. We should cleverly pick the kind of cities where we think there is a good mix of citizen demand which are growing rather than looking at very large cities.

Further, gender equality and climate change can be a win-win situation to force the hand of state-level politicians and state-level bureaucrats.

Decentralization and devolution should not be seen as some ideological end goal but as a very useful instrument of change where they can show delivery.”

Srikanth Viswanathan

Dr Shubhagato Dasgupta underlines that urbanisation in the political economy that we are in is kind of under-recognized as an instrument for social change. An alliance discussed above is the need of the hour. In terms of larger processes of urbanization, infrastructure does have an impact on urbanization, the story of the urban itself not only of the larger processes of urbanization but how cities are made themselves. The prime example of a new-age urban program is the “Jaga Mission”. It is a prime example where post covid the government provided a social protection and wage employment protection kind of a scheme wherein the slum dwellers are themselves upgrading their slums. They are using the state budget to create employment for themselves and to create better infrastructure and actually build the city.

We need to look at the whole cycle of the economy, look at the co-benefits from all of these investments before we make the choices alone on these large infrastructure projects.”

Dr Shubhagato Dasgupta

Dr Lalitha Kamath states that “Jaga Mission” is a landmark program and the idea of a network is an excellent one. Also, it is very useful to think about multiple different strategies and sort of entry points for change and to seize the opportunity that lies in front of us. Top-down unilateral one size fits all mechanism rarely work effectively and fatigue sets in because people are not just able to comply.

There is, in fact, the growing realisation that actually more practical devolution of power needs to be given to cities and maybe even to district administrations.”

Dr Lalitha Kamath

Mr Sameer Unhale concludes by saying that finding a fit all statement causal analysis is always difficult. Tackling with urban India is going to be an extremely collaborative activity where we all have to come together leaving aside our prejudices and framework and try to find out what is actually going to work to make Indian cities liveable and loveable.

YouTube Video for The Status quo in Indian cities: How to break it?

Picture Courtesy: Forbes India

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