India: Accountability and Governance

There are two crucial aspects of urban governance that our cities desperately need. Let’s begin with the first: Accountability.

Around the world, more and more cities are being run by political leaders who are directly elected by the people of that city. So they champion the interests of the citizens – or they will not get re-elected. That is the essential mechanism by which Democracy ensures the accountability of our political leaders. It’s as simple as that.

Whether the designation is ‘Mayor’, or ‘Chief Minister’, it is a position of considerable power and responsibility – one which attracts very high-profile politicians. For instance, just before Jacques Chirac became President of France, he served as Mayor of Paris.

To install this system of accountability, we need not convert our cities into independent city-states. For instance, though the city of New York is very much an integral part of New York State, decisions for the city are not taken by the State Governor in Albany, but by the city’s Mayor in Manhattan. For to be elected Mayor of New York, is to stand up to – and when necessary, confront – the Governor in Albany. That is what democracy is about: confrontation resolved through a process of negotiation. How well the Mayor negotiates the key issues determines whether or not he gets re-elected.

This unfortunately is not what happens in our Indian cities. Instead of this system of tough negotiations, with each side trying to protect the interests of their respective electorates, our Indian cities are run by a State Chief Minister who is not elected by the citizens of that city – and who can therefore be completely oblivious to their wishes. All he has to do is get his orders from his party bosses in Delhi and convey them directly to the State Urban Secretary – who instructs the Municipal Commissioner accordingly, i.e. to increase Floor Space Index (FSI), change land-uses, etc. Our Chief Minister has no accountability whatsoever to the citizens of this city because we do not vote for his re-election. In that sense, we have no democracy in our cities! What we have instead is a carry-over from the British Raj, where the Governor of Bombay Presidency had complete power over Bombay – as well as all the other cities along the west coast, right up to Ahmedabad, Karachi and Quetta.

In recent years, Delhi has become the one conspicuous exception. But even this is not exactly true, because the Chief Minister of Delhi does not have jurisdiction over several of the most important civic bodies and government departments which constitute that city. For instance, the whole of Lutyens’ New Delhi is under the Central Government, the Police under the Home Ministry, and so forth. Unfortunately, when things went wrong over the last few years, Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dixit did not bring this up because she may not have wanted to embarrass the powers-that-be. So instead she took the blame, rather gallantly, for decisions that perhaps were not of her making.

When Arvind Kejriwal became CM, this conflict came vividly into focus. He stood up for the city government of Delhi, against the larger political context, i.e. the Central Government. There is nothing wrong in doing that. In fact, it is an essential part of his job. And let’s not forget, it was the confrontation between Ken Livingstone and Margaret Thatcher, with their conflicting agendas, that re-energised the city of London.

The other crucial ingredient missing in our cities and towns is pro-active governance. My professor, Buckminster Fuller, used to call the British East India Company ‘world pirates’, for pirates know they have to act decisively if they want to survive. That sense of urgency is totally missing in our urban governance – although the problems facing Third World cities are among the most fast-changing and lethal we know, and crucial to our very survival.

In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi, one of the few Indian politicians concerned about our cities, appointed India’s first National Commission on Urbanisation. For the next two years, we visited all the key cities in every State in our country, meeting with political leaders, bureaucrats and concerned citizens. The picture these experiences generated was surprisingly positive. For India has many growth options. It is not dominated by any single primate city, which pre-empts all investment – like Lagos and Nigeria (or for that matter, Paris and France, or London and Britain). Instead, through the centuries, we have accumulated a diverse system of towns and cities of varying sizes, from Chennai to Jullundur, from Delhi to Coimbatore – and they exist in dynamic balance, so the growth options are indeed flexible.

This is of crucial importance when it comes to the staggering problem that lies at the heart of the crisis that most Third World cities face, viz., the distress migration from villages to towns and cities – with squatters on pavements and other crevices all over the cities. This has invoked two diametrically opposed attitudes. There are those that say: ‘Throw them out!’ and others that say: ‘No, they have the right to stay where they are’. Neither attitude helps. Letting them stay where they are, living in bestial conditions, insults our own human values. Throwing them out misses completely the underlying problem, viz: the dehumanising living conditions and viscously skewed land-holding patterns that prevails in our rural areas.

Europe went through much the same process in the 18th and 19th centuries, when millions of desperate Irish, Italians, Jews, Germans, English, decided to leave – and for much the same reasons. But due to the colonial system operating at that time, they could re-distribute themselves around the globe – an option not open to Indians today. So for the rural migrant, arriving in Kolkata or Pune is a substitute for a visa to Australia. That is the functional role that our cities are playing in the development of our nation. What we have to do is find ways to increase the absorptive capacity of this urban system.

The Commission’s Report identified several strategies through which this could be done, both within individual urban settlements, and at the scale of the overall system.

For example, in order to alleviate the pressure on our larger cities, the Commission identified 325 small urban settlements that are growing faster than the national average – despite the lack of basic amenities, like sewerage, water supply or transport. Most of these are mundi towns (i.e., market towns) – for instance, Erode in Tamil Nadu, a town of 160,000 with no sewage system, but which has evolved into the most important centre in India for re-processing textiles. A bustling town, full of maniacal energy, it has buyers from all over the world, stepping over open drains. If the right decisions and investments are made, towns like Erode could form the nucleus of new urban centres that would deflect migration away from our existing cities – completely changing the dimensions of the daunting problems we face. And there are more than 300 other towns like Erode. This is why we need pro-active urban governance – instead of the passive attitude which has now become chronic. Unlike those pirates, we let almost every opportunity pass us by. For instead of giving Erode a sewage system, or water supply for that matter, we end up spending the money on some new bauble for Delhi or Chennai, which of course only increases the flow of migrants in their direction.

The cities of India are invaluable. Like the wheat fields of the Punjab, and the coal fields of Bihar, they are a crucial part of our national wealth.
• They generate the skills we need to develop as a nation. Doctors, engineers, managers, nurses, these are all urban skills, generated by our cities.
• They are engines of economic growth; properly managed, they could generate enough surplus for their own development as well as for the hinterland around.
• And for millions of the wretched have-nots of our society, they are places of hope – perhaps their only road to a better future.
We must improve fundamentally the governance of our cities – for in the final analysis, they will decide the future of this nation.

Charles Correa is an architect and urban planner who was the first Chairman of India’s National Commission on Urbanisation.