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Demystifying Urban Governance

Rahul Kulkarni | Guest Writer

Democracy and governance are intriguing ideas. Over thousands of years of human existence, we have tried and tested different forms of government; dictatorships, monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, theocracies, democracies, and so on. Every form of government has its own benefits, but a peculiar theme across most of these debates is the number of perspectives that crop up. There’s the socio-cultural perspective, the economic perspective, the moral perspective, and a thousand other perspectives. The alluring aspect of it all is that there is no ‘right’ answer. Here is an interesting video that documents the evolution of government.

Some Examples of Different Forms of Government

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of governance is that governments are not a part of the ‘real world’. They are not tangible, physical entities. They exist merely in our minds, like the value of diamonds. Diamonds are essentially dirty rocks mined from the crust of the Earth, but we give them value. Another example is currency. A 100 rupee note is worth one hundred rupees, but it is actually just a mint-printed piece of paper. As Yuval Noah Harrari explains in his book, ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – “Governments are a figment of our collective imagination.” This is the true genius of our species – being able to come up with a way to co-exist with broad consensus, and forming an institution that is very much intangible, and by virtue, immortal. Therefore, governments and institutions therein are an idea. They live only in our minds, and as long as we collectively agree that they exist, they will continue to exist till humanity exists. It is an understanding based solely on trust.

Let us now discuss the case of the biggest democracy in the world. In the context of a large group of humans co-existing, it is only fitting that we speak about a nation of 1.3 billion people, following over ten major religions and consisting of 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes; India. Even though the intricacies of the Indian Constitution can be debated, it is difficult to turn a blind eye to the wisdom and sheer foresight of the writers of the Constitution. Making a singular ‘Supreme Law’ for a country so diverse that it can potentially be a continent, with each state potentially being a country, is no cakewalk. The writers inscribed a crucial pillar into the fabric of India’s democracy: the federal structure. The federal structure very simply consists of the Union (Central) Government, the State Government, and the Local Government (municipalities in cities and Gram Panchayats in villages).

City governments, by far, have the largest and most direct impact on a citizen’s life. Most of our daily problems – problems which we end up complaining the most about; roads, footpaths, water supply, garbage disposal, are quite often under the purview of the City Government and yet, how often do we see news relating to municipal/city governments? How big of a deal are civic or local elections? Compare this to the frequency with which we see news relating to the National and even State governments, and the magnitude of importance given in the collective imagination to National or State elections. These priorities are also starkly visible in voter turnouts. The voter turnout for the Indian General Elections and Maharashtra State Assembly elections in 2014 was 66% and 64% respectively. The voter turnout for the 2017 MCGM elections was 52%.

According to the Census of 2011, 31% (377.1 million) of the Indian population lives in urban areas. It is estimated that 60% of the Indian population will live in cities by 2050.  While there is uniformity across the country about what the Central and State governments can and should do, there is no uniformity on what the city governments’ responsibilities are. They differ from state to state and even from city to city. This plague is prolonged by the lack of willingness of State Governments to voluntarily give up their own power. The notion that there is no uniformity in the governance of almost one-third of the country is mind-boggling. Furthermore, the notion that if this problem is not resolved by 2050, there would potentially be no uniformity in the governance of 60% of the country, is alarming.

The reason behind the heterogeneity in the governance of our cities is a structural defect. The federal structure in no way represents a hierarchy of any sort, different governments have different subjects under them. This is crucial in understanding the dynamic between governments at different levels since it explains a lot about our approach towards local government.

The Constitution, very clearly, has noted subjects (jurisdictions) down, in the ‘Union List’ and the ‘State List’ for matters under the Union and State Governments respectively. Foreign Policy and Defense, for instance, featured in the Union List while Police and Agriculture are State matters. There is no scope for the interference of one Government in another’s jurisdiction. However, there is no ‘Municipality List’ or no ‘Gram Panchayat’ List, because Municipal Governments and Gram Panchayats were not promulgated in the original Constitution. They were provisioned in the 73rd and 74th Amendments, which came into effect as late as 1993.

This lack of coordination in the system translates to a blatant disregard towards local governments. Even though Members of Parliament (MPs) at the National level and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) at the State level receive some sort of assistance in terms of policy advisors and/or funds, very little assistance of this sort is provided to Municipal Councillors (elected representatives at the city level). Cash-strapped and with very little policy assistance, the Councillors often have to rely purely on their experience and intuition while making policies. This leads to skewed priorities, and policies that are not necessarily borne out by facts.

To take a modern example, the Goods & Services Tax (GST), adopted recently in India, allocated division of funds between the Centre and State, but no such division exists between the State and Local Bodies. There is a ‘State GST’ and a ‘Central GST’, but no ‘Municipal GST’. City governments are expected to climb mountains but are not given legs to do so.

Ultimately, the winner in democracy’s success, as well as the loser in a democracy’s failure, is the citizen. A democracy is as strong as its citizenry, and for the citizenry to be strong and cohesive, the lowest rung in the democratic ladder must not falter. More and more of us need to become active and take cognizance of local issues, participate in community building, and raise awareness about civic issues. It is at this level that palpable, enduring and visible change can be brought about. It is at a local level that change brings about the greatest respite in a citizen’s life.