Deepening Democracy in Cities: Can Research Play a Role?

Soumaydip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

Indian cities have been urbanizing at a rapid pace, while also being poorly governed. Socioeconomic disparities have further been exposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, proving that urban governance in cities desperately needs to be re-evaluated. To discuss the depreciating value of democracy in cities, and methods to strengthen its foundations, the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, organized a panel discussion on “Deepening Democracy in Cities: Can Research Play a Role? “

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Dr. Soumaydip Chattopadhyay, Associate Professor, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, and Senior Fellow at the IMPRI, who moderated this discussion, began by stating that neoliberal public policy shifts have signaled a paradigm shift in public policies in India. The entry of private capital and withdrawal of the state in urban development support this idea. By decentralizing governance to the local level, local governments have opened up the opportunity for partnerships in the name of greater efficiency with NGOs, neighborhood associations, and the private sector.


However, the current hierarchical structures of governance are inimical to implementing genuine reforms at the local level, Dr. Chattopadhyay remarks. Questions such as who is involved in the decision-making process and who is not; the obstacles, and if the arrangements lead to actual change, and for whom, are the questions the City Conversations series seeks to delve into.      

Professor Ankur Sarin, Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and speaker of this talk, opened by stating that while it is always assumed that research can play a role in deepening democracy, one must critically interrogate this assumption. “It is quite remarkable that despite the fact that we call ourselves a democracy, there are really no significant decision-makers who are directly elected to their roles,” Dr. Sarin remarks. Furthermore, power is centralized in various ways, through legislation, the presidential system, and so on. Directly elected mayors are true for only a few cities, and although councilors and corporators are directly elected, they hold limited powers. 

Commenting on how academic research culture favors creating knowledge for recognized, centralized systems, Dr. Sarin questions if researchers believe in democracy at all. While research tends to focus on specialized expertise and passing value judgments, democracy tends to place faith in collective wisdom and strengthening people’s ability to make informed choices.  “Are researchers able to put faith in other knowledge systems, and other kinds of expertise?” Dr. Sarin asks.           

Local Representatives and Democracy


In the context of the recent and currently ongoing health crisis, there is an absence of a well-defined and specific role in the emergency framework operational in India for local elected representatives. “Despite being part of our institutional apparatus, there are no specifically well-designated roles for local representatives,” Dr. Sarin says. Despite the absence of a formal role, local representatives do respond in informal ways, and in many instances are the first official responders to crises.                                 

In view of the regulatory framework, covid-19 responses are governed by two central acts: The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Although most municipal statutes do prescribe a role for local governments to deal with epidemics, they generally are not invoked at all. This lays a heavier burden on central governments to deal with health crises.      

When we question the legitimacy of local representatives, Dr. Sarin argues that the problem lies in the institutions, not in the people.

It is the institutional environment that doesn’t allow for capacity development, rather than the people. One must question the fallacies of the institutional structure that produces unsatisfactory results rather than the people who operate within them, Dr. Sarin opines.

Discussing methods through which researchers could deepen democracy in cities, Dr. Sarin divides the possibilities into two options: generating knowledge that persuades those in power to give up power in favor of decentralized actors or, generate knowledge to empower and increase the formal capacity of directly elected local representatives.                                                                                               

While local representatives work within formal institutions, research conducted by Knowledge Management and Innovations for Change, a project Dr. Sarin is involved in,  finds that most of them lack a formal understanding of how institutions work and how institutional power is used. Most of them rely on experiential learning and gradually develop an understanding of how power can be used, but it is passed on primarily along party lines. Training activities are almost never conducted, as observed by the KMIC.           

The KMIC developed a handbook for the councillors of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation detailing the functioning of the Corporation, how the system can be navigated, how the general assembly works, and so on. The organisation hopes to acquaint councillors with the system and its functioning and help them prioritise projects of importance. Efforts have also been made to create platforms where councillors and corporators can exchange thoughts and ideas, particularly women councillors, to engage in urban governance. 

Dr. Sarin concludes by stating that institutions must be questioned especially where the status quo and distribution of power is concerned.  

Analytical Views on Decentralised Governance


Dr. Tathagata Chatterji, Professor of Urban Planning and Development, Xavier University, Bhubaneshwar, commented that urban governance in India is tilted very much towards the executive arm. However, this isn’t uniform and differs between states. Kerala is an example of a state where local governments hold power and influence. The West Bengal government has also attempted to develop a similar model, but it did not translate the same way.

However, Dr. Chatterji noticed that especially during the covid-19 crisis, municipal ward councilors in Kolkata were re-designated as “covid coordinators,” and have been effective in their roles. Having local knowledge and understanding of their institutions have proven to be advantageous. However, from a broader theoretical lens, one finds that democracy at the local level functions better when people use their associational capacity.

Additionally, when the historical context of feudalism and colonialist centralization of power is considered, the issues with localized democracy in India are understood better. “The 74th Amendment has been unevenly applied,” Dr. Chatterji notes. Participation, representation, and democratic roles are the pillars of deepening democracy. But when governmental institutions themselves don’t imbibe these ideals, it cannot be possible for them to pass them down.

“Populist, authoritarian sentimentalities are on the rise and researchers must address how this impacts local democracy,” Dr. Chatterji concludes.

Democratic Governance


Mr. Tikender Singh Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, and Senior Visiting Fellow of the IMPRI highlighted that it is important to question why decentralization is important in the first place. Governance in cities is hardly democratic as transnational corporations have a monopoly over urban planning processes. A majority of Indian cities are not planned by city representatives, but by private corporations. Neoliberal capitalism has allowed for a systematic shift in urban governance from ‘use-value,’ developing education and healthcare infrastructures, to ‘exchange-value,’ commodifying every aspect of urban planning.

Speaking from anecdotal experience, Mr. Panwar shared that the only way to democratize urban governance is to increase participation. However, the states are allowing corporate enterprises to overtake aspects of governance by way of building smart cities and special purpose entities. “It is turning into a ruler-ruled interphase rather than a citizen-state one,” Mr. Panwar remarks, owing to a feudal past but also due to the neoliberal capitalist wave. 

Local Self-Governance

Sameer Unhale

Mr. Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Corporation, Government of Maharashtra, adds that democracy is not always about the means and procedure but about the end. Municipal bodies in India originated in the 1850s under British colonial rule. The dynamics of local self-governance today refer heavily to that idea of decentralization but have failed to evolve to the context of modern Indian cities. The experimental approach to urban governance has harmed the uniformity of local self-governance.

Municipal governments are not capable of managing large Indian cities anymore, Mr. Unhale opines. The three-tier model of governance in Paris and other global cities are more suitable to cities of the 21st century. Due to a feudal past, especially under colonialism, local governance in most of the global south is not citizen-based and favors the councilors or corporators.

“We need to de-municipalize Indian cities because, as an institution, it is showing its limitations,”

Mr Sameer Unhale

Mr. Unhale suggests, referring to the inability of urban governments to address the change of smart cities and the threats of climate change. Electoral democracies and management of cities are confusing their duties and laying heavy burdens on municipal corporations, and the system is cracking up.

“To me, deepening democracy in cities is giving primacy to the citizens,” Mr. Unhale opines.

Cities should try to emulate participative democracy and a referendum system to really create positive change. Technology is a great facilitator for participative systems. The focus has to be the citizens, rather than elections, which has hijacked democracy, Mr. Unhale believes. Indian cities cannot be run on old systems anymore, and innovation is crucial to developing and bettering the system. 

People and Representatives

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Dr. Simi Mehta, the CEO and Editorial Director of IMPRI observed that while the notion that democracy must ensure the centrality of people exists in principle, the approach of governance remains top-down. Fundamentally, local representatives are elected to power to be answerable to the people. The reality, however, is that a rift is created between the people and the representatives they elect, who hold themselves in higher regard. Essentially, the basic ideology of democracy, which is not rigid, to begin with, is not adhered to. Therefore, the deepening of democracy will entail more than fulfilling required quotas to ensure representation.

“How can research ensure that representatives are fully committed to public service, and how can research ensure that elections are contingent on the representatives’ having clean records, are questions we should reflect on,” Dr. Mehta remarked.

Prof Sarin responds by opining that researchers must question methods and intentions more clearly, in order to accurately address institutional issues. The diversity of the research community is not looked into. “A large part of the research community comes from a very elite background who does not interact with councilors, corporators, and local representatives,” Dr. Sarin added. “Until the research community becomes more diverse and representative, most of the objectives raised by the panelists will not be achieved.”

Electoral democracy, when focused too much on, is counter-productive and perverse. Participative democracy, which can only be successive in smaller democratic spaces, can only improve the system when preexisting institutions such as ward sabhas are worked upon.

Local representatives must be engaged in a manner that allows them to be educated on issues such as climate change, which has been a challenge so far- Prof. Sarin

While democracy does not naturally gravitate towards populism and authoritarianism, institutional structures must ensure decentralization, devolution, and a check and balance system to prevent it. While researchers question systems and other institutions, they are not critically questioning themselves enough, Dr. Sarin noted.

Citizen Participation


Dr. Arjun Kumar, Director of the IMPRI, joined to question what kind of research can play a role to deepen democracy when action is considered, how institutional fragmentation will alter governance, and how the smart city model will incorporate citizen participation. Dr. Sarin responded by highlighting that healthier democratic engagement can be initiated when transparency efforts provide information on where and how councilors spend the city’s money.

“Democratic accountability and technology must be married in order to ensure responsiveness,” Dr. Sarin stated.

Prof Chatterji adds that there is a very fine line between what constitutes devolution and decentralization, which researchers must focus on. “Does the consolidation of power to the mayor in metropolitan cities really improve the power of people’s participation or would it only lead to stronger centralization?,” Dr. Chatterji questions. When one considers that the population of large Indian cities is more than the population of some countries, it is understood that the budgets and powers provided to urban governments are inadequate. “In this sense, the time has come to relook at the 74th Amendment,” Dr. Chatterji adds.

Social mobilization in cities needs to be revamped to allow for bottom-up power dynamics- Dr. Chatterji

Mr. Singh adds that the democratization of urban governance is the need of the hour in Indian cities. Barcelona and Montreal have been able to change systems to allow mobility and for citizen groups to claim their due power. SPVs are failing urban governments by not involving representatives of representatives, Mr. Singh concludes. Budgetary allocations must be created for research purposes to allow research to enter the mainstream, Mr. Unhale added. Additionally, internship programs as part of smart city missions will give impetus to research being used to create better cities.

Dr. Soumaydip Chatterji thanked all of the panelists for their insightful inputs and concluded the session.

Acknowledgement: Malcolm Antony is a research intern at IMPRI and is pursuing BA Hons. in Political Science from Delhi University

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