Everyday Governance and Institutional heterogeneity in India’s cities

Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Dr Arjun Kumar

India’s cities have always had a long history. The place that once belonged to the “wealthy middle class” now is a rather different place. There are almost 8000 cities in India and each city is unique in having its own requirements and shortcomings. However, on one hand, certain ‘bigger’ cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad carry the idea of a “perfect city” and the ideal model of development, there are other cities in the country who despite falling under this category, still have a long way to go.

But, there are certain factors that remain uniform across all cities. Sanitization, health, waste management and other basic factors that remain common, thus emanating need for everyday governance and institutional heterogeneity in Indian cities, especially in the small cities.

“It is important to recognize the multitude of governance practices by heterogeneous networks of actors. The metropolitan cities apart from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore have a rather different way of functioning and have a strong and effective community service that makes decision making process rather easy and meaningful. But, in the smaller cities that might not be the case. They might be locally linked to each other or in some cases even linked to internationally recognized rotary clubs.

Therefore, while conducting a research, one needs to collect data all cities other than the metropolitan cities.”, said Dr Natasha Cornea, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, England in a webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) at IMPRI and IndraStra Global.

Dr Natasha Cornea _ #CityConversations with Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay
Dr Natasha Cornea _ #CityConversations with Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay

She further pointed that institutional heterogeneity helps in learning about a more nuanced and grounded understanding of a city and its power structure and enables us to face the new challenges that the new cities face.

What does Everyday Governance mean in the first place? it is basically “the actual practices of how interests are pursued and countered, authority exercise and challenged and power institutionalized and undermined”. While exemplifying this term, she says normal people in society, from a person selling newspaper to a person in the highest post in the bureaucracy – are all part of everyday governance. Each and everything that goes around in the society adds to the larger value of governance.

Therefore, what people do? How they do it? What motivates them to do it? What benefits do they get from it? – are all part of everyday governance. Since all these actors in the society work together, it kind of brings a notion that why do they never overlap with each other? Why every sector is completely independent in the society? How are formal and informal sectors separated from each other?

While narrating a historical context, Dr Cornea, quoted several scholars who explicitly mentioned how various working groups have always worked in perfect sync with each other. Therefore, she says that, since all these actors work and live in a common space and it has helped India to recognize a complex and heterogonous governance network that shape cities.

For instance, a village in West Bengal has ‘para clubs’ that act as an alternative to and intermediary with the state. The clubs are not formally recognized under the RWA’s or any other organization, but still significant value to people belonging to that particular section. They come together to celebrate local festivals and poojas in the community. However, the role of clubs in West Bengal is more unclear. People have trouble explaining how and where one club ends and a new one starts. More often than not, these clubs also have a role to play in power structure.

Another aspect of these clubs is the Legitimacy. It is by no doubt established that RWA’s have more legitimacy and say when it comes to decision making and formulating different policies. RWA’s also cater to the needs of a much larger population as compared to the clubs. But clubs, on the other hand are ‘legitimate’ in their own local area and are thus important for the smooth functioning of a particular (smaller) group. Therefore, the whole idea of legitimacy is quite complex. It solely depends on how the people perceive it to be as.

If, even a small group of people, accept the governance action of a particular group, they gain legitimacy through that. If a group of people belonging to a club, ascertain the confidence in it, it becomes ‘legitimate’ for that particular section of the society and begins to gain importance for them. As mentioned earlier, the clubs bring together local people for poojas and local festivals in the community, but that has a larger goal of feeding the poor, distributing clothes etc. in that group.  

If one look at both RWA’s and the clubs in a larger manner, it suggests that the ultimate aim of either of the group is to establish power within the group that they are working in – through organizing local functions, resolving disputes and even in some cases grant ‘accesses’ to who can move into the community and who cannot.

But none of this is to be seen in a bad light. There have been several examples, that Dr. Natasha mentions of how at times it is these groups that have come to the rescue of the people involved in the group by providing with an ambulance, supplying immediate first aid.

She points out that one hand there has been drastic increase in the research that has been conducted by rather smaller cities and people belonging to those areas, but on the hand the numbers of those researches is very low. Some of these researches do not even see the light of the day. Whereas, some of the other studies from India’s metropolitan studies do not cover the realities of smaller/secondary cities of India.  

Concluding her remarks, she says that in the post-covid world, it would be interesting for us to see how and to what extent have the networks in the power and the cities shifted or reshaped, as compared to before. She further points out there is need to focus on how we now recognize and mobilize heterogeneous institutions for more real and reasonable responses to future challenges.

Acknowledgements: Annmary Thomas is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. She is an undergraduate in History from Ambedkar University, Delhi and joining as a master’s candidate in International Relations at University of Bristol, UK

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  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.