Urban Governance in China and India: Deconstructing Issues of Land Grabs, Slum Clearance, and the War on Air Pollution

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

“There is a major number of differences in the urbanization of India and China. According to Census 2020, more than sixty percent of China’s population live in cities. Urban population growth has been driven due to rural-urban migration, with over 300 million migrants have moved from rural to urban cities. Additionally, another lesser-known mechanism that steered urban population growth is the reclassification of rural towns as municipalities/cities,” said Dr Xuefei Ren in a talk jointly organized by the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), and IndraStra Global on ‘Urban Governance in China and India: Deconstructing issues of land grabs, slum clearance, and the war on air pollution.’

The urbanization rate in China stands at 60%, and India lags at 34%. However, both are incomparable due to stark differences in definitions of urbanization in the census

She exemplifies Lefung City, which was rural until 1999 in its administrative approach, but the course changed in the year and declared it as a city for the upcoming census then. While the city’s administrative status remains ‘urban,’ its population still works in agriculture. Between 15-20% of the population can be accrued to the change in cities’ status.

However, in the Indian context, migration is not the big story; still, it remains an important factor in urban population growth. Dr Ren observed that in-situ urbanization is a major driver. “People are not leaving, but the places where they live are changing, and the nature of jobs in rural towns is changing,” Dr Ren explains.

Another phenomenon in India’s urbanization narrative is census towns –urban towns for census purposes but have rural governance structures. Rural governance bodies such as village panchayats do not have the authority to tax and obtain very little revenue to provide services and build adequate infrastructure. According to the 2011 Census, nearly 30% of India’s urban population lives in Census towns.

In her book ‘Governing the Urban in China and India: Land Grabs, Slum Clearance, and the War on Air Pollution,’ Dr Ren draws comparisons between cities of India and China on policy issues about slum redevelopment, land acquisition, and environmental governance with a particular focus on air pollution control. Studying these empirical cases, Dr Ren postulates differences in India’s and China’s city governance.

While China’s form of urban governance can be termed territorial, India takes a more associational approach. Urban policymaking and implementation are largely shaped by local, territorial authorities and institutions in China. In contrast, stakeholders in civil society, public and private sectors form alliances and influence India’s policy.

China’s territorial and India’s associational approaches can best be exemplified by considering their efforts to curb air pollution. For instance, China has adopted a target responsibility system wherein every city/province has a time-bound pollution reduction target. Local officials are held responsible for ensuring the target is met in their own jurisdictions. Based on their performance, the local officials are promoted or demoted.

In India, civil society has been instrumental, with the clean air campaign largely led by NGOs, which mobilized the Delhi government, Supreme Court, and private players. However, both approaches have their shortcomings. While China’s territorial approach to governance has proved successful in some spheres, recently, even in the containment of COVID-19, Dr Ren suggests that this system may not be beneficial in the long-run, in curbing air pollution because it does not incentivize players to collaborate.

Dr Ren suggests that China needs to open up more to non-state actors, including private industries and civil society groups. India needs to empower local institutions such as municipal governments, and both countries could aim to move towards the middle of the spectrum to adopt a hybrid approach.

Prof Kala S Sreedhar, Professor, Centre for Research in Urban Affairs (CRUA), Institute for Social and Economic Change, pointed that India’s definition of being urban is more conservative. If it relaxes its definition, then India would be 69% urban.

She also highlighted the ghost city phenomenon which emerged due to excessive lending by state-run China banks to urban infrastructure development corporations (UIDCs). UIDCs primarily build cities’ infrastructure; thus, there was a spree of rushed urbanization in China. There was an oversupply of infrastructure and less occupancy in these houses. This excessive lending has placed a huge debt on China. While talking of environmental governance, she thinks in Indian democracy, such issues run on public opinions, and in China, it is economic efficiency.

In the Indian urbanization context, with much of the urbanization happening informally, Dr Chattopadhyay argues that incomplete decentralization and fragmented institutions have resulted in a power vacuum at the city level.

Other who attended the webinar were Dr Akshya K Sen, Joint General Manager (Eco.) and Fellow, Human Settlement Management Institute (HSMI), Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO), New Delhi and Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI

Acknowledgments: Paavani Pegatraju is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and is pursuing her Masters in Economics and Business at Sciences Po, Paris, France.

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Picture Courtesy: Invesco