Urban Political Economy and Governance

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

To engage with the questions of informality in Indian urban centres, the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organized a talk on “Urban Political Economy and Governance” as part of its series on The State of Cities #CityConversations.

City Conversations Dr Shahana Chattaraj Urban political economy and governance

Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay Associate Professor, Viswa-Bharti University, Shantiniketan, West Bengal; Senior Visiting Fellow, IMPRI, New Delhi introduced the subject of the talk by building its context. As the urban centers in India experience rapid growth, the policy is confronted by accommodating the growth and improving the quality of life.

Dr Chattopadhya

At the same time, the policy also needs to figure out how cities can be transformed into engines of growth themselves. The work of policymaking and governance is increasingly involving special purpose vehicles, quasi-autonomous government organizations, and a variety of non-state actors. CityConversations is a series organized by IMPRI that aims at discussing and deliberating upon these challenges and working on building cities that are both sustainable and inclusive.


Dr Shahana Chattaraj Director – Research Data & Innovation, WRI India; Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi presented her paper, The Jugaad  State in Mumbai, which attempts to understand how states govern cities where informality in the economy and the built environment is pervasive. Her answer was a framework of ‘Jugaad’ or workarounds created to deliver outcomes within various constraints. Dr Chattaraj studied the interactions of governance and the informal economy in Mumbai. She said that the informal economy should not be understood as a separate needs sector and be seen as a part of the real economy.

Although not economically or politically marginal, its nature of operating in the margins of regulatory institutions and formal bureaucratic structures makes it in part illegible to the state and tough to order and control through bureaucratic governance. The widespread informality in Mumbai was produced from a mismatch between the state’s formal institutions and the urban political-economic organization. In the face of limited capacity and/or will to enforce rules, the states resort to formalizing, ignoring, accommodating, and collaborating in informal economic activities.

This is accompanied by periodic enforcement aimed at demonstrating state power to reinforce the relationship and maintain the rule of law. The nature of ‘Jugaad’ is both ambivalent and complex and thus serves as a good framework to describe complicated interactions and contradictory positions between the state and the informal economy. Regulations of street-vending and property tax collections from ‘unauthorized’ sectors among other phenomena were used as examples of state ‘Jugaad’ in practice.

‘Jugaad’ governance’s features were outlined (taken from slides presented)-

  • It involves negotiations, bargains, and accommodations of the state’s framework and how it interacts with the citizens and firms that utilize space, conduct business, and access public resources
  • It embeds state actors within informal power structures
  • It enables the state to maintain social control and oversight; extract revenue; satisfy popular demands; avoid political, administrative and financial costs associated with strict rule enforcement
  • It increases state-society interpretation; overtime; partially (and unequally) incorporated informal spaces within formal state institutions
  • State actors at different levels apply improvised, contingent, politically-negotiated practices and strategies of governance, at variance with official rules and procedures, in order to intervene in informal spaces ‘illegible’ to the formal state
  • Neither strictly formal nor informal but ‘jugaad’ adaptive and flexible interpretation of rules
  • Not merely corrupt or rent-seeking or ‘irrational’ acts of ‘vernacular’ lower-bureaucracy but ‘rational’ – geared towards realizing state functions and objectives – under the constrains of incongruous legal regulatory framework and limited state power and capacity

The ‘Jugaad’ state sees the city partially and dissipates state power by fragmenting the centralized authority structures by horizontally embedding state actors in local power structures. This leads to a weakened organizational coherence. The ‘Jugaad’ state’s practices are not just about corruption and clientelism and the framework explains the tensions and contradictions between the formal institutions and the flexible, improvised governance practices.

Dr Chattaraj argued against other perspectives like that of ‘actually existing’ neoliberalism (for attributing all causes to neoliberalism which is better suited to explaining the changes in governance in the Global North) and ‘state of exception’. She found instead that these governance practices weren’t exceptions but rather that the rules themselves were selectively enforced.

While ‘Jugaad’ governance works in the short term, it cannot be useful for long-term planning. The rule violations also undermine state legitimacy. She also mentioned that the de-politicization of state policy could only be undertaken after formal rules and institutions undergo thorough democratization without which transparent and strict rule enforcement could have anti-poor implications.

She also posed some questions raised by ‘Jugaad’ governance such as whether the ‘Jugaad’ state’s ability to incorporate informal groups precluded broad-based political mobilization and when is where were these ‘Jugaad’ practices were tolerated and when and where were they restricted. She ended her presentation by asking whether ‘Jugaad’ was to remain a feature of Indian urban governance or whether formalization and new surveillance technologies would reshape the state’s relationship with the informal city. She also argued for the need for perspectives from the Global South to theorize governance.


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Dr Neha Sami Lead – Academics and Research, Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Bengaluru reflected that it was an opportune moment to talk about informality and governance. She raised the question of agency and thinking about who is involved in ‘Jugaad’ within the state, considering Mumbai was an exception among cities for having a particularly powerful city government. She also pointed out that informality existed within the state itself and not just in how it interacts with citizens. There is a spectrum of the formal and informal- development infrastructure informality that exists within the very formal sectors. She asked how the speaker perceived the ownership of land and access to the tenancy of land.

Dr Das

Dr Diganta Kumar Das Associate Professor of Geography, Humanities, and Social Studies Education Academic Group, National Institute of Education, Nayang Technological University, Singapore seconded Dr Chattoraj on theorizing from the South. He contended that these ‘Jugaad’ practices could be understood as the hybridity of state. Dr Das asked how the processes of hybridity identified in Mumbai could be used to theorize hybridity beyond Mumbai and capture other urban centers in the Global South.

Dr Biswas

Dr Arindam Biswas Associate Professor, Department of Architecture and Planning, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee remarked that a bottom-up approach is lacking. Cities don’t have decentralized processes or knowledge and many of these processes were rooted in colonial history. It was only in India, how development organization, improvisation trusts, and local governments were separated. Local governments are just providing services while someone else is planning and creating infrastructure, rendering local government inefficient.

There are overlaps in the functions of different government bodies, leading to redundancies.

Dr Arindam Biswas

Dr Chattopadhya commented that the deficit frame of looking at local governments didn’t account for the heterogeneous ways in which service delivery is achieved in Indian cities and doesn’t acknowledge the diversity of the institutions involved.

Hybrid service delivery evolved due to the instability of large-scale systems to service the informal urban dwellers.

Dr Chattopadhya

If we want to identify interventions, we have to recognize the existing modes of service delivery with the complexity of their mechanism.

Dr Chattoraj

Dr Chattaraj responded to the question of agency by saying that although Mumbai did have an exceptionally strong city government, the city councilors and local governance bodies had little sway. In contrast to India, Chinese local bodies exercised great power outside of political freedom. Those bodies at the local level could formalize many ‘jugaad’ practices for their area. The Chinese model also served as a response to how practices of negotiability and flexibility in governance could be incorporated and understood.

While Dr Chattoraj acknowledged that a spectrum existed between the formal and the informal, she contended that the distinction was analytically useful as state actors at various levels had a particular understanding of what was formal and what was informal and their exertion of state power rested on the difference.

She agreed that owning land gave agents an informal source of power and agency which is often converted to political power too. On the deficit framework, she observed that while some cities like Mumbai were quite functional although they were informal others like Greater Noida were planned but existed in a vacuum of governance. They have the infrastructure but no system. There is a continuum in which Indian cities lie, between the purely bureaucratic and the purely informal.

She found that the concept of ‘Jugaad’ governance found lots of resonance in Latin America, Africa, Brazil, and Italy all of which had and similar local concepts of fragmented systems of governments functioning alongside formal institutions(inherited often from colonial periods). She compared Kerela and Gujarat as states with a fairly high degree of functionality. While Kerela adopted more democracy in its governance, Gujarat achieved its outcomes in a more ‘China-like’ manner with local bodies having clarity in their mandates but not a lot of political freedom.

She also raised concern over emerging areas that were urbanized but not considered cities. Most of future India is to occupy these spaces and it is important to understand who will govern them and how. India has shown a lesser level of willingness to cooperate with and institutionalization informalities than other countries. This was seen even during the pandemic with arbitrary top-down decision-making prevailing.

Dr Biswas asked how one could theorize with the level of data deficiency in these areas of study. Without solid and large-scale empirical evidence, building analytical frameworks of government processes was tough as patterns were difficult to trace.

Dr Chattopadhay agreed and emphasized that the comparative framework was helpful in this regard. One had to engage in concept development, pre-theorization, and then operationalize measures. Comparing the various Indian cities would shed light on what was common and what was usual. It is important to name and theorize the different phenomena to encourage research. The existing frameworks of ‘the state of exception’ and neoliberalism do not reveal much about the nature of cities or how to address the problems that exist and we have to move beyond them to construct something useful.

Acknowledgment: Sonali Pan is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

YouTube Video for Urban Political Economy and Governance



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