Tikender Singh Panwar

For cities to develop it is essential that decision-making power is given to the local administration — holistic and sustainable city-specific development cannot happen in a top-down approach where the Centre or state decides.

A prerequisite for development is uniformity in the governance structures from top to bottom. This is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said while inaugurating a metro project in Mumbai on January 19. He called upon the people of Mumbai to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the municipal corporation elections, which are long overdue. He exhorted that the ‘triple engine’ governance model — the Centre, the state, and the Mumbai corporation — should be run directly or in partnership with the BJP for the development in the metro city.

What can be inferred from Modi’s statement is that if the people of Mumbai fail to elect the BJP and/or its partners, there could be a lack of development, and the people will have to suffer. Isn’t this a form of intimidation? Coercing the voters that unless they cast their ballot in favour of the ruling dispensation, development will not take place. Election or not, can leaders, especially the Prime Minister, make such statements?

This goes against the basic spirit of the Constitution.

Charles Correa, the chairman of the National Commission on Urbanisation in the mid-80s, vehemently opposed this idea. Correa in his several interventions said that there should be a competition between the state and the city leadership for the development of the cities, and the cities would grow better if there was competition.

Right from the Centre to the state, the BJP does not want to lose control of the cities, particularly the large urban agglomerates. The control is taken administratively, and now they intend to have political control as well.

Delhi, one of the largest cities in India, continues to be largely under the control of the Centre, despite an elected state government, and now a municipal administration.

This control is through the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) which controls the planning of the city, and owns most of the land there. Likewise, all the cities and towns are controlled by the state governments through the bureaucrats appointed by them.

It is in this background that the 74th Constitutional Amendment must be seen, which was brought in the mid-90s. There are 18 subjects that should have been transferred to the cities. Not more than three functions have been universally transferred to the city administrations. The amendment also focuses on the three F’s: functions, functionaries, and finances.

A permanent municipal cadre continues to be a distant dream. The appointment of almost all the functional posts in the city is done by the state government. Right from the engineers to Group IV functionaries. The city has limited choices. The financial situation of city administrations is appalling; 90 percent of the city governments are unable to even bear the financial burden of salaries and pensions of their staff through their internal sources. This happens despite 85 percent government revenues and around 63 percent of India’s GDP is contributed by urban India.

Empower Cities

The answer is empowering cities, and their residents. Cities must be empowered to plan and must not be under duress or coercion as is now the case.

The problem here is not the priority of projects, but the focus must be on the processes that need to be changed. From the ’90s to date, and through the plethora of schemes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, the smart cities project, Atal Mission For Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation… invariably all of them pushing for centralised reforms-linked projects have shown that the models are unsustainable urbanisation is unsustainable, and a paradigm

The Union Finance Minister’s Budget 2022 speech is a pointer in this regard. Nirmala Sitharaman said that the current model of shift is required. There was no mention of smart cities, which were supposed to be the lighthouses of urban development in India. This could be because it was a flawed top-down design Modi’s ‘triple engine’ also smacks of – the same.

Way Ahead

What is required is a decentralised approach to democratise the city administrations and its people. Take, for example, South Africa, where the city administrations are at par with the national government, and both have the same status. Even Nepal has brought five lists of governance. What we require is another list apart from the Union, state, concurrent – we need a ‘local bodies list’ that describes the functions of local bodies.

The Prime Minister must realise that New Delhi should neither govern nor run the city administration of Mumbai. Let the Mumbaikars do it for themselves. Let the cities decide their own futures; the Centre must facilitate it, and not coerce their development trajectory.

This article was first published in Deccan Herald as Triple engine? No! Let India’s cities decide their future on 27 January 2023.