Governing Cities: The Missing Links 

Session Report
Nitya Kuchimanchi

Urban Policy & City Planning is an online one-month online immersive certificate training course organised by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute, IMPRI, New Delhi in the month of July 2023. An informative panel discussion on the topic “Governing Cities: The Missing Links” was held by Professor Amita Bhide, Professor and Dean, School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

For the second session of the seventh day, the discussion was first contextualized by the chair Dr. Rumi Aijaz (Senior Fellow and Head, Urban Policy Research Initiative, ORF) who introduced the theme and the speaker; paving the way for the discourse on “The Missing Links In Governing Cities” taken by Professor Amita Bhide.

A Look at the 74th Amendment 

Dr. Bhide led the discourse with an introduction to the 74th Amendment, the non-implementation of which is bemoaned by numerous policies. The 74th constitutional amendment aims to empower urban local bodies and enhance the government’s focus on foundational principles like subsidiarity, local democracy and inclusivity. The actual impact, however, has fallen short of expectations after initially promising a more democratic, representative and empowered third-tier government. 

Deviations from the promises of the 74th Amendment have been laid bare in key urban development schemes. JNNURM, while incorporating the 74th Amendment, encountered numerous challenges when the initial script was modified to include the community participation law and the public disclosure law, both of which were extremely challenging to decode and albeit. Another deviation was undertaken in the shift from public financing to project-based financing which resulted in the sidelining of municipal bodies while elevating and strengthening the role of private consultants.

Misalignment with the objective of the amendment was also noticed in the implementation of the Smart Cities project which exhibited a significant divergence by implementing SPVs (special purpose vehicles), resulting in a tussle between the political and the corporate and further cementing the role of consultants in local governance. 

Dr. Bhide further discusses the implementation of the Swacch Bharat which was ostensibly focussed on sanitation but triggered a transformation in the role of local governments. Local governance was shifted from a function role to a more public relations-oriented role through communication strategies to managing surveys and rankings.

Dr. Bhide then introduced the concept of engendering, noting that although gender representation emerged as a well-meaning objective of the 74th Amendment with 33% representation given to women in leadership positions and committees, practices like multi-member wards have hindered women’s participation by promoting dynastic rule. Similarly, the conception of ward committees and area sabhas as a fourth tier of governance witnessed minimal and uneven implementation, raising questions about genuine citizen participation.

She draws attention towards larger resistance to instituting participation through examples such as ill-conceived metrics like participation for assessment of competitive proposals for Swacch Bharat and the participation in Swachh Survekshan gauged to being opinion based and mediated as opposed to organic and citizen-based.

Current Challenges to Urban Governance: Pressures Faced, Redundancy and Urban Dependency 

The presence of multiple authorities with shared and overlapping functions, changing geographies of cities, and issues of coordination contribute to concerns about accountability and efficiency. Dr. Bhide takes note of an intriguing governance model in Bangalore which seeks to hold parastatals accountable to the municipal body. 

Highlighting the shift in the urban governance narrative towards the contemporary, local issues of climate action, SDGs and health initiatives, she emphasizes that questions continue to persist regarding the institutionalization of the resources and powers required to address these issues. Although the 74th Amendment introduced inclusive functions, certain incongruities with municipal law have been observed, as evidenced by schemes like street vendor inclusion where central directives advocate for consideration while the municipal government perceives the issue as encroachment. Financial complexities have also surfaced due to measures like the GST and the octroi withdrawal which have both impacted local revenue streams.

Dr. Bhide continued by questioning the pervasive assumption that urban local governments lack capacity. She called attention to the fact that capacity hinges on the clarity of roles, powers, resource allocation and accountability. Her session prompted a reevaluation of whether municipal bodies are predominantly service delivery agencies, local democracies or both.  Responses to these challenges often result in parallel economies and informal governance. The role of larger cities as revenue generators for the state also disincentivizes devolution, amplifying the dependency of urban governing bodies on state institutions.

The Road Ahead

In pursuit of the ideal urban governance model, Professor Bhide draws attention to questions regarding proximateness, scales of governance, tax-revenue connections and relationships with the higher levels of government, and arrives at a conclusion by throwing light on a roadmap for the future. She emphasized the significance of robust, local democracies, clearly defined spaces for citizen participation in crucial decisions, the need for collaboration with parastatals and the review of gendered reservations and their efficacy.

A focus on the delivery of primary services supported by middlemen with technical expertise and a sensitivity and understanding of the local context emerges as the need of the hour.  Professor Bhide ended the insightful session by underscoring the importance of local adaptation and programs tailored to local needs, urging stakeholders to reimagine urban development paving resulting in inclusive, accountable and well-developed cities. 

Srinitya is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

Read more session reports for Urban Policy & City Planning:

A Way Forward for Urban Planning & Governance in Indian Cities

India’s Urban Development Schemes: Impact & Way Forward