‘Urban Apathy’ Sign to Develop Urban Centers

Tikender Singh Panwar

Urban apathy can only be addressed if we change our approach towards city administration and have the political will to change for the better

While announcing the poll dates for the Karnataka elections on March 29, Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar pointed out “urban apathy” as the reason for the very low voter turnout in urban centers. He noted that out of the 20 constituencies with the lowest voter turnout, 11 were from the urban areas. This trend of very low voter turnout is also visible in constituencies with a significant urban population.

Kumar also mentioned the initiatives taken by the commission to encourage greater participation, such as engaging with universities, colleges, and even secondary schools through a programme called ‘Electhons’. Commendable as they are, it is essential to address the root causes of the problem to achieve the desired results.

Why This Apathy

Urban apathy is not a result of individuals’ subjectivity, but a manifestation of the depoliticized environment and the belief that ‘nothing will change’. As a result, people lack interest in urban issues and problems, such as poverty, crime, environment degradation, and politics, which affects the cities and their residents. This phenomenon is also a reflection of the large-scale informalisation of the major sectors that provide employment in the cities, making it a daunting task for individuals to survive and obtain the bare minimum.

The complexity of urban issues can make residents feel overwhelmed and helpless. Additionally, anonymity and disconnection are widespread in large cities, leaving individuals with a lack of belonging. This sense of alienation can also be attributed to the way city structures are being constructed. For example, the entire process of city development is so elitist that the other sections of society, including the middle class, feel disconnected from it.

Revisit Right To The City 

The 74th constitutional amendment in 1993 laid the foundational principles of peoples’ participation at the city level. Elections after every five years, planning as a subject to be transferred to the city governments, nearly 18 subjects along with the three F’s: Functions, Functionaries, and Finances, were supposed to be transferred to the cities across India. However, very little has been achieved in the past three decades since.

City planning continues to be in the hands of the parastatals, controlled by either the state or the Centre. Not more than three functions have been universally transferred to the city governments. The functionaries continue to be under the state government, and the abysmal state of finances was pointed out by the 15th Finance Commission.

While these issues persist, migration adds another dimension to the woes. Migration was not even considered in the 1993 amendment; hence, these new challenges need to be incorporated into city-making and governing structures. There are also other new elements in a city’s demography (like informal sector employees, gig-workers, youth in educational hubs, gated communities, etc. that make the task of breaking ‘urban apathy’ a daunting one.  

A City Worth Fighting For

Right to the city needs to be revisited. As a concept, this is not just a right to demand certain provisions from the State, but rather a right to shape the city oneself. It means the right to participate in the creation and development of cities and urban environments, which must come from social movements that push forth the agenda for access to urban resources, affordable housing, and public services, and aims to empower individuals and groups.

There has been a colossal failure of the workers’ movements in the cities. The workers’ movements, which draw their strength mainly from the formal workforce, have not been able to consider the city as an arena of battle to shape it for their own secure and better future. Despite large mobilizations of workers going on since the 1990s, such mobilizations of the working people have never imagined issues of the cities as their own issues.

Political Consciousness 

More needs to be done to ensure greater participation of citizens at the city level.

The city is currently run more informally than through formal institutions, and a massive drive needs to be undertaken to ensure the participation of this sector. This drive can include the participation of the employees and workers’ unions in the sensitization sector.

Students, as rightly pointed out by Kumar, are a major area for ensuring greater participation. Holding elections at every college and university campus in urban centers is important for ensuring a political consciousness. The current general apolitical environment existing on campuses needs to change. To break this ‘urban apathy’ and apolitical coldness among students it is essential that they participate in democratic processes on campuses.

Engaging the urban local bodies is another major area that needs to be addressed. We have seen how there is a greater participation of the people during the municipality elections but lesser during elections to the assembly or Parliament.

Like the proposed Electhons in Karnataka, similar programmes need to be conducted to ensure the politicization and participation of people in urban centers.

Urban apathy can only be effectively addressed if we change our approach towards city administration, become more inclusive, and, of course, have the political will to change India’s urban centers for the better.

This article was first published in Deccan Herald as To Fight ‘Urban Apathy’ Focus on Inclusive Cities on April 05, 2023.

Read more by the author: Himachal Budget 2023-24: Can it Bring the Desired Changes?