Saturday, February 8, 2014

India 2014: cities as places of Hope ( #outlook)

There Must Be A Better Way

Our cities are Places of Hope. More’s the reason leaders stand up for them.
<b>Lying down for the city</b> Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal takes the pavement route
Lying down for the city Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal takes the pavement route
Magazine | 17 February 2014 
Charles Correa

Increasingly, cities around the world are being run by political leaders who are directly elected by the people of that city. So they must champion the interests of the city—or they will not get re-elected. That, essentially, is the mechanism by which Democracy ensures the accountability of our political leaders. It’s as simple as that. The title for this political figure is usually ‘mayor’—but if the city is an autonomous entity, then it could be ‘chief minister’. It is a position of considerable power and responsibility, one which attracts very high-profile politicians. For instance, just before Jacques Chirac became president of France, he served as mayor of Paris.

This is the best model for good urban governance—one that our democracy must follow. And to do so, we need not convert our cities into independent city-states. For instance, though the city of New York is very much an integral part of New York state, decisions for the city are not taken by the governor in Albany, but by the mayor in Manhattan. For to be elected mayor of New York (like Rudy Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg) is to stand up—and if necessary confront—the governor in Albany. That is what Democracy is about: confrontation resolved through a process of negotiation. How well the mayor negotiates decides whether or not he will get re-elected.

This unfortunately is not what happens in our Indian cities. Instead of this system of tough negotiations (with each side trying to protect the interests of their respective electorates), our Indian cities are run by a state chief minister who is not elected by the citizens of that city—and who can therefore be completely oblivious to their wishes. All he has to do is give orders directly to the urban secretary who instructs the municipal commissioner to do the needful (increase floor area ratio, switch land-uses, etc). The chief minister has no accountability whatsoever to the citizens of the city because we do not vote for his re-election. In that sense, there is no democracy in our cities. What we have instead is a carryover from the British presidency system where, for instance, the governor of Bombay Presidency had complete power over all the cities right up to Ahmedabad, Karachi and Quetta.

The one conspicuous exception to this pattern has been of course the city of Delhi. But even here the example is seriously flawed because the chief minister does not have jurisdiction over several large areas and civic bodies that make up the city. For instance, the whole of NDMC (ie, Lutyens’s New Delhi) comes under the Central government; the police comes under the home ministry; and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation is controlled by the BJP. Over the last few years, when things went wrong, Sheila Dikshit unfortunately never brought this matter up because the same Congress party controlled both entities—and she may not have wanted to embarrass the powers-that-be. So, instead, she took the blame, rather gallantly, for decisions that perhaps were not of her making.

Which brings us to the present moment. What we are witnessing right now is the chief minister of Delhi standing up for the city of Delhi, against the larger political context (ie, the Central government). There is nothing wrong in doing that—in fact, that is an essential part of his job. For as we have just seen, the confrontations between Giuliani and the governor of New York state; or in the case of London, between Ken Livingstone and prime minister Margaret Thatcher—have resulted in the current renaissance and economic miracle that has re-energised the cities of New York and London.

Which brings us to the drama of the dharna we witnessed on the streets of the imperial capital last week. Our media keeps braying about the illegality of the action—but in a society where the legal system finds the 2G, 3G, Coalgate and other mind-boggling scams par for the course, isn’t that bizarre? The situation was highly charged. The interviews Kejriwal gave were interrupted every few sentences by a hacking cough—so when night fell and he lay down on the pavement to sleep, the gesture looked suicidal. In the bitter cold of a Delhi winter, how would he survive the night? It was perhaps a foolhardy risk he took. But in that gesture of sleeping on a pavement in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, he created an image that will endure for a long time to come. Remember that over 60 per cent of Mumbai’s inhabitants, by government count, are squatters. Sleeping on a pavement may not seem as foreign to them as it might to you or me. What Kejriwal did with that one gesture was create a game-changer that may well prove as potent as the image of Gandhiji travelling in a third-class railway compartment. It’s an image to which the silent majority of our urban citizens might relate—instantly and without much effort.

For the epic struggle going on in our national capital is crucial not only to Delhi’s future but to that of our other urban centres as well. Our cities are defining the future of our nation. First of all, because they are engines of economic growth. Delhi is the only city in India that has a surplus budget—possibly because it is the only city that political parties and individual politicians have not been exploiting like a milch cow. The cities of India have been systematically drained of humongous funds that should have been used for the development of that city—and for the surrounding hinterland as well. This is what happened in South China where the surplus generated by cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai not only brought in the high quality infrastructure they needed, but also helped launch the economic miracle that is China today.

Secondly, the many diverse cities and towns we have here in India exist in a wonderfully balanced system—one that creates and nurtures the skills we need to develop our nation. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, managers—these are all people with urban skills, generated in our urban centres. India is one of the few Third World countries that does not need to import these skills through the UN or the World Bank. In fact, we export them.

Lastly, our cities are Places of Hope. For millions and millions of the wretched have-nots of our society, they are perhaps their only road to a better future. This is why the proper governance of our cities is of such decisive importance to us, and to our future. Like the wheat fields of Punjab and the coalfields of Bihar, they are an essential part of our national wealth. If we let them fail, then we indeed place our nation in serious jeopardy.

(Charles Correa is credited with redefining modern architecture in post-Independence India.)

No comments: