For urban activists, this is a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago, when it was difficult to drum up enough noise for any urban issue: Most politicians would studiously avoid the dreaded “u” word for fear of being branded elitist, the media was fixated on rural issues, and urban residents had bought into the myth that their problems were trivial compared with the challenges being faced by 700 million villagers. Now, barely a day goes by without some urban issue being hotly debated in multiple forums: print and electronic media, community halls, industry bodies and political parties. To paraphrase V.S. Naipaul, we are witnessing a million urban mutinies.
However, while these debates about infrastructure, public transport, water and sanitation, affordable housing, environment and urban planning are critical, they miss one key ingredient: the identity of the urban citizen.
Our urban centres do not have an essential rooting, an organic connection between the urban citizen and the city she lives in.
Examples abound: There is no mechanism to stop the illegal violation of the neighbourhood park, no system to prevent the neighbour’s residence from being converted into a hospital that could soon dump toxic waste in the storm drains, no opportunity to participate in decisions on local development, no grass-roots answer to manage the voter roll errors which are upwards of 50%, no space to even vent one’s frustrations.
While the urban resident can see herself as a producer of urban goods and services, or as a consumer of urban comforts, she cannot so easily see herself as a citizen.
These gaps exist for everyone, even for those working in government. Be it a Supreme Court judge, a cabinet secretary or an employee of the railways, they know all about the empty edifice of citizenry and often come to terms with their civic emasculation by leveraging their positions and titles. Even for the elite, this same sense of disconnection prevails: the industrialists, the writers, the media, the film-makers, the intellectuals, and even the activists. None of us can individually survive in the city without the coping mechanisms that our particular position offers us—our networks, our identities. Strip away these identities, and the hollow shell of citizenry provides cold comfort. Imagine if this is true for the “empowered” urban Indian, what it could be doing to the 35% and more of the urban dwellers who are the urban poor. They are twice forsaken, once because of their state, and once by the state.
The fabric of any society begins with the individual, her sense of empowerment, her belief in her own agency. In a society that is urbanizing rapidly, old identities are being wiped clean and being replaced with an aching vacuum. As the rules of engagement become increasingly transactional, we are seeing the strip-mining of the urban identity—alienation as the underbelly of urban living.
How do we solve this problem?
Beyond voting, there was little scope for the average citizen to really engage in affairs of state in India. Until 1992, when we got the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments dealing with rural and urban decentralization. With the 73rd amendment, every rural voter got an opportunity to actively participate in local issues through the powerful concept of the gram sabha (village assembly). This singular act of placing the citizen at the centre of the governance architecture captured the essence of democracy. However, in a remarkable display of constitutional one-sidedness, the 74th amendment offered no such parallel platform for the urban voter.
Why did this happen? There are many explanations, including overnight drafting, as Rajiv Gandhi decided to add urban to Panchayati Raj reforms in the final days. But the key reason is that while rural empowerment took four decades of grass-roots activism, urban decentralization was an afterthought, not fuelled by a similar bottom-up political energy.
As a result, the starting point for democracy in urban areas has been damaged. The result: Meet the urban voter, aka second-class citizen. There are critics who say that rural decentralization doesn’t work either. True, but the two are broken for two opposite reasons—in rural areas, citizens have all the opportunity to participate, but little capacity; in urban areas, citizens have the capacity to participate, but no opportunity. In any event, the impact of democracy cannot be measured simply by dipsticks of development.
So, while we pump up the volume on fixing our urban challenges, let us make sure that we are singing the right tune.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org