Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Indian cities need better leadership

India's political structure hinders the administration of growing cities

Many of the brightest stars of the Indian independence movement had their first exposure to administration in their respective municipalities. C. Rajagopalachari was elected chairman of the Salem municipality in 1917. Jawaharlal Nehru was chairman of the Allahabad municipal board in 1923. Chittaranjan Das became mayor of Kolkata a year later. Subhash Chandra Bose held the post in 1930. The mayor of Patna in 1936 was Rajendra Prasad. Vallabhbhai Patel was active in the Ahmedabad municipality for many years.

There is now an overdue recognition that Indian cities are the main crucibles of economic change. The old Gandhian shibboleths about village life have been pushed aside by the Ambedkarite argument for urbanization. The Constitution was amended in 1993 to provide official recognition to urban bodies as a third level of administration. The 13th Finance Commission headed by Vijay Kelkar gave teeth to that amendment by providing for direct transfer of national tax revenues to cities (and other local bodies) to replace the previous practice of routing them through state governments.

All these changes are important given the backdrop of a country that is rapidly urbanizing. The 2011 census showed that the cities added more to their population than the villages did in the previous decade, the first time this has happened in India since governments began to collect data. The rate of increase of rural populations has plummeted in most states, though highly-populated states such as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa are important exceptions. A simple extrapolation from the recent data suggests that 27 Indian states are likely to begin seeing shrinking rural populations in the current decade. Meanwhile, many villages are looking like towns in terms of their population concentration as well as the growing share of non-farm work in their economic profiles.

India does not have the political structures required to run its growing cities with large budgets. One of the key problems is the lack of quality political leadership at the third level of government (the problem is perhaps even more acute in the village panchayats). The two are linked: talented politicians are unlikely to be attracted to a job that has little power while handing over more power to city governments will backfire unless the quality of urban leadership improves. Much of the debates on devolution seem to bypass this key obstacle. Indian cities need the quality of political leadership that was available many decades ago, when people of the calibre of Nehru, Patel, Bose, Rajagopalachari and Prasad led city governments.

Several countries in the world have empowered mayors. New York mayors such as Rudy Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg can be effective because they have power; Boris Johnson has far more freedom to manage London than his Indian counterparts; the campaign to bring the Olympics to Rio de Janeiro has been led by mayor Eduardo Paes; even many Chinese cities have been hothouses for political talent that later went national. In India, state governments that have traditionally been run by rural elites have not been keen to hand power to city governments that are usually treated as cash cows to fund patronage networks in the hinterland. The way Karnataka politicians have treated Bangalore or Maharashtra politicians have treated Mumbai are two obvious examples.

India is finally coming around to the reality that cities are the main drivers of economic growth, innovation, social mobility and opportunities. Millions are pouring into our cities. The country has to prepare for this momentous change in its demographic profile. A walk down any Indian city provides enough proof about how badly the job is being done.

Both Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi have spoken about the need to build new cities to help the process of urbanization. That is a plan worth pursuing but our existing cities also need to be upgraded; in fact, urbanists such as Jane Jacobs have quite convincingly argued that the spontaneous growth of cities is more dynamic than technocratic neatness.

Programmes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission are welcome because they signal the growing importance of urban development in India. But the scheme sometimes resembles the handouts of an imperial government to its colonial outposts if they behave well. The greater devolution of tax revenues to cities based on the recommendation of the Finance Commission is also welcome. But there is much more that it needed—from greater freedom to pursue policies to the growth of a municipal bond market that gives cities more financial leverage.

But holding all this together will have to be mayors with enough powers to attract top-notch political talent. Both the national parties claim to be keen on decentralization. They should back that claim with concrete policy proposals that create the conditions for more effective urban governance.

Should Indian cities be granted more autonomy?