Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Organizing for urban governance

Most often, policies crafted by bureaucrats are riddled with paradoxes because of their limited understanding of urban issues

India is one of the few countries to have had a separate ministry and minister for housing and urban poverty alleviation and for urban development. Further fragmentation of the urban portfolio across ministries at the centre is another issue.

For example, private vehicles, radio taxis, and online transport aggregators are all governed by the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, that falls under the purview of the ministry of road transport and highways, while waterways comes under the ministry of shipping.

Some of this fragmentation is the result of political accommodation.

Fortunately, under National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, both the housing and the urban development ministries are headed by a single minister.

While a welcome change, this is merely an incremental step since the bureaucracies running the two ministries seldom work towards similar policy objectives.

In the past, bureaucracies in the two ministries could at best be coerced to work together by the powerful, erstwhile Planning Commission due to its powers to allocate plan finance. With the NITI Aayog, which replaced the commission, not having those powers, it is now really up to the minister and the prime minister to align bureaucrats.

Combining portfolios, reducing fragmentation

The government that will be elected in 2019 should combine the two ministries at the centre with one secretary in charge of both the housing and the urban development portfolios. Further, an officer of the rank of additional secretary should be given charge of metropolitan areas, given the scale of complexity in such cities is different from that of non-metros.

In addition, joint secretaries with separate charge of housing, civic services, land and development office, capacity building and reforms, and poverty alleviation, should be supported with a series of expert advisers from the private sector, the academia, and the government, who understand the vexing political economy of urban reforms and can help guide policymaking.

Most often, policies crafted by bureaucrats are riddled with paradoxes because of their limited understanding of urban issues.

The weaknesses in design of the Housing for All by 2022 programme bear testimony to this.

Turning to the states, neither the situation nor the reform approach they need to adopt is different. In fact, in some states such as Maharashtra, the urban portfolio is distributed across two officers, principal secretary–urban development I and principal secretary–urban development II, while housing is with another officer, and transport is distributed across departments.

The situation is further confounded with the various state-owned agencies that have overlapping roles and are often beholden to the various political outfits.

Maharashtra State Road Development Corp. (MSRDC), Maharashtra Housing and Area DevelopmentAuthority (Mhada), City and Industrial Development Corp. of Maharashtra (Cidco), Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), and Bombay Port Trust are actively involved along with the local bodies in the development of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

It’s essential to bring in qualified talent—both laterally and through the ranks—to help address issues and to draft policies while understanding the trade-offs being made, and actively involving citizens and civil society in the process.

Entrech mayors in the political hierarchy

Rarely have mayors risen to high ranks within political parties in India. While the mayor is the leader of the political executive of the municipal corporation, this is largely a ceremonial position.

The powers are vested in the municipal commissioner who runs this administrative body and, in most instances, is an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer.

Using the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai as an example helps comprehend this dynamic better. Mumbai has a total of 227 elected representatives, with the mayor heading the electoral wing, and this position is coterminous with that of the legislative council.

Further, within the framework of the Mumbai Municipal Act, 1888, nine collateral authorities are mandated to be constituted with the more important ones being the Standing Committee, the Improvements Committee, the BEST Committee, the Education Committee, and the Ward Committees, each of which is deliberative in nature.

Seldom does the mayor chair the Standing Committee that is at the forefront of driving policy decisions at the corporation.

Further, mayors are often subjected to rotation by political parties, and only occasionally is a mayor allowed to complete a full term.

The appointment of Devendra Fadvanis as chief minister of Maharashtra after serving as the mayor of Nagpur is an exception rather than a norm in Indian politics.

Campaigning for city elections is most often led by the state unit leader of political parties that lack strong democratic processes to choose and nominate local leaders who fight from the front.

Moreover, rarely do entrants aspire for the mayoral job as a way to rise within the party ranks.

On the other hand, in China, succeeding in a mayoral job is the route to climb within the party ranks.

For example, since 1987, six of the nine individuals who have held the office of the mayor of Shanghai went on to become members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, Central Committee.

As India urbanizes rapidly, the political parties will be well served by according importance to this job, allowing mayors to complete a full term, and using this position as a training ground for leaders to ascend to state- and national-level politics.

India’s vote is set to shift from rural to urban areas and, once seats are reallocated based on the 84th and 87th constitutional amendments, the numbers of seats elected by urban India are set to increase exponentially.

Sunali Rohra is an independent urban expert and co–founder of the Urban Institute of India. This is the second in a series on urban governance adapted from her essay A Ten-Point Programme to Transform India’s Urban Governance, published in the book The Making of Vibrant Cities.

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