Home >Opinion >Urban India needs a bigger say in politics

Pakistan is now debating a historic electoral reforms legislation called the Election Act 2017, where “provisional census data" will be used for delimitation; i.e. redrawing the boundaries of the various assembly and parliamentary constituencies based on a recent census.

Under the law, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is empowered to carry out delimitation of constituencies of the national assembly, provincial assemblies as well as local bodies. However, a fresh legislation is required to allow the ECP to do so on the basis of the census results. A delimitation exercise was last done by former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf before the 2002 general election.

The present delimitation of constituencies in India has been done on the basis of the 2001 census under the provisions of Delimitation Act, 2002. Delimitation commissions have been set up four times in the past—1952, 1963, 1973 and 2002—under Delimitation Commission Acts of 1952, 1962, 1972 and 2002. The government had suspended delimitation in 1976 until after the 2001 census so that states’ family planning programmes would not affect their political representation in the Lok Sabha. This had led to wide discrepancies in the size of constituencies, with the largest having over three million electors, and the smallest less than 50,000. The Constitution of India was specifically amended in 2002 not to have delimitation of constituencies till the first census after 2026.

These conversations are also extremely relevant to the conversation on urban governance in India, where the national and state governments hold the power and purse strings to urban planning and policy. This has led to inefficient governance and even neglect of cities, a dangerous trend in a nation that is urbanizing somewhat quickly. The government should re-examine the way constituencies are re-drawn based on population growth in India’s next delimitation exercise, to be held after 2026.

At present, local governments and urban dwellers don’t have much say in the urban planning apparatus, and urban under-representation at state and national levels is leading to political neglect. For example, in Maharashtra, India’s most urbanized state, 47% of the populace lives in urban constituencies and yet, these constituencies hold only 31% of assembly seats. This disparity is replicated across states assemblies and the Lok Sabha, which are the loci of funding decisions, and will only worsen as the urban share of India’s population grows rapidly. According to India’s 11th Five Year Plan (2005-2011), between 2005 and 2011, national funds allocated for rural development were 11 times the amount allocated for urban development. In that period, urban population growth surpassed rural population growth for the first time in India’s history.

In 1979, R.M. Northam published an “urbanization curve" that showed the percentage of people in a nation who live in cities over time. The curve splits urbanization into three stages, from a low-growth phase to an acceleration period, followed by a plateau. India is currently on the cusp of the middle “acceleration stage", with 33% of Indians living in cities. By 2040, we will move to the upper part of the acceleration stage, with about 40% urbanization. China will grow from being 50-70% urban. Latin American, North American and European counterparts are already over 70% urban and have reached the curve’s plateau.

All indications and future projections suggest that India will not urbanize as quickly as some Latin American nations. Several uniquely Indian factors, such as a lack of jobs and land holdings in villages, however small, are all reasons for a slower rate. The period of transition will likely be 30-50 years, and governance during this time will be complicated and challenging.

Any conversation about urbanization in India always veers towards the need for empowered mayors for our cities. Comparisons are quickly made to cities like Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, London, New York where mayoral leadership played transformational role and improved quality of life. Mayors ran elections on published manifestoes to address congestion, crime, etc., through assured implementation of projects. Many a times they were from opposition parties or independents. But since they were in countries with over 70% urbanization, they had representation that ensured the ability to seek necessary resources for their projects from the national and state governments.

In India, the lack of proportional representation of cities in state governments is a big challenge. For truly empowered mayors to get elected, political representation has to align with population representation at the state and national level. Even if we have elected mayors, they will not have the ability to seek necessary resources from states due to the lack of representation and will always be dictated by the state’s chief minister.

One way to address this challenge would be to improve the representation of urban constituencies in decisionmaking. This can be done through delimitation, the process of redrawing constituency boundaries based on population. India should ensure that the delimitation process is not delayed too much beyond 2026. The process of implementation tends to take five-eight years. For instance, the constituencies developed by the Delimitation Commission of India in 2000 were legislated in 2007 and used for the first time in Karnataka’s 2008 elections. Would it be possible to do the post 2026 delimitation based not on an older census, but on a 2041 or 2051 provisional census? If the answer is yes, conversations to discuss timelines for delimitation exercise and use of provisional census data need to start immediately.
Madhav Pai is director, WRI India Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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