India in 10 years: Who is in charge of our cities?
The Constitution currently divides subjects of governance between three lists—Union, state and concurrent. As a start perhaps, a “City List” ought to be added
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I got involved with road safety nine years ago after losing a 16-year-old cousin to a road accident in Kanpur. He bled to death on the side of the road while bystanders watched, letting the fear of subsequent police questioning get the better of their instinct to help. We all know what being helpless feels like and I felt helpless and angry when I learnt that my cousin’s life could have been saved.
I set up the SaveLIFE Foundation but despite some early successes, I realized that stand-alone solutions would be inadequate without an overarching legal framework to formally define, support and nurture them. I quit my private sector job and built a team of committed professionals to campaign for such a framework for road safety in India.
The last three years have seen our efforts come to fruition. In a landmark win, the Supreme Court and Union government stepped in to provide nationwide protection from legal hassles to good samaritans who assist the injured. This unprecedented reform covering the police, judiciary and healthcare system is expected to save over 75,000 lives annually. Another change we campaigned for is also on its way; Parliament is discussing a major amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. Once passed, it will finally provide a framework for road safety in India.
But is this sufficient to save lives on our roads? A law is only as good as its execution, and the implementation of these laws requires close coordination between multiple agencies. Road transport offices, the police, public works departments, municipal agencies and emergency services, all have a vital role to play in road safety.
Yet in the fragmented jurisdictional construct of state and local government, these departments operate independently, often in their own silos. This is true not just for road safety, but many similarly complex issues involving multiple stakeholders. The challenge becomes exacerbated when it comes to our cities. With no clear leadership and overlapping powers between multiple agencies, chaos wins over implementation.
The 74th constitutional amendment of 1992 was meant to empower local urban governments but the answer to “who is in charge in our cities” is still not clear. Delhi, for instance, has a chief minister, a lieutenant governor and three mayors, with overlapping powers.
Mumbai has a single mayor but the role is largely ceremonial as powers are vested in the municipal commissioner, who has the final say in municipal matters. Capital cities still get some semblance of attention by virtue of having the entire state machinery based there, but what about the next-tier cities? What about the likes of Pune, Surat, Nagpur, Ghaziabad, Varanasi and Kanpur, screaming out for leadership and accountability?
According to the UN, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, and India is among the countries leading this trend. With city populations rising exponentially, resources depleting rapidly, and no one in charge, imagine what the situation will be like in our cities just 15 years from now. The need of the hour is to elect or appoint a clear in-charge in each of our cities.
Several non-profits and think tanks have proposed a system with an empowered, directly elected mayor with budgetary control and a final say in crucial matters pertaining to the city. This proposal, however, has not seen much traction with state governments; their concern being devolution of executive and budgetary powers. Instead of imposing a predefined structure on a city, it may be prudent to first expand the list of subjects that fall within the purview of a city or a metropolitan area, rather than a municipality.
The Constitution currently divides subjects of governance between three lists—Union, state and concurrent. As a start perhaps, a “City List” ought to be added to recognize cities as independently governable entities.
State governments must then decide how best to implement the list and agree to provide financial autonomy to cities regardless of the system chosen. Such autonomy may rest with an appointed chief executive officer or a directly elected mayor, as the states deem fit.
All such models require a thorough debate but there is no doubt that the time has come to have these debates and take decisive action to save our cities. The late writer Italo Calvino once noted: “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answers it gives to a question of yours”—and the question staring our cities right now is, “Who’s in charge?”
Piyush Tewari is the founder of the SaveLIFE Foundation and an Edward S Mason Fellow at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government
This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here