Home / Opinion / Views /  India urgently requires resilient and empowered cities

Cities across the world contribute about 80% of global gross domestic product. They are drivers of growth and dense labour marketplaces. However, recent developments have highlighted the severe economic, humanitarian and ecological repercussions of the unbalanced and unbridled growth of urban spaces.

This ‘cost’ of urban growth is evident in floods that occur in several parts of India. Unbalanced development has made cities more vulnerable to environmental shocks that get more frequent and intense. A World Resources Institute India report notes temperature rise and flooding as two key risks to Mumbai, whose municipal commissioner has highlighted the possibility of 70-80% submergence of key parts of the city by 2050.

The pandemic itself threw light on the implications of a systemic health shock—an exodus of city residents who moved to the safety of their homes. This mass movement of labour paralysed industrial units, apart from civic and other services in cities.

So, equitable and sustainable cities are the only solution to balancing the need for economic growth with the needs of people and the environment. Yet, this is easier said than done, due to several reasons:

As rural areas transform into cities or as cities grow larger, it is often accompanied by a rapid escalation in land prices. In developing countries, growth results in a kind of “adolescent urbanization", i.e., rapid growth that is reactive to developments (rather than proactive). Often, the short-term solutions implemented don’t keep pace with the city’s changing face.

While cities are significant generators of economic value, the responsibility for running them is usually less local and more disaggregated. State governments struggle to delegate power to local governments. As a result, there is no single city with a holistic view of its administration. Instead, there are many different departments running a city both from a planning perspective as well as for the provision of government services. This hampers the way city infrastructure and land usage get rolled out and increases the challenges for citizens in their interactions with the city administration.

A combination of the above results in large informality in how people live. Around 50% of a city’s population occupies 10% of the land, typically, and according to government data for 2016-17, 26-37 million families in urban India reside in informal housing. Lack of quality housing is accompanied by poor access to state services like water, sanitation and health. These areas are also more susceptible to natural disasters and crises.

The 74th amendment was a significant one for our Constitution and cities. It envisaged city planning, land-use regulation and city services to be managed by local governments in a holistic way. Most importantly, it set out the basis for local empowered governments and active citizen participation. However, its roll-out is still slow in most cities.

What will it take to truly empower our city governments? Praja’s Urban Governance Index offers some answers. According to its framework, an empowered city government is the first step towards building equitable and sustainable cities. The index consists of four themes: 1) Empowered city-elected representatives and legislative structure; 2) Empowered city administration; 3) Empowered citizens; and 4) Fiscal empowerment.

The index shows that there is much to be done in all the four areas nationally, with only two states scoring more than 50 points.

Our health and environment emergencies have helped reiterate an urgent need to invest in resilience that urban elected representatives, the bureaucracy and citizens must take note of. There is also a realization that elected local governments, citizens and technology can work together, like they did for vaccine rollouts and to tackle the spread of covid.

Institutionalizing this at scale may need a combination of structural changes, fiscal incentives and active citizen participation. There are three possible ways to get started on this process.

First, we could invest in building capacity of those empowered to make decisions on our behalf. Municipal councillors are critical in this journey, given their structured participation in city processes and better understanding of available resources and citizen needs. Praja’s councillor rankings for two cities (Delhi and Mumbai) were helpful in understanding the capacity and awareness challenge faced by them as well as the lack of a support system for them to perform their duties effectively.

Second, we must enhance the understanding citizens have of a city’s working and their ability to be a part of local governance. Organizations like Mahila Housing Trust are attempting to innovatively do this at scale in places like Delhi and Gujarat, working with women in informal urban communities and helping them convene, aggregate their issues, approach the appropriate authorities and resolve issues.

Last, technology can be the connective tissue that enables a data-based dialogue between local governments and the citizenry. Most cities have adopted a tech backbone in some form. This can be turned into a city data hub that is easily accessible to citizens and municipal employees for grievance redressal, or for sharing information on government services. A “phygital" layer and involvement of the Central Statistics Office will be critical to drive adoption.

Shilpa Kumar is partner, Omidyar Network India

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