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Mihir S Sharma: The India of towns

Politics of division continues to rule in Mumbai - now, pitting Jains/Gujaratis against Marathas and others

Mihir S Sharma  |  New Delhi 

Mihir S Sharma

The ban by Mumbai’s city administration on meat during four days sacred to Jains has rightly been seen as a further imposition of parochial attitudes on to what was once India’s most cosmopolitan city. The old-style politics of division continues to rule in that unfortunate metropolis — now, pitting Jains/Gujaratis against Marathas and others. The principal protagonist on this occasion is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which should cause anyone to view its leaders’ allies against ethnic politics — in Bihar, say — with amusement.

But this raises another question. Why is it that so many of India’s cities, which could be locations for the dissolution of the many barriers that divide us, instead replicate and strengthen them? And is there some link between this and the equally sad and true fact that urban amenities in India are unquestionably second-rate?

Mumbai is a stark, sad example of how not to approach urban issues. Since the 1960s, it has been paralysed by its politics. And it has become ever more subservient to the state that it nominally rules. No state government or politician can afford to let Mumbai improve; as it stands, it is too powerful a source of funds and power. Mantralaya’s restrictions and regulations strangle the city and its amenities, but are exactly what the state’s politicians need. And the divisions that were engendered in the 1960s — beginning with the Congress’ propping up of the Shiv Sena — destroyed the chance that a unified bloc of Mumbaikars would ever stand up and demand a change to this state of affairs.

This model, replicated nationwide, would doom the emergence of more liberal, inclusive and prosperous India, the India its towns could birth. It is already very late to start thinking about better urbanisation. We have been lulled by official statistics into thinking we are still only about a third urban. In fact, as recent work by the IDFC Institute shows, picking up other global best-practice definitions, rather than the outdated ones we use, mean that India might be half urban — or even two-thirds. This urbanisation is not just unplanned and uncomfortable for the inevitable migrants. It also disenfranchises them, and minimises the chances that they can find issues and policies around which they can organise, and transform our politics in the doing.

India was thought of as just a two-tier country: Centre and states. For the British, cities were safely powerless, and control could be ceded to Congress leaders like Nehru or Chittaranjan Das. Sadly, independent India inherited this attitude. The 1980s’ 72nd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, meant to upset this dangerous equilibrium, have rarely been implemented in spirit. Urban administrations continue to be denied power; and migrants to cities continue to struggle for voice.

What do we lose in the process? Look to Delhi for an answer. Its self-government, although hamstrung and diffuse, is greater than India’s other cities can boast. Thus there is far greater accountability than in other places — and the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) only real political innovation, the idea of radical decentralisation, can find fertile root. The prospect of accountability, as opposed to the remoteness offered by the Congress or the BJP to the electorate last January, is the ideological impetus behind the AAP’s sweep of the city-state’s assembly. Behind the tiresome dramebaazi, the AAP’s real politics in power has been a scatter-shot implementation of that agenda: of local health dispensaries, of greater local voice in schooling and, yes, a demand for the same in policing.

This can be pulled off because Delhi is unusual. Most importantly, it has self-government to a degree. But also, the city of refugees is relatively free of the poisonous natives-vs-migrants politics of many other cities. Migrants are not denied the vote. They do not vote en bloc for their ‘own’ parties. In the December 2013 elections, almost half of victorious AAP candidates had connections to eastern Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.

Were cities or urban clusters given real self-government, with the ability to raise their own resources and hold their own government machinery properly accountable, we would find the same policy ferment and experimentation — and local pride — that we have noticed in states over the past decades. What India needs is bottom-up solutions to the problems of urbanisation. True, the Centre has not completely ignored India’s towns. The last government’s urban renewal missions transformed many cities’ sewage, water and transport. And this government has its ‘smart cities’. But these programmes depend, in the end, on top-down approval. States pick projects for their cities, and rely on approval from the Centre. This is very far short of genuine devolution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to get it: Fittingly for someone elected with the backing of peri-urban India, he does not shy away from the idea of an urban India. But, as is often the case with his administration, these good intentions are lost in an imposition of central control and in the branding of a new policy. ‘Smart cities’ are a great idea. But the Centre should not decide what is smart. Implement the 74th Amendment in spirit, and every city in India will decide by itself what ‘smartness’ constitutes.

Perhaps it is too late for Mumbai. Or even for Bengaluru, condemned as of Friday to a BJP-dominated corporation but a Congress mayor, with all the infighting that will ensue. But the towns that are going to grow really fast are the Tier-II towns, the Aurangabads and Gunturs. These are not yet sponges to be squeezed by the states, either. Given self-government, it is they who could build a more inclusive, better India. One without parochial bans, but with public transport that works.;
Twitter: @mihirssharma

First Published: Fri, September 11 2015. 21:37 IST