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Urban crisis: Impact of erosion of democratic framework on Indian cities

By IMPRI Team 

On 13th February, 2023, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi in collaboration with ActionAid Association India arranged a book launch followed by lecture series under the title “India’s G20 Presidency & the Urban Agenda for the Developing Countries”. The event was held in Indian International Centre (IIC) Annex, New Delhi. The event began with the book inauguration session, under the honorary presence of Mr Sitaram Yechury, former Rajya Sabha member and General Secretary, CPI (M), accompanied by Mr Sandeep Chachra, executive director, ActionAid Association India.

Session 1 | Book Launch: ‘Cities in Transition’ by Mr Tikender Singh Panwar

The book launched was “Cities in Transition”, written by Mr Tikender Singh Panwar, former Deputy Mayor, Shimla and a Senior Fellow at IMPRI. Beginning with brief remarks on his book, Mr Panwar outlined the basic subject matter and the purpose behind writing the book, which he considers as a by-product of his experience as a Deputy Mayor for 5 years and then working in New Delhi. Mr Panwar draws our attention towards rethinking the very role of cities, the process of urbanization and the continuous change that is taking place in the cities as we transition from a closed economy to a liberalized economy in the decade of the 1990s. He brilliantly uses the Marxian terminology of use value and exchange value to depict the gradual commodifying of common goods of society like health, education, water etc. by large multi-national companies in the cities and identifies their shifting from finance capital to utilities.
He also refers to the 74th Constitutional Amendment of 1992 and how today’s cities and the concept of Smart Cities actually contradict the visions of the amendment. His remarks were followed by the address by Mr Sitaram Yechury, who drew our attention to the very ideological base upon which today’s metropolitan cities are located, the modern neoliberal framework of governance. He recognized the existing class divide in contemporary Indian cities, expressed through the gated communities on one side and the long stretch of slums on the other side. He finds the cause behind such a situation in the growing usurpation of public goods like health, electricity, education etc. by big private businesses. Mr Yechury considers such a phenomenon as “antithetical” to the very idea of cities, which is based upon inclusivity and accommodations.
By the end, Mr Yechury speaks normatively on the further democratization of Indian cities and societies, through ideas of ‘people’s planning’ and demand for urban commons and bringing the role of the state back along with close popular participation via decentralization process. The lectures were then followed by a brief questions & answers session, where Mr Yechury entertained queries from different scholars and interested audiences. One such attendee commented on the loss of several gram panchayats in Delhi due to growing urbanization and the loss of lands by farmers as they are absorbed by the cities. In response to this, Mr Yechury talked of greater integration of those communities into the decision-making process within the cities and municipalities, providing the power and facilities ward-wise and giving them special treatment under the present Delhi municipal authorities.

Session 2 | Panel Discussion: India’s G20 Presidency and the Urban Agenda for Developing Countries

After the book inauguration session, IMPRI organized a lecture session on the broad theme of the Urban Agenda for Developing Countries. The session was chaired by Mr Sandeep Chachra, the Executive Director, ActionAid Association India. In his opening remarks, he referred to the present exclusivities of the cities, the class divide and argued for a rethinking of the idea of cities as a product of colonialism and a need for a new urban agenda to make cities more accommodative and inclusive. The panellists for the session were Prof Awadhendra Sharan, Director and Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS); Dr Divya Sharma, Executive Director, The Climate Group (Delhi); Prof Jagan Shah, Senior Fellow, Artha Global and Former Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi.
The session began with a lecture by Prof Jagan Shah, who happened to work with the government on the Smart Cities Project. According to him, there has been ideological incoherence within the political establishment regarding the agenda for smart cities, as there have been around three radical ideological shifts in the preparation of the smart city project. Mr Shah emphasized the ability of the cities to adequately carry out the 18 functions that are handed over to the local governments by the 74th Amendment, which currently is not the case; equitability should be the primary vision of local governments. He opines the lack of media coverage on the lives of the subaltern population in the cities, including migrants, who keep the city functioning, unless something terrible happens, like the exodus during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.
Dr Divya Sharma drew attention towards the very issue of climate action and justice when it comes to urban areas. She addresses her concern over the manner in which urbanization is taking place and the lack of mandate on climate change and sustainable development with regard to cities and how climate change would impact urban dwellers in the coming future. Also, instead of resorting to mere disaster management activities to tackle catastrophic events in the cities, she looked at it more at a structural level, like how the cities are built in the first place and whether the city-dwellers have the access to health systems, evacuations and basic needs when it comes to crises and catastrophes- the vulnerabilities of the people are also unevenly distributed. It is the people with the fewest resources and access to facilities who are the most vulnerable to climate risks.
Speaking from her experiences in working in different regions of the country, like in Visakhapatnam and Dibrugarh (Assam), she outlined the conditions of fishermen in Visakhapatnam and their insecurities due to loss of livelihoods and inaccessibility to health and education when a crisis takes place. The last lecture was by Prof Awadhendra Sharan, who brilliantly rethinks upon the very idea of a city with regard to the country’s economy and development. Considering the existing knowledge of the cities in a teleological term, meaning that the future of a city has always been predetermined, due to its colonial legacy, it deprives the people of India to rethink the city as a collective and the right to craft our own future. He also distinguished between probabilistic and possible future. It is the possible future which enables people to imagine a future of their own.
Prof. Sharan refers to Ashis Nandy’s idea of a “hospitable city” based upon “myths of coexistence” and argues for an agenda that ensures a hospitable setup for communities living in a city. He also addressed his concern over the debate on state surveillance, asking to what extent surveillance would work in favour of people during the crisis and when it might become another state weapon. At last, he talks of a decolonized idea of city and urbanization and imagining a city of our own. Chairing the session, Sandeep Chachra mainly brought up the issue of the historically marginalized communities like Dalits, women, tribals etc. in the urban spaces and how they require special attention when it comes to the distribution of facilities.

Session 3 | Panel Discussion: The Cities We Need towards India @2047

The last session was chaired by Mr Tikender Singh Panwar and the panellists were Prof Debolina Kundu, Professor, National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), New Delhi and Prof K. T. Ravindran, Urban Designer, Former Chairman of the Delhi Urban Art Commission. Prof Debolina Kundu pointed out the reductionist attitude towards the cities as a mere zone of economic activities and exchanges and not beyond that. She talks of rethinking the cities as a collective or coming together of people to form new cultures, values and lifestyles and a sense of collective living. She also outlined the urban-rural divide and its further institutionalization in the political establishment and its flaws. Prof Kundu’s lecture was replete with essential data on the fields associated with urban spaces. Looking at the migrant issues, she pointed out the insecurities of the unskilled labourers to be absorbed within the city employment.
Prof. Kundu also doubted if an appropriate governance structure actually exists in India to run the big metropolitan cities, especially when it comes to giving space to the poor and underprivileged. For Prof. Kundu, the first concern is housing the poor with basic amenities, strengthening physical infrastructure and ensuring access to health and education. In the Q&A session for Prof Kundu, she was asked how to better understand the process of housing the poor by the government, since housing policy also needs to tackle questions of “housing where?” and “housing how?”, and if housing is in appropriate conditions. In response to this, Prof. Kundu talked of a greater correspondence between the people to be housed and the government, where the development of housing infrastructure could be carried out by people themselves and it might enable employment generation.
Prof Kundu’s lecture was followed by that of Prof. K.T. Ravindran, who pointed out several probable situations that we as a community of people do not wish to see. Firstly, he said that we do not wish to see our city crumbling under the very foundation upon which it is built. Again, we do not wish to see our coastal cities getting submerged by floods. He also opined that the popular narrative on the increasing world average temperature by 2 per cent is flawed as in real-time such an increase actually means an increase of 4 or 5 per cent. Prof. Ravindran hence prefers the term climate crisis to climate change. The fourth thing that one does not wish to see is people becoming disempowered to determine their own future, as most of the time our decisions for futures are being determined by things we have no control- the global powers including TNCs and MNCs. Lastly, the very inability to recognize or identify the depth of the growing crisis that is present today.
This crisis includes both the erosion of a democratic framework in society and the seriousness of the climate crisis. He also talked of his experiences with the left-led Kerala government’s projects on industrialization in the beginning and how it was later shifted towards a more balanced growth by distancing from industries. It was the realization that the big industries are not the sole recourse to development, but it is the empowerment of creative art forms of the cities. In the Q&A session, a professor from Jamia Millia Islamia talked about imagining an “equitable city” along with the existing term “hospitable city” in order to address the different lived experiences of people from different regions and communities around the country. The session ended with a few comments from the audience who remarked upon the ongoing G-20 meet and the need for an agenda to imagine and move forward towards more hospitable, equitable urban spaces in India.
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Acknowledgement: Gunjan Das, a researcher at IMPRI

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