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Cities, Community Engagement, Monthly Op-eds, People, Urban Planning

Is collaborative city building the new urban utopia? : Part 1 of 3

The global discourse on cities has been fueled over the past decade by the many United Nations annual reports on global urbanization trends; all of them predicting an increasing rise in urban populations. In India alone, the 2016 report predicts that there will be 7 megacities with a population of over 10 million by 2030. But it was the Smart City Mission that brought the conversation about cities to dinner tables in middle class homes. Of course there has been extensive media coverage to attribute this shift to. But the vociferous political marketing strategies of the ruling party at the centre that posit smart cities as a panacea for the urban vote bank are also hard to escape from. Today, as citizens, we can download an app, register our mobile number and lodge a complaint about street lights that don’t work, footpaths that are obstructed by garbage and other such civic issues to relevant departments and expect to have these addressed in a reasonable time frame. But is this really the ideal scenario for public participation in urban governance? Or have we simply leapfrogged to an illusion of it?

In this light, it is useful to bring to attention the original milestone that addressed the idea of public participation in urban governance as early as 1992- the 74th amendment to the Indian constitution. For those unaware, this amendment, also known as the Nagarpalika Act, came into force on 1st June 1993 and gives constitutional status to municipalities as urban local bodies capable of self-governance. This means that States are constitutionally obliged to adopt municipalities as entities constituted through municipal elections and transfer functions from States to these municipalities so that they can function as self-governing units. Other reform components of the Act also include the constitution of a District Planning Committee (DPC), a Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) and a State Finance Commission, to address spatial planning, resource sharing and financial aspects of cities and their neighbouring towns and villages. For citizens, it means being able to participate in planning and decision- making processes through Ward Committees with regard to delivery of services at the ward level.

Furthermore, the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) which was launched in 2005 also mandates the implementation of a Community Participation Law (CPL) and a Public Disclosure Law (PDL). The CPL specifically insists on institutionalizing citizen participation to strengthen municipal governments by setting up ‘Area Sabhas’ (neighbourhood councils). These Area sabhas would be able to prioritize services and budgetary allocation. The PDL mandates municipalities to provide financial and operational information in a structured manner on various municipal services to citizens on a quarterly basis in order to promote efficiency and consistency in the delivery of these services . The PDL is also a preemptive measure to reduce the work load of municipalities in responding to queries under the Right to Information Act by periodically making such information public on its own.

With all these Acts in place, it would seem like there would be fairly high levels of public participation in India but unfortunately this is far from the truth. So what are the challenges?

1. Access to information
Ironically, despite various legal provisions, the dissemination of information with regard to plans, processes and budgetary allocations for public goods and services still remains largely inaccessible and/or obscure to a majority of citizens.

A page out of the 2017-18 municipal budget for the city of Chennai. How do we even go about making sense of a 190 page document with budget items such as hospitality expenses, association membership and prizes and awards?

2. The slow pace of basic service delivery
The lack of access to basic services to all citizens hampers participation in addition to denying a decent standard of living. Put simply, it is unlikely that citizens who struggle to get by daily life in cities because of gaps in delivery of key services such as transportation, electricity, water supply and drainage will have time and energy to participate in initiatives for collective action for the larger populace.

3. General lack of capacity amongst stakeholders
Perhaps because the pace of urbanization is too rapid it is a sad reality that there is limited capacity amongst stakeholders- be it from the citizens side or from the municipality’s side- to find ways to communicate and collaboratively address urban challenges innovatively and swiftly. In many cases, not acknowledging this lack of capacity is also proving to be a major road block.

4. Lack of commitment by municipalities to prioritize public participation
Municipalities, especially in large metropolitan cities lack a commitment to prioritize public participation for various reasons. For instance, in the case of public consultations for development plans, the procedure that is generally followed is a notice in major newspapers and/or relevant websites inviting citizens to a venue where a presentation is made. These presentations hardly speak of the impact of such plans to the citizens at large and therefore the scope for dialogue is diminished. Occasionally, there is fear of exposure which also prevents municipalities from seeking public participation.

Types of Public Participation

5. Failure to recognize and work closely with community based organizations
Municipalities continue to have trouble identifying and absorbing the efforts of community based organizations towards better delivery of municipal services. Another problem in this regard is also the constant blame game between municipalities and community based organizations which further weakens a productive relationship.

6. Politicization of participatory structures
The penetration of party politics into municipal elections is truly the most problematic of challenges. This is mostly a result of unwillingness of the State government to give up its powers to ULBs as per legal mandate. An effective way to circumvent this is therefore to field party workers as candidates in ward elections thereby ensuring that despite adhering to the transfer of powers, the state government continues to exercise a level of control over the ULBs through these candidates. The worst case scenario here is actually when the winning candidate in a ward election does not belong to the State ruling party; he/she does not manage to elicit much funding in comparison to wards that have corporators who belong to the ruling party. All of this alters the ward-level dynamics severely whereby actual concerned citizens of a particular ward are unable to find a voice through established structures of participation and citizens are forced to vote for the candidate from the State ruling party in order to ensure continued patronage for services.

Is there a way forward?

More so over the past decade, cities around the world are experimenting ways to reform urban governance processes through participatory planning. Subsequent posts in this series will highlight some of these efforts. So really, it’s not all dull and bleak. Just that for every success story from one part of the world, there is a Brexit moment from another that came out of a similar democratic structure of decision-making. Nevertheless, even if collaborative city building may require taking a journey down the road less traveled, it still needs to be acknowledged as a viable utopia.

About Vidhya Mohankumar

Vidhya Mohankumar is an architect and urban designer with over a decade of work experience in India, Ireland and the United States and a passion for creating livable cities. She is the founder of Urban Design Collective (UDC), a collaborative platform for architects, urban designers and planners to create livable cities through participatory planning. Vidhya also advocates sustainable development through training and capacity building programmes for various stakeholder groups and also within academia through her association with a number of universities as guest faculty. In other parallel albeit real universes, she is a wishful artist, an avid wanderer, a constant gardener and a newly enthused cook.



  1. Pingback: Building Capacity for Participation: Part 2 of 3 | Urban Design Collective - April 2, 2018

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