Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (L) | Flickr
Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (L) | Flickr
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Low voter turnout in India’s big cities is a problem we are aware of, but it is citizen engagement — of which voting is just a small part — that is the bigger factor responsible for the quality of life in urban settlements. It’s important to understand how engagement can be strengthened in different ways, beyond addressing the bottlenecks for improving the right to franchise.

India is witness, today, to poor infrastructure and service delivery in cities across basic amenities, which include, but are not limited to, good quality pedestrian and road infrastructure, water and sanitation, solid waste management, open spaces like parks, playgrounds and lakes, safety, and air pollution. As India continues to urbanise at a rapid pace, these challenges are only likely to worsen. Moreover, levels of citizenship are low with limited scope for people to participate in civic life through decentralised formal government platforms, and limited knowledge on navigating complicated pathways for engagement with the State. Civic participation can help improve quality of life. Also, improved citizenship is an end in itself. In a democracy, citizen participation lies at the heart of the concept of quality of life.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted the need for and effective nature of hyper-local engagement with citizens to ensure their basic necessities. Administration of many critical and effective response mechanisms were done at this level, whether it be contact tracing, home isolation, quarantining or distribution of ration kits. But ten months into the pandemic, conversations around bringing governance closer to people are already dying down as we slowly ‘normalise’ again. India’s cities are in crisis regardless of the pandemic, and engagement needs to be strengthened across many layers of civic life to ensure greater quality of life for citizens.


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Citizens and bureaucracy

Urban citizens’ experience while engaging with the bureaucracy is nowhere smooth, even for something as basic as availing documents such as an Aadhaar, BPL card, caste certificate or voter ID. These documents are essential for availing services, especially for the urban poor. They ensure access to rations, government schemes, gas cylinders, and of course, to exercise the right to vote. However, there’s no centralised access point to avail these documents, nor a standardised process for doing so for different cards as well as a large gamut of supporting documents needed to apply.  In addition, you need an Aadhaar card to avail a caste certificate or the BPL card in some states and, at times, furnishing a BPL card is also mandatory to apply for a caste certificate (in Tamil Nadu for example). Janaagraha’s research, in partnership with Brown University, has found that the urban poor are less likely to have the ownership of these documents than other citizens of the city.

While some online options are available in select states, our data shows that often when citizens have managed to secure an identity document, they have done it through by-passing the system and approaching an elected representative, most notably the local corporator in ULBs. For example, 70 per cent of the urban poor in Mumbai approached their local corporator for a BPL card rather than the government department responsible. Simplifying the process and localising the access point for identity cards at the ward-level is one critical step towards building a more equitable infrastructure and service delivery. Karnataka is a limited example of how this can be done. It has an integrated citizen service project by the name of Karnataka One, available both online and offline in 17 cities (for example Bangalore One centres) across the state.


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Engagement for service delivery issues

The infrastructure around civic services such as water, electricity and sanitation varies with city and service, and sometimes falls under the ambit of the municipal corporations, or parastatal organisations that generally report to the state governments. Citizen engagement again falters when people seek services, but don’t receive the desired response from the authorities. Early indications from our research show that municipality offices and parastatals have a poor record at fixing problems, and often solicit bribes. For example, in Hyderabad, out of those who contacted the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation office to get a sanitation issue addressed, only 43 per cent reported their problem resolved.

The proportion of citizens who reported their electricity issues resolved after approaching the Telangana State Southern Power Distribution Company Ltd. or water supply issues to the Hyderabad Water Supply and Sewerage Board isn’t encouraging either — 62 per cent and 45 per cent respectively. Moreover, in all cases in Hyderabad, visiting the agency directly rather than by phone saw worse resolution rates. Additionally, 82 per cent or more of those in Hyderabad who visited the corporation office or the relevant civic agency in person when faced with a sanitation, electricity or water supply issue, reported being asked to pay a bribe.

The infrastructure of these governance structures on basic service delivery is far removed from citizens on the ground. Given these poor resolution and engagement figures, it is perhaps not surprising that some citizens turn to other, more local avenues for help. In Hyderabad for example, between 12-16 per cent (depending on the service) turned either to their local corporator, or an intermediary such as the elected representative/MLA, a private agency/middle man, or local leader or church/NGO representative. A much larger proportion of citizens had a positive resolution (75-85 per cent) to their issues when they approached their elected representatives compared to those visiting the agency responsible (16-20 per cent). Greater resolution from elected representatives also held true, though to a lesser extent, when compared with calling the civic agency for water issues (67 per cent resolution) and sanitation issues (69 per cent resolution), while electricity was similar (88 per cent resolution).

Formally devolving the accountability of service delivery to a more local level such as the local corporator who looks after, and is much more familiar with, his/her smaller ward-unit, could surely ease the distress.


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Community engagement

At the community level, citizens’ aspirations for their local areas are also seldom heard or acted upon. Formal platforms for engagement are limited despite mandates passed for their enactment. The Constitution (74th Amendment) Act of 1992 mandated the formation of ward committees under municipalities in Indian cities to facilitate dialogue between citizens and city governments. Furthermore, the Community Participation Law (CPL), a reform that was part of Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), introduced the concept of area sabhas – groups linked to ward committees and ensuring hyper-local engagements at the polling booth level. Despite these constitutional provisions for the devolution of power, implementation on the ground has remained a distant dream. As per Praja Foundation’s recent report on urban democracy, only nine cities out of the 29 surveyed have functional ward committees.  Janaagraha’s Annual Survey of City Systems (ASICS) 2017 report shows that out of India’s major cities, only Hyderabad and Guwahati have constituted area sabhas in all wards.

The 74th constitutional amendment also devolved 18 functions to local governments in the anticipation that this would open up more avenues for engagement between cities and citizens at the local level. However, states have shown reluctance to devolve these functions to local governments. So far, as per Janaagraha’s ASICS 2017 report, an average of only 9 functions have been effectively devolved by the states. This restricts the efficacy of engagements at the local level with limited actions possible by city governments in response to citizens’ aspirations.


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Decentralisation is key

Bringing governance closer to citizens and strengthening mechanisms for engagement at the local level is key to improving quality of life in India’s cities. Whether it is for availing bureaucratic needs like identity cards, dealing with service issues, considering communities’ aspirations, or critical needs such as pandemics, decentralised administration and engagement is key. Local engagements allow for greater clarity in priority setting and problem solving through deeper and clearer understanding of issues and needs essential to good quality of life. In essence, citizens should have platforms and avenues to engage locally and local governments should be empowered to respond.

Katie Pyle heads the Research & Insights team at Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, based in Bengaluru. Tarun Arora is a Project Manager in the Research & Insights team at Janaagraha Centre. Views are personal.

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