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Delhi can beat Tokyo by 2030. But structural issues like CM-LG tussle won’t let it happen

Delhi's political leadership is not representative of urban voters. Priorities of the hinterland trump voices from metros.

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Circa: 1736 CE, in a country called Haryana, which is equivalent to heaven on earth, the Tomars built a city called Dhillika, reads an inscription about the city in Delhi Museum.

From then to now, the fortunes of Delhi have taken many twists and turns. Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the seat of the Governor General and the East India Company, the most important city of the British Empire from 1757 to the first half of the 20th century. The Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai) presidencies were the leading centres of trade, commerce and education, while Delhi gradually lost its ‘salience’. In 1858, it was detached from the erstwhile United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (modern-day Uttar Pradesh) and made part of Punjab. However, the decision to shift the capital in 1911 from Calcutta to Delhi changed the fortunes of this city. By 2030, it is expected to cross Tokyo and emerge as the largest global metropolis.

At the time of India’s Independence, the laurel of being the most populous, as well as the most advanced city in commerce, industry, education and learning, was held by Calcutta. However, in the aftermath of the Partition, and the growing hegemony of Communist parties of all shades, coupled with the freight equalisation policy of the Union government, the ‘city of joy’ lost this status to Bombay, which became the commercial, financial and entertainment capital of India.

Delhi, however, is now challenging this position. At the turn of this century, as per the 2011 Census, Mumbai’s population was the highest in the country. But given Delhi’s higher economic growth rate by 2028, or perhaps even earlier, it can take Mumbai’s place as India’s ‘primus urb’. Thanks to Information Technology and connected services, Bengaluru and Hyderabad compete with Chennai as the top metro destinations of the south, even though the latter still retains its status as India’s ‘health city’. Despite not being a capital city, Ahmedabad, too, is showing signs of exponential growth.

Also read: Governor vs govt not new in India but Constitution doesn’t guarantee a solution

‘Magnets for migrants’

One reason for the unprecedented development in these cities is that they have become ‘magnets for migrants’ because of excellent job opportunities at each level – from security guards to celebrity chefs and professionals in IT, law and healthcare.

These metros no longer depend on their ‘immediate hinterland’ for goods and services; they are now more a part of the global economy than their neighbouring districts. The transformation of urban centres into metropolises augurs well, for it breaks barriers such as gender, class and caste, and provides opportunities for professional growth.

Inadequate political representation stalls growth

The one area where the power of these metropolises is not adequately reflected is their representation in Parliament and respective state assemblies (except Delhi, which has its own unique problems). As readers are probably aware, the last delimitation of constituencies for Parliament was done in 1973 (based on the 1971 Census). For the record, the freeze on delimitation of constituencies was done in 1976 for 25 years and was extended in 2001 for another quarter century.

As the current census (2021) has not started, the delimitation of constituencies for the 2024 Lok Sabha election will have to wait much longer. Thus, the seven MPs from Delhi, six from Mumbai and four from Chennai, are not in a position to adequately reflect the political voice of their voters. As such, the urban voter is not at par in so far as their political representation is concerned. The hope is that the changing demographics of the metros will make politics less parochial. But parties must adapt their political messaging to reflect this transition.

One of the biggest challenges the metros face is that the political leadership that controls and governs them is not representative of the voters. The political, financial and administrative control is with the cabinet, which is responsible to the state legislatures. The priorities of the hinterland and the urban agglomeration are often at variance.

The powers delegated to urban bodies are rather limited. The effective control over land, law, order and urban infra is with the chief minister in the case of states and the Ministry of Home Affairs in the case of union territories like Delhi. The two most important officers in any metropolis are the municipal and police commissioners, who report directly to the state government. As the posting is not for a fixed tenure, the officers have to maintain a fine balance between the appointing authority and their principal stakeholders. However, this gets aggravated in the case of officers working in Delhi, where there are often visible differences between the CM and Lieutenant Governor (like the recent altercation between CM Arvind Kejriwal and LG V.K. Saxena). This makes it extremely difficult for officers to perform their duties ‘without fear or favour’.

It is, therefore, high time for a frank exchange of views among the key stakeholders in urban governance – political parties, civil society, officials of the administration and police, to devise a system that is not just representative and democratic but also transparent and non-discretionary. Of course, this is easier said than done, but let’s at least start discussing the structural issues that afflict urban governance.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step!

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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