Wednesday, 17 August, 2022
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Liberate our cities

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You have to give it to the very young South Bombay MP for having started a debate ‘ on these pages ‘ over why things went wrong in Mumbai on July 26. His larger view ‘ that things will keep going on like this if nobody feels accountable for a city ‘ has already resulted in a stream of responses, some in agreement, some in angry rejection.

Why have some cities done better over the past decade even while others declined? Why has Delhi improved so dramatically while Mumbai has gone steeply downhill? Why have Gurgaon and Noida blossomed as new high-tech, BPO destinations, while Bangalore is so choked even giants headquartered there are thinking of moving out? Why has Chandigarh survived while ‘ less than 150 km north of it ‘ Shimla has become a multi-storey slum?

Here is a hypothesis: cities controlled by those whose votes belong there, in the same cities, do fine. Cities ruled by those whose votes belong elsewhere go into slow death.

Delhi works, because its chief minister has to only get votes in the city to get re-elected. Even in a limited statehood situation where the elected government has no control over law and order and what is known as the NDMC zone (mainly Lutyens Delhi), the focus does not shift. Politicians are driven by votes, and by prospects of making money. In a set-up like Delhi, opportunities for both are right here.

Also read: Delhi disconnect 

Imagine, for example, if Delhi was a part of Uttar Pradesh or Haryana. The state government, then, would have collected a majority of its votes in the countryside where factors other than Delhi’s traffic, pollution, power or water supply would have played out. Its stake in the city would have been limited to that extent. So what if the people of Delhi are angry? Do they know what’s going on in the countryside, where people do not even have two square meals? That does not happen now. Even in an East Delhi slum, a migrant day-wager from Eastern Uttar Pradesh now generally votes on the basis of whether his quality of life has improved or worsened in Delhi, rather than follow equations of caste in the manner that his family back in the village might. He is checking out Sheila Dikshit or Madan Lal Khurana’s performance, here and now. He does not have to suffer a government elected elsewhere and shoved down his throat.

Chandigarh is a different case study. While old-timers may rue the arrival of some DDA-type apartment blocks and violation of the very exacting architectural norms inherited from Le Corbusier, by and large the city has grown and prospered. Would it have happened if it had been given over to Punjab (or Haryana, for that matter)? It is the city’s Union Territory status, along with the institution of local-level democracy, an elected municipal corporation, that has saved it from the ravages of state-level politics. Shimla has no such luck.

Nor do Mumbai and Bangalore. Both are prime examples of cities getting reduced to no more than colonies of the states to which they belong. Whatever the size of these cities, the number of MLAs they send to the assembly is a fraction of the majority. So a Deve Gowda, Dharam Singh, Sushil Kumar Shinde or Vilasrao Deshmukh is not heart-broken if the city rots. The resource that the city generates, particularly taxes and sale of real estate, is happily moved to the countryside because that is where the votes are. In our post-May 2004 Rural versus Urban discourse, this has become even more convenient. You ask Gowda or Dharam Singh why Bangalore is languishing and their first, instinctive answer is, but what about the poor in the villages? That running a state versus nurturing a city is not a zero sum game is beyond the comprehension of our politicians. Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil personifies this. Through the peak of the Mumbai crisis he has been missing in action. Could he have ignored his constituency similarly? His only “contribution” to Mumbai has been the closure of dance bars so he can probably score a few points with his voters back home because he stopped at least one “immoral” activity in that big, bad city of the rich.

Also read: Mumbye

If some focus has now returned on Bangalore, it is because of the collective pressure from the captains of its tech industry, media and the Congress high command. In Mumbai, just the magnitude of the calamity, the humiliation of having to air-drop food packets in India’s largest, richest metro, will force some change. How long for, nobody can say. Already the state’s politicians have begun complaining about the flooded interiors getting ignored because of the focus on Mumbai.

Many of Mumbai’s angry leading lights have been asking for drastic action. Free the city from the clutches of the state’s politicians, make it autonomous, give it a mayor with the powers of a Giuliani or Bloomberg. Or, that it should simply refuse to pay taxes. These are shots fired in anger but none of this is going to happen. In no state will political interests allow their crown jewels to go away. Forget Maharashtra and Karnataka, do you even imagine Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu letting Hyderabad or Chennai become union territories?

But you have to find a solution for the cities and change the nature of the discourse from Rural versus Urban to Rural and Urban. Learn from Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. He had such an unchallenged sway over the Bengal countryside and yet saw the wisdom of investing in Kolkata. It is no surprise that, besides Delhi, it is the only other large city that is getting better. And its people are rewarding him by voting Left, something they had eschewed so far. Now you know why Mamata-di is so angry.

But most politicians do not have similar foresight. So, while they will neither invest time, money nor emotion in their cities, nor allow them to break free of state government control, can you at least take them and their governments away from them? In the US, for example, almost no major city is the seat of the government of the state to which it belongs. The capital of New York state is in quiet Albany and California’s is not in Los Angeles or San Francisco but in nondescript Sacramento. What if you shifted the capital of Maharashtra to, say Satara or Sangli, and Karnataka’s to Hubli or even Mysore. It would de-congest Mumbai and Bangalore, save them from some day-to-day politicking and also result in the building of more cities. An added, but significant, bonus will be the opportunity for politicians to make lots more money in real estate as land is acquired and prices boom around the new capital. This is one reason Gurgaon and Noida have been allowed to bloom so nicely by politicians of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. This could also address independent India’s one big failing ‘ its inability to build new cities in the manner the Chinese have done. The idea may look far-fetched for now, but let’s at least start talking about it.

Also read: And a Gold for Delhi


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