Politics begins at home

We spend a lot of time talking about national politics in India, with the general elections in 2014 being a subject of conversations for well over a year now. Conversations on state level politics take up the remainder of our time. In contrast, many of the problems that we face on a day to day basis are municipal in nature: be it the lack of good roads and public transport, unreliable power supply, unsafe drinking water or garbage that lines our streets.

Who becomes your next corporator or local council member is perhaps as important as who becomes the next prime minister of India, but a curious inversion of interests means that we care a lot more about the latter than the former. When municipal elections took place in Karnataka earlier this year, much of the analysis and debate was about what the results meant for the soon-to-come state assembly elections. Who became corporators, won control of municipal councils and what they planned to do for their towns and cities remained a distant afterthought in most of our minds.

Cities are also complex systems that require sophistication and professional input. To improve Bangalore’s roads, for example, needs our elected representatives to ensure multiple things. The roads need a high quality of construction and functioning drains that clear the roads of stagnant water. The roads also need a well-planned traffic network accompanied by a good backbone of public transport. We also need better systems of coordination for what roads get dug up and when, along with a schedule of work that is sensitive to the monsoon.  All this cannot happen without trained and motivated elected representatives, who manage existing public employees like engineers, planners and administrators.

The popular understanding that our cities are poor is also quite mistaken. Indian cities are rich in assets and in vibrancy, and this is evident in how Bangalore and others have grown rapidly in the last decade. It is due to mismanagement and neglect that we are unable to extract value from municipal assets. This mismanagement makes it difficult to finance urban infrastructure and public services, and again requires well-trained leadership to reverse the trend.

Bangalore has woken up to the reality that things cannot continue the way they have been, so far. Agitations from the past few years have proved that. While performance of elected representatives has been underwhelming, there is a dawning realization that the supply of good politics does not grow on trees. In a democracy, people are governed no better than they deserve. We need better political engagement by citizens to change this – with more people voting, more good people entering politics and by financial contributions in the support of good candidates. If we want ‘black money’ to leave politics, it is time that some honest, well-earned money enters to replace it.

India being a young country also provides an incredible opportunity where a large number of youth will be coming of voting age in the next few years. How well they engage with city politics and governance can determine the future of Bangalore and other cities.

Beyond corruption and vested interests, urban governance needs the management of multiple stakeholders with interests that are often at odds with each other. The ability to persuade a diverse set of people for the betterment of a neighbourhood, a ward or a city is in short supply. Managing a city also needs astute application of economic reasoning, where an unpriced good like free parking or free water can turn out to be enormously expensive, all things considered.

Big cities like New York or London have famous mayors who have the ability to transform their cities. There is no reason why Bangalore’s leaders cannot reach a similar position in the next 10 years.

Disclosure: I am a part of the Takshashila Institution’s team that is developing the curriculum for Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.PAC)’s Civic Leadership Incubation Programme (B.CLIP), a non-partisan initiative that seeks to train professionals and aspiring civic leaders to enter city governance and politics.

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21 Responses to Politics begins at home

  1. Tarun Pall October 29, 2013 at 10:32 AM #

    The governance of our cities is intentionally left opaque – so that we don’t know whom to approach for grievances or for redressal. Cities are viewed by our politicians as generators of wealth that can then be distributed back to rural constituencies. No city is considered to be an end in itself.

    Let’s take Delhi, which actually represents the worst in governance, despite relatively good development in certain aspects. There are (now) 4 municipal corporations, a ‘development authority’, a ‘public works department’, a legislatively assembly and a police force that is neither independent nor answerable to the state legislature like other states (Delhi Police reports to the Central Home Ministry directly).

    Who is in charge of Delhi?

    You point out rightly that London and New York are run by Mayors – and the same goes for many Chinese cities. But they are all powerful. Delhi has 3 Mayors and a Chief Minister! We look to our national governments to sort this out – because in a vague fuzzy way we realise they are the only ones who can change this setup.

    Look further at America and you will note that the State Capitals are almost never the largest cities in the states – those are run separately – yet the opposite is true of Indian states and cities.

    We should be more concerned about our corporators – and we will be – the day more power is locally devolved. Cities are not self-sufficient in India. They are a part of the overall patchwork of State funding. In America – they are encouraged to be self-sufficient, and only appeal to state government in times of difficulty, governed by rules and processes.

    • Pavan Srinath October 29, 2013 at 10:48 PM #

      Thanks Tarun, I largely agree with your assessment. However, all said and done – a savvy corporator still has enormous ability to transform his or her ward in a city like Bangalore. And if one is to make a case for greater devolution of powers, it requires a demonstration of great stewardship with the powers currently devolved, something that is utterly absent.

  2. Karthik Bappanad October 29, 2013 at 10:38 PM #

    While you are right that a lot of the problems we face daily are to be tackled at municipal level, the root cause why they do not get tackled lies not at the municipal level but at the higher levels. Till the vested interests remain at parliamentary and legislative levels, there is not much hope of an effective reform at municipal level. While I dont want to sound pessimistic, this probably is the reason why municipal-level initiatives like Janaagraha could not be sustained.

    • Pavan Srinath October 30, 2013 at 1:14 AM #

      Thanks for the comment, Karthik. Yes and no. The causal links are not as unidirectional as you portray. While there are enough vested interests at higher levels, it is still possible for a corporator equipped with the right knowledge, the right drive and no baggage (in terms of favours to return to unsavoury characters) to make a tremendous difference to their locality.