Bringing village panchayats to cities

By mid-year of 2035, the percentage population residing in India’s teeming urban conglomerations will touch 43.2%.

Published: 25th August 2022 12:26 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th August 2022 12:22 PM   |  A+A-

Sathy Road in Coimbatore city. (Photo | Express)

Image used for representational purpose only. (Photo | Express)

In 2022, 35.39%—numbering 506 million people—of India’s 1.4-billion population is reportedly living in cities. By 2030, 250 million additional people will have moved to urban areas. By mid-year of 2035, the percentage population residing in India’s teeming urban conglomerations will touch 43.2%.

As of today, almost none of these urbanites—poor, middling, or rich—has a decision-making right, via vocality or vote, in whatever repairs, alterations or developmental initiatives that transpire in the localities of their domicile.

Rights to participative governance, the mainstay of a democracy, stop largely at politically deft and financially-malleable municipal councillors. They are voted into their cabins but then become unanswerable to the abundant electorate, who they then proceed to perceive, and handle, as a nebulous unitary collective of one: the ward.

The number of citizens in the smallest urban administrative unit, the urban ward, is nearly always far greater than in the smallest rural administrative unit, the gram panchayat, in which decision-making is, by mandate if not always in practice, collective.

And yet, in terms of Constitutionally-decreed granular, microparticipative decision-making, urban India falls well behind rural India.

This is a surprisingly odd sort of disenfranchisement, because their compatriots in the rural areas—all 54% of the population of them—are not thus disadvantaged, either Constitutionally or electorally.

This is not to say that the inequality, inequitability, and inequity of the rural representation system are not appallingly manifold. They are, every single day. But that the hierarchy of interactivity is routinely abrogated by the rural overlords is a failure of the system, not of the superstructure itself. The self-representation of the rural citizenry exists in the Constitution, and will, hopefully, one profoundly neoteric day, be actualised.

There is no gainsaying that the morphology and kinematics of village, city, and nation are broadly unidentical. Nonetheless, in a participative democracy such as ours, they share—or should share—one common power: an interactive relationship with those they have voted to power.

The politics of these three tiers of superintendence are both broadly the same and in particulari discrete: communitarian in the first; municipalist in the second; and countryist—what the Japanese call kokkashugi, or state-nationalism—in the third. Benjamin Barber wrote in If Mayors Ruled the World: “The politics of the city have a very different character to the ideological politics of the nation.”

In the West, the idea of a fully-participative urban citizenship—as opposed to rural citizenship— is not new. Its origins lie in the long European history of city states, and, indeed, their sovereign primacy.

In India, the full-blown urban citizen is a much newer and indeed contemporary phenomenon, starting with the urban birth rate growth and the rural-to-urban drift in the 1960s. This gained an almost unstoppable momentum following the liberalisation in 1991 and the multistrata economic churn that followed.

In short, we haven’t had the time to even establish the definition of what it means to be an Indian ‘urban citizen’, with rights and responsibilities mirroring those of their rural counterparts.Barber continued, “[The politics of the city] are about making things work - you’ve got to pick up the garbage, you’ve to keep the hospitals open....”

In India, there are additional hyperlocal to local responsibilities: you’ve got to keep the potholes filled and the roads safe; the rainwater from flooding homes and businesses; the air, water, and land pollution from debilitating and demoralising millions, and sending thousands to crowd and overwhelm the hills and the littorals; the public transport running without mass breakdowns; and a palimpsest of old buildings on their last legs from collapsing.

Given this, we must think actively about introducing a more representative system of choosing development and upkeep in India’s cities and metropolises—something, perhaps, on the lines of the rural panchayat system. The panchayat system envisages, ideally, a percolation to the smallest voters of decision-making capability that can alter for the better their immediate surroundings. An amalgamation of bettered hyperlocal geographies grows, with time and effort, into a fully-democratised region.

This is what ideally should happen, not is happening; but it helps us understand how a better city can be accomplished via an assemblage of localities or colonies bettered by granulating the municipal corporations down to the mohalla level, and, then, further down to the inhabitant level. Basically, it means importing the panchayat system into the metropolises (and the mofussils, which aspire to total citification) with necessary modifications.

Therefore, straight-up urban panchayats, possibly divided into developmental interest groups, might be the way to go. This would necessarily entail restructuring the municipal corporations, and introducing a process of funds allotment and percolation.

The process would significantly complicate the civic body elections. Then, again, since every mohalla developmental activity would take place literally in plain sight, it would be interesting to see how the bottommost stakeholder reacts to a botched or corrupt activity during an election where she or he has the ability to vote a panchayat in or out.

This would also need a down-top establishing of responsibility and power, not replacing but complementing the existing current top-down one, and, eventually, perhaps, reconstituting itself as the decision base. It would also mean the redistribution of developmental monies from the rich(er) localities to the poor(er) mohallas.

Unfortunately, as of today, the so-called ‘urban citizen’ has no such participative power (only, through the office of the councillor, a distantly representative power).


Kajal Basu

Veteran journalist


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