Cities are the engines of a nation’s progress. The 2011 Census found a third of the country living in its urban sprawls — a reflection of opportunities for mobility and intergenerational transformations that these spaces offer. Yet, their governance remains locked in a hopeless maze of interlocked jurisdictions — too many agencies with too little power. Despite being economic powerhouses, India’s metropolises are poorly managed, struggle to provide a basic standard of living for large chunks of its citizens and appear ill-prepared to navigate a future shaped by the climate crisis. A mix of political compulsions and institutional gaps in allowing cities control over generating and spending resources are hobbling their progress and belying the promise of decentralised governance held out by the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution.
How can this be remedied? A new report — Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems: Shaping India’s Urban Agenda (ASICS) — by the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy offers some clues. The report suggests constitutional amendments to empower cities, metropolitan governance, participatory governance, digital public finance management, municipal reforms etc. as steps that can catalyse change. At the core of the problem is the question of autonomy of cities that are almost always dependent on central or state governments for even basic sanctions. If India’s cities are to match global standards, they need to emulate global governance models — more autonomy for functioning, more space to generate revenues and discretion in spending, and more participatory governance and planning that eschews silos for diverse expertise. As the world hurtles into an unfamiliar future where an unpredictable climate will upend traditional understandings of resource allocation and risk mitigation, only decentralised planning can keep our cities afloat.