New Urban Governance: who should do what and for whom
Sanskriti Menon
Urban societies and their governance systems are undergoing transition in many cities around the world. On the one hand are processes of globalization that impose decisions on cities that have hardly any grounding in local decision-making – such as for creation of large infrastructure projects, IT parks etc. On the other are the dynamics of local communities, especially slum neighbourhoods that use seemingly ‘extra constitutional’ measures, through their elected representatives or their own community organizations to gain shelter, livelihoods and basic municipal services.

The inability of local municipal systems to respond to the needs of the poor is clear from the large proportion of urban populations that live in ‘illegal’ squatter settlements, without adequate access to water and sanitation facilities. A large majority of urban citizens is engaged in informal sector occupations, many of which are ‘encroachments’ on public space. When they get in the way of infrastructure for industry, they are simply gotten rid of. The issue is that municipalities get loaded with infrastructure that services the needs of ‘globalized industry’, which they are unable to maintain, which diverts resources from the needs of the poor, and which further marginalizes the poor.

Conventional municipal management systems are unable to tackle this situation. Nor should we expect them to, as the relevant controls are with higher levels of government, not directly accountable to local electorates. In India, local urban governance systems were fragile in the nature of their constitution when the centralized government system was adopted sixty years ago. Economic globalization forces have clearly exposed the fractures of governance.

That conventional government planning, regulation and service provision need to change was agreed over a decade ago at the UN Habitat conference at Istanbul in 1996. The Habitat Agenda adopted then focuses on improving governance, and introduces the concept of the ‘inclusive city’ that responds to the needs of all citizens, and especially the poor and marginalized.The New Urban Governance concept recognizes that ‘good urban governance is characterized by the interdependent principles of sustainability, equity, efficiency, transparency and accountability, security, civic engagement and citizenship’.

There is a difference between ‘government’ and ‘governance’. The formal institutions of the state form the government. Governance however refers to the processes of decision-making and implementation of decisions. It recognizes that many different actors are in play in the processes of decision-making, or should be. Those who are typically marginalized – such as women from poorer communities – get an equitable voice in the process of decision-making.

In India, the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments of the early 90s expected to devolve power to local government bodies, were steps towards decentralization and subsidiarity. The central government’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission is driving reforms to fully devolve municipal functions and enhance financial autonomy of city governments, and encourage community participation through creation of ‘area sabhas’ which are parallel to village assemblies.

Experience hasn’t already proved that greater participation results in poverty reduction. The emphasis is on processes and on creating the forums for participation and engagement.

It is the government’s job to provide an enabling framework (unless of course, the framework itself has to be first demanded by citizen action). Once this is done, people are expected to exercise ‘citizenship’ and participate in decisions on planning and managing their neighbourhoods and cities. It is in the hands of citizens to make use of the framework – to negotiate, build consensus and resolve conflicts, and raise their own capacities for informed participation.

For this, city governments or citizens groups may also have to create the framework for information generation, making it widely available, review etc. Governance goes hand in hand with engagement in a process of knowledge enhancement – of the nature of poverty, of the difference between income poverty and measures that mitigate poverty, of how to create systems that combine poverty reduction with environmental impact reduction, of how everyone benefits by combining the two goals of reducing poverty and environmental impact. And since it is not always clear what will work, a combination of precaution and willingness to experiment is needed.

There is work to be done by government, community groups and NGOs and by citizens to understand for themselves how to address poverty and environmental impacts, and with each other to decide what actions to take, how to review such actions and engage in the business of democratic governance.

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