Playing in the concrete jungle

  • 30/04/1994

THE tireless cliche that India lives in its villages has been open to gross political abuse. So much so that our plans for our cities have been victims of feeble-mindedness. The Nagar Palika Bill, which came through as the 74th Amendment in 1992 and was enforced through Presidential notification on June 1, 1993, fully justifies the above claim. Apart from the fact that only a few state governments like Delhi and Gujarat have made cursory legislative moves, the act has very little to offer to urban administration in terms of autonomous functions, finance or decision-making. The amendment is hamstrung financially, has mainly recommendatory, not mandatory functions, and at best is a weak mascot of decentralisation. Electoral decentralisation is not the same thing as juridical or political decentralisation.

The cliche that India lives in its villages needs some serious attitudinal amendments. On the one hand, we need to note that there are thousands of village-dwellers leaving their villages and settling in cities, which are becoming increasingly unlivable. Also, every attempt to make the cities more livable becomes a lethal strain on the countryside. All this systematic cannibalising has not made Delhi a model city. It is a city that does not please the privileged and seems hellish to those who are on the periphery. Does Act take us any closer to a solution for this double-pronged problem?

While we talk of Gramswaraj, we must also talk of Mohallaswaraj as a parallel system. Centralist thinking takes recourse in decentralising rhetoric, but in effect leaves no real power with the people. The context for many of these assertions is also the intellectual vacuum in which our urban policy operates. We must cease to imitate the Western megapolises and depend on our own innovative impulses. For this, we need to make sure that our urban population, which is a small in terms of national ratio but gigantic in quantity, gets sufficient power over its own destiny. This step must lend to town administration the same level of transparency and accountability as the village chaupal.

Reforms in the electoral system have a habit of teasing the brain. But the final upshot often turns out to be the good old status quo. There is a need to remind ourselves is that there is something unbelievable about the over-elaborate jural claims reflected in the amendments, and that social life is never lived in principle.

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