Improved citizenship is a must to provide good governance: Synthesizing Patrick Heller’s talk @ CPR, India

When I set out to work this morning, I didn’t know I would end up hearing Patrick Heller speak at the Centre for Policy Research. I’m glad I did attend his talk, though, for it informs a critical area of my research on Gurgaon’s housing scenario. Patrick is a professor of sociology and international studies at Brown University and works in the area of democratic deepening, institutional design and participatory forms of governance. The aspect of citizenship and the relationship between civil society and government that he spoke of today is one that has tremendous potential to make or mar cities as places to live in and is certainly a very weak area for Indian cities, a stumbling block- indeed, one of many.

Patrick led us through the three major theories that have informed our understanding of cities in the last few decades during which urbanism has really come to the fore of research in sociology, political sciences and economics. The Global City thinking, a term coined by Saskia Sassen and which proposes that a global city is one which is an important node in the global economic system and attempts to envision the world as an hierarchy of cities, rather than nation states. Unfortunately, as Patrick pointed out, cities across the world have misinterpreted this term liberally, and in their hunger to move up the hierarchy of cities, have taken drastic and often thoughtless measures to simply ape another city without considering its own special position and needs. Hence, Mumbai is to be Shanghai and Delhi is to be London, and so on and so forth…

The Urban Regime thinking focuses on the politics of cities and looks at a city as an entity that has an agenda (usually growth), is supported by a coalition, is reasonably successful in achieving coordination, can mobilize resources and resolve collective problems as well as mediate conflicts. Prototypical of this is the growth machine model adopted by American cities. The real estate developer plays a key role here, and development is seen (in the US, but I could say this of India as well) as the adding of value to land to extract surplus value from it. The obvious criticism of this model is the absence of ‘people’.

That brings in the third construct- Citizenship theory, largely attributed to Lefebvre. Here, the city is viewed as an entity created by and for, governed by people, a democratic entity. Citizenship is a practice, not just a right and the intersections between state and civil society become very critical. In this, the ‘right to the city’ concept seems relevant to my attempt to build the argument that shelter is something every citizen must reasonably expect.

Patrick mesmerized the audience with his presentation of case studies from South Africa and Brazil, where citizenship takes absolutely different forms. It was revealing to learn that, in South Africa, there is deep discontent among urban populations against the African National Congress. The discontent is rooted in the alienation of the ANC from the activist bottom-up roots it had during the struggle against apartheid. While service delivery is efficient, citizens are upset that they are being treated like clients and that there is no participatory governance at all. In fact, ANC leaders have mostly become rich and move out of black neighborhoods. In a sense, they are the new whites. Yet, South Africans vote the ANC in every time because they feel they cannot vote against the party that Nelson Mandel founded and that led them to freedom from apartheid. Strong parallels with the Indian voters allegiance to the Congress in the many decades post Independence and the current sense of intense disillusionment with their politics, even as we struggle to find political alternatives.

On the other end, Brazil has moved away from the growth-obsessed autocratic model of governance to a social city model where both participatory processes as well as devolution of power have taken place. Innovative mechanisms like participatory budgeting and sectoral councils have changed the game, and Brazilian cities are seen to have consistently invested in socially beneficial areas like healthcare reforms, land regularization, social welfare, etc. Participatory budgeting is an example of how moves to strengthen citizenship have captured the nation’s imagination. PB, in which councilors as well as ordinary people paralely decide on municipal budgets, is not formally institutionalized but helps bring in transparency and breaks the deal-making, ‘clientelism’ that we have come to expect from govt-business (elite) decision makers. The changed relationship between politics and civil society is allowing new forms of co-production and making governance accessible to people like never before.

Patrick’s attempt to compare his work in these two nations with India are still in preliminary stages. However, it is clear that the essential issue in India is the lack of political autonomy and incapability of cities to govern themselves. Cities in India are not yet autonomous, usually in poor fiscal health and clearly do not have a sense of where they are going. Civil society is fragmented and the outcome is what Patrick calls “growth cabal”, a situation in which a regime of land-grab operates, with politicians, bureaucrats and the rich colluding to appropriate assets and hijack growth while the citizens are excluded from the process of wealth creation and the benefits that come from it. Moreover, we can all see that citizens in Indian cities continue to be, akin to South Africa, steeped in feudal/caste/class allegiances and have no systems for participation that help them participate in and influence their city in any way. Can South Africa’s experiences and the Brazilian success story teach us lessons on how to go forward? Can Indian cities find ways to involve civil society, strengthen civil society across classes to act as a check and balance? These ideas seem still far away for a nation where even the basic services are not yet available for the majority, but we must premise our future on the idea of citizenship and the ‘right to the city’.

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About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on November 27, 2012, in Politics & Citizenship and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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