and precarity in urban governance
PARTHA MUKHOPADHYAY and
GOVERNING a city is arguably more complex than rural
governance – more objectives to balance, more instruments to wield, all in the
context of a constantly mutating dynamic environment. By contrast, the rural
seems simpler and more static. This is even more so in a country like India,
which is going through an intense phase of transformation, as occupations move
away from agrarian rhythms and clusters of villages transform into towns.
Yet, as we present in this piece, urban governance in
India is significantly less capacitated in its ability to make a difference in
the lives of citizens. We illustrate this by focusing on two key axes of
difference with respect to rural governance – proximity and precarity.
By proximity, we mean the ease with which a citizen
can reach a formal functionary or elected representative of the state, and the
extent to which such functionaries and representatives can impact the lives of
citizens. This is similar to the idea of surface area of the state in Heller
(2018).1 By precarity, we mean the degree of uncertainty with which a
citizen is forced to live with, navigating access to essential basic needs,
housing and work. Our claim is that, compared to those living in rural areas,
the structure of governance in urban areas is such that citizens have lesser
proximity and greater precarity.
In an insightful essay, Auerbach
and Kruks-Wisner (2020) compare citizen perceptions
of responsiveness of government officials in the slums of Bhopal and Jaipur
with perceptions in rural Rajasthan.2 They find that while just about half of rural
residents believe government officials to be unresponsive, this number jumps
significantly in urban areas – with around 85% of urban residents believing the
same. One of the hypothesized explanations for this is what they call
differences in the ‘depth of decentralization’, or in our terminology, greater
proximity in rural vis-à-vis urban areas.
In order to unpack this further, we need a theory of
political representation. The closest formal state unit in urban and rural
areas, i.e. the municipal ward and the panchayat,
is also the level at which elections take place – thereby structuring the
‘nearest’ political representative to the citizen. If the depth of
decentralization is greater in rural areas, then the political representative
can more easily be reached by the citizen. Indeed, there is evidence that
regular access to the panchayat forms the basis for
how rural citizens make claims on the state.3 We can contrast this
to urban areas, where lesser proximity to the elected official, obliges urban
citizens to use unelected intermediaries or brokers – who distinguish
themselves precisely by how efficiently they can connect to state actors.4
representation structures responsiveness and delivery of benefits to citizens
in key ways. In a panchayat, the elected
representative must carry the votes of a broad-based coalition. This compels
any panchayat leader to respond in a manner that seen
as broadly socially acceptable and in ways that are not excessively targeted to
a narrow group. In short, if the elected panchayat
leader only responds to a small sliver of wealthy villagers, then the leader (and those allied with the leader) are less likely to
win the next election.
We can contrast this to brokers, who compete in a
highly competitive market for access to state actors and patronage of local
citizens. Without electoral compulsions, their optimal strategy is often to
specialize in responding to a narrow subset of the population, e.g.,
linguistic or caste-based, as well as the most well off – who are most able to
pay for assistance and may garner the broker higher social position. Indeed,
empirical evidence suggests that while panchayat
leaders are more likely to respond to the poor,5 brokers and intermediaries in urban contexts
are more likely to respond to the wealthy.6
differences in proximity between local urban governance and local rural
governance, we use a simple metric – the average number of citizens per local
governance unit. The idea here is that if there are more representatives per
citizen, then there is greater ease in reaching an elected representative. It
can however be argued that larger political constituencies can be mitigated,
inter alia, by, a dedicated bureaucratic staff and technology such as WhatsApp groups and that citizens in urban areas are more
likely to possess devices such as smartphones to access these channels. As
such, ‘proximity’ thresholds may be higher in urban areas as compared to rural
In urban areas, we consider the municipal ward, and in
rural areas we consider the gram panchayat (GP),
which is actually closer to a local body than a constituent of the local body,
but using abundant caution, we compare a sarpanch to
a ward councillor. In practice, a GP has multiple wards, e.g. Telangana has around 8 to 10 wards in every GP.
Using data collated by the Trivedi
Centre for Political Data (TCPD) and the Center for
the Advanced Study of India (CASI),7 which provides the number of electors in three
diverse states, viz. Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and
West Bengal, we compare this to the number of estimated electors in a panchayat using the population of GPs in the Local Government
Figure 1A shows the distribution of the number of
electors in a ward in the three states. In Uttar Pradesh and Telangana, we see that the 75th percentile (i.e., three
fourths of gram panchayats have less than
these number of electors) is comparable to the 63rd and 73rd percentile of
urban wards, i.e. they are broadly comparable. However, in West Bengal, it is closer to the 94% of the urban ward size, i.e. the GPs are larger in size. This is because in West Bengal, while the villages are similar in size to the other states (around 1500 in population), the number of rural local bodies (GPs) are much smaller – whereas the national average is a population of 3,500 per GP, in West Bengal, it is closer to 19,000.
picture changes once we look only at the municipal corporations (MCs), i.e.,
the larger towns and cities in a state. In Figure 1B, we see that the ward size
in MCs is much larger than that of GPs and in West Bengal, it is broadly
comparable (though in Kolkata Municipal Corporation, 80% of wards are larger
than the 75th percentile of GPs in size) in size. In terms of proximity as
measured by the number of electors per elected representative, we find that in
the larger urban areas, the urban citizen is more distant from the elected
representative than in rural areas. Even in West Bengal, this would be true if
one compared a GP ward – usually, every GP has more than ten wards – to an
is not just about whether a representative is more reachable, it is also about
the capacity of local government to impact the lives of citizens. Table 1 shows
the sectors in which works were approved under the GP Development Plan (GPDP)
for seven states, viz. Uttar Pradesh (UP), Telangana
(TS), West Bengal (WB), as well as Andhra Pradesh (AP), Tamil Nadu (TN),
Maharashtra (MH) and Bihar (BH), that account for 74% of cost of approved works
in 2020-21 (Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for 46%). For each state, the top five
sectors are chosen.
It is not the contention that these works are actually
implemented by the GPs to the fullest extent – rather it is that, in all these
areas, GPs have the authority to provide services. In all seven states,
drinking water, roads and sanitation are priorities. However, the share of
these three sectors varies across these six states, from 80% in Bihar to 54% in
Maharashtra. GPs in states also show considerable diversity in other
priorities, e.g. land improvement and water conservation are key
in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, while education is important in
Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, social welfare in Bihar and Maharashtra, and so
on. Telangana spends almost one fifth on
administration. Others (beyond the top five sectors) vary from almost 30% in
Maharashtra to under 8% in Tamil Nadu.
of works is indicative of both the breadth of activity undertaken by GPs, as
least as the implementing agency, and the flexibility in deciding expenditure
in ways that are responsive to the local context. Much of the GP budget in
these states either comes under the grants from the Finance Commission or from
funds received under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee
In addition to these services, there are a number of
schemes where the panchayat plays a key role in
determining whether or not a household is included and the level of benefits it
would receive, such as inclusion in the MGNREGS (more important for SC/ST
households where works can be taken up on private agricultural land, e.g.,
building a pond), benefits under PDS, etc.
By contrast, we see very little of this dynamism in
urban local government. For example, Praja’s Urban
Governance Index 2020 (p. 23)8 finds that the
only function that is fully devolved (ULBs have the sole responsibility) across
almost all states is the handling of solid waste (27 of 29 states). Other
functions that are widely devolved include cremation and burial grounds and
cattle pounds (21 of 29 states) and regulation of slaughter houses (19 of 29).
Similarly, the performance audit reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General
of India (CAG) finds that out of 18 functions mentioned in the 74th Amendment
to the Constitution of India, only two are fully devolved in Rajasthan, three
in Karnataka, four in Madhya Pradesh, five in Punjab, seven in Kerala and eight
in Chhattisgarh. In sum, the rural GP has a relatively wider ‘surface area’
(Heller 2019) with respect to citizens, as compared to the ULB.
These distinctions in proximity are highly
consequential for the quality of life of urban and rural citizens. Not only are
rural citizens more likely to directly access their most local political
representatives, but these representatives, and the level of government in
which they reside, are more capable in addressing the needs of citizens.
One of the
most prominent theories of urban governance characterizes cities as ‘growth
machines’.9 In this theory,
urban regimes are characterized by coalitions between those who develop urban
land (i.e., builders) and politicians, something that plausibly holds true for
Indian cities. However, these theorists argue that because this coalition seeks
to maximize the value of the land, a set of coherent planning and governance
practices yield broadly ‘inclusive and equitable’ outcomes.
Yet, when we observe Indian cities, we don’t see
growth as being particularly inclusive or equitable. As Heller, Mukhopadhyay and Walton (2019) argue, the alliance between
politicians and builders in India does not yield preferences consistent with
‘[T]his is at best a ‘growth cabal’, and more often a
‘rent extracting cabal’, in which the particularistic, and often informal,
pursuit of land (and other) rents is only weakly aligned with either the
coherent economic growth of the city or the construction of an urban living
environment that could cater effectively to the basic needs of established and
migrating populations.’ (p. 152)
They see the dominant urban institutional formations
of ‘growth cabal’ and ‘rent-extracting cabal’ as being affected by (a)
the fragmented structure of state, (b) its consequent weak disciplining
power, especially in controlling collusive rent-extracting deals. This is
compounded by the limited devolution of political authority to the city,
despite the 74th Amendment, which results in weak societal accountability of
city-level political and administrative structures.
These cabals, unlike coalitions of growth machines,
which are often institutionalized, operate around institutions and in segments
of economic activity, where some investments may occur. They cannot coordinate
effectively and are unable and unwilling to support inclusive growth, unlike a
growth machine, where returns to rents may find their way into growth-inducing
investments, reinforcing the arrangements that generate rents. In India, the
additional fact that the political power is constituted at higher levels further
undercuts the potential for coherent urban coalitions. This decoupling of value
creation from political and institutional power leads to a situation where the
coalitions that can mobilize prefer to extract short-term rents, as it requires
less coordination than returns from investment.
Building on the above logic of the ‘cabal city’, we
illustrate two channels through which such urban governance leads to greater precarity than rural governance: control over land and
First, core to
the logic of the cabal city is that the alignment of builders and politicians
is crucial to political finance, something that has
been both empirically demonstrated11 and the basis for close field observation on
the dynamic role of local capital in politics.12 The role of builder capital in political
financing fundamentally distorts the growth machine logic. Rather than
standardizing the process of urbanization, the political class aids builders in
extracting rents from the population, a part of which can then be circulated
into political parties. Of course, this rent is available only in the larger
cities where land is valuable, in part because of regulatory restrictions on
land use imposed by the state.
citizens often are unable to put down roots in a city because of the
non-availability of legally authorized land. Land ownership is clearly
demarcated in rural areas for agricultural land but while it is not so clear
for homestead land (though this is now being done under the Swamitva
scheme of the Government of India, see https://svamitva.nic.in/) there is
almost always a clear common understanding. A rural household is not in danger
of being dispossessed, except in situations of land acquisition and even in
such cases, homesteads are only infrequently disturbed.
areas, land tenure is often unstable and uncertain because the city does not
want to be obligated to give certain services and also because it does not plan
for population growth and therefore does not demarcate sufficient land for
urbanization. Regardless, the demand for housing
in the city is met by unauthorized conversion of agricultural land for housing, leaving the housing vulnerable for demolition. This is accen-tuated by the fact that the absence of formal tenure rights makes eviction easier, should the land be needed for real estate or infrastructure – both channels for the rent extracting cabal.
In order to illustrate the nature of precarity in urban areas, we analyse grants from the most
prominent government housing scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana
(PMAY). In particular, we focus on what is termed as beneficiary-led construc-tion (BLC) – which implies that a household is
able to build its own house through grant support.13 In rural areas, land
for homestead is not disputed and it has long been the practice to support
rural households to build their own houses.
In the current
government, the innovation was to adopt this practice in urban areas –
households ‘desirous of availing this assistance …approach the ULBs with
adequate documentation regarding availability of land owned by them.’14 In practice, there has been considerable
flexibility adopted in determining ‘adequate documentation’. While ex
post, all PMAY beneficiaries would have substantial security of tenure, households that were supported under BLC appear to
have had low ex ante precarity. We adopt the extent
to which BLC is used as the channel of implementation in an urban area as a
measure of absence of precarity.
Figure 2 shows the proportion of BLC sanctions to
total houses approved under all four methods of the scheme, by city size. While
it is used much less in the larger cities (in 38% of cities over a million, the
share of BLC is less than 20%), it is the preferred method is most other
cities. In 53% of the cities between 300,000 and 1 million, the share of BLC is
over 60%, above 80% in 50% of the cities between 100,000 and 300,000 and it is
over 80% in 79% of the smaller cities below 100,000. The last two categories of
cities, i.e., below 300,000, comprise nearly 85% of all BLC houses approved
(BLC houses comprise three fourths of all PMAY (Urban) houses).
is consistent with the precarity of land tenure being
positively related to the value of the land in an urban area. In the smaller
urban areas, land is less valuable and consequently, there is limited rent to
be extracted from retaining the ability to evict, and political benefits to be gained
by providing security of tenure to the citizen. Consequently, the level of precarity is low. As the cities get larger, land increases
in value and eventually, the rent extraction motive dominates the decision
The other key
aspect of precarity is the status of migrants in the
city. This is because the nature of migration in India, which is circular (i.e.
migrant circulates between the origin and destination and the destination
itself may change over time), means many migrant households are multi-locational,
divided across origin and destination. This means that their status as both
workers and voters remain uncertain.
Regular and casual work differ
not only in terms of job security but also in terms of wages. Depending on the
sector, the wage regular workers earn anywhere from 1.5 times to four times as
much as casual workers. However, casual work wages do not differ much between
urban and rural areas once price differentials are considered. Table 2 shows
the ratio of expected price-adjusted urban wage to rural wages across broad
sectors, by the education level of the workers.15
reasonable to expect that while the worker searches for regular salaried work,
which is where the wage premium lies, s/he will be engaged in casual work. In
this sense, the ratio of rural casual wage to urban casual wage is important.
Table 2 shows that during this precarious urban existence, adjusted for price
differentials, there is almost no increase in the wages of the worker, as long
as s/he is engaged in casual work. However, if s/he secures regular wages,
then, on average, the increase can be substantial, for example in other manufacturing, the expected wage is almost 2.5 times
higher than the casual wage. While they continue to labour in expectation of securing
regular employment, they have an enhanced incentive to save on housing costs,
renting in unauthorized settlements, and retaining their space in their
village, i.e. going back to the village from time to time and especially during
is less feasible for long-distance, e.g. out of state migrants. As Figure
3 shows, the share of such migrants is much more in the urban areas, compared
to rural, e.g., 27% of rural to urban migrants are inter-state, compared to 7%
of rural to rural migrants. This number goes up even more once one considers
only the large metropolises (it is 38% in cities of more than 4 million). The numbers below the horizontal axis refer
to the share of each flow, showing that the flow to urban areas is rising. The
share of migrants to urban areas is 46% in the past four years compared to 32%
for those who migrated twenty years ago.
Importantly, this means that migrants, either by
choice or compulsion, often do not exercise voting rights at their destination,
excluding them from the political equation in the city.16 The Election Commission of India (ECI) too is
concerned about this issue as is the Supreme Court. In a letter addressed to
political parties on remote voting for domestic migrants, issued on December
28, 2022, the ECI notes that: ‘Internal migration is one of the assessed
important reasons required to be addressed to improve voter turnout in low
voter turnout States.’17 In this
exercise, they also draw upon the Hon’ble Supreme
Court’s directions on this issue.18 The decreased proximity for migrants adds to
their already precarious existence.
India has the
largest rural population in the world, comparable to the continent of Africa.
The urbanization of India is among the major development transitions that the
world will witness in this century. But, if development is not just about
accumulation, but also organizational change, then the greater the extent of
democratic participation, the more it is likely to be wide-ranging and
Yet, as we see in the discussion above, urban
citizenship in our larger cities is characterized by stunted participation, a
lack of proximity to the state, resulting from overly large constituencies and
limited devolution of functions to urban local governments. This is exacerbated
by precarity, especially in housing. Both these
challenges are especially severe for migrants to the city. Indeed, one can ask: why would anyone make a
permanent transition to the city? Why leave a place where you have a voice in
decisions that affect you, where you are proximate to the state, and where your
existence is secure for a space where you are in a constant state of
uncertainty, and the state, such as it is, is distant and aloof?
Cities cannot be spaces where citizens, particularly
the poorer among them, are unable to lay down roots because governance actively
prevents them from doing so. Beyond moral considerations, the highly precarious
nature of urban citizenship will stymie India’s development transition, retard
India’s and the world’s economic growth, as labour productivity remains low,
female workforce participation continues to be stunted and citizens do not
invest, in the face of fundamental uncertainty.
transition is to occur, if India is to become truly urban, then is time that
urban governance becomes more proximate to the citizens, enabling them to lead
a less precarious life. If not to emulate, Brazil’s Estatuto
da Cidade (City Statute), which requires that all
urban policies be subject to popular participation and ‘introduces a series of
innovative legal instruments that allow local administrations to enforce the
‘social function’20 may be a model
Indeed, it is perhaps wise in a situation such as
India, where settlements are in a fluid state of transformation from rural to
urban (and vice versa, on occasion), to consider a common frame for local
government without the constructed distinction of rural and urban. Indeed, the
constitution does permit it even now, since the eleventh and twelfth schedules
are not mandated and states can choose to give functions from the twelfth
schedule to rural local governments and that from the eleventh to urban local
governments, should they choose to do so. It needs one state with imagination
1. Patrick Heller, ‘Divergent Trajectories of Democratic Deepening: Comparing Brazil, India, and South Africa’, Theory and Society 48, 2019, pp. 351-382.
2. A.M. Auerbach and G. Kruks-Wisner, ‘The Geography of Citizenship Practice: How the Poor Engage the State in Rural and Urban India’, Perspectives on Politics 18(4), 2020, pp.1118-1134. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592720000043
3. G. Kruks-Wisner, Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India. Cambridge University Press, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108185899
4. A.M. Auerbach and T. Thachil, ‘How Clients Select Brokers: Competition and Choice in India’s Slums’, American Political Science Review 112(4), 2018, pp. 775-791. https://doi.org/10.1017/S000305541800028X
5. M. Schneider and N. Sircar, ‘Whose Side Are You On? Identifying the Distributive Preferences of Local Politicians in India’. Centre for Advanced Study of India Working Paper 15-01, 2015.
6. N. Sircar, ‘Politicians and Netas: The Politics of Grievance and Political Intermediation’, in S. Chakravorty and N. Sircar (eds.), Colossus: The Anatomy of Delhi. Cambridge University Press, 2021.
7. ‘TCPD-CASI Urban Local Body Dataset (TCPD-CASI-ULB), 2008-2021’. Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University and Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.
9. J.R. Logan and H. Molotch, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. University of California Press, 1988.
10. P. Heller, P. Mukhopadhyay and M. Walton, ‘Cabal City: Urban Regimes and Accumulation without Development’, in C. Jaffrelot, A. Kohli and K. Murali (eds.), Business and Politics in India. Oxford University Press, 2019. pp. 151-182
11. D. Kapur and M. Vaishnav, ‘Builders, Politicians, and Election Finance’, in D. Kapur and M. Vaishnav (eds.), Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India. Oxford University Press, 2018.
12. H. Damodaran, ‘“From “Entrepreneurial” to “Conglomerate” Capitalism’, Seminar 734, October 2020, pp. 33-37. https://www.india-seminar.com/2020/734/734_harish_damodaran.htm
13. The other modes of implementation include affordable housing in partnership (AHP), where beneficiaries are relocated to apartments, often, but not always at the periphery and in-situ slum rehabilitation (ISSR), where existing homes are demolished and apartments built on the same site for erstwhile slum residents on a certain part of the land, with the rest being used for market priced housing or commercial use. A third method, credit linked subsidy scheme (CLSS) subsidizes the interest on housing loans, and is for relatively more affluent households who are eligible for and can afford to take loans from banks for housing.
14. Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban) Housing for All Scheme Guidelines, January 2021 (p. 13), accessed at https://pmay-urban.gov.in/uploads/guidelines/62381c744c188-Updated-guidelines-of-PMAY-U.pdf
15. The expected urban wage for a given sector is the weighted average of the regular salaried wage and casual wage in that sector, weighted by their respective shares of the workforce. This expected urban wage for the sector is then price adjusted by the ratio of the urban poverty line to the rural poverty line in 2011-12.
16. Ashwani Kumar and Ram Babu Bhagat (eds.), Migrants, Mobility and Citizenship in India. Taylor & Francis, 2021.
18. On 1 November 2022, in the matter of WP No.80 of 2013 and WP No.265 of 2014 and others, the Supreme Court disposed of the petition, since ‘the learned Attorney General for India has assured this Court that every step shall be undertaken to see that the persons living outside and migrant labourers are still part of the entire electoral process and every facility shall be extended which would ensure the confidentiality of the election.’ https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2013/2274/2274_2013_1_20_39459_Order_01-Nov-2022.pdf
19. P. Evans and P. Heller, ‘Human Development, State Transformation and the Politics of the Developmental State’, in S. Leibfried, F. Nullmeier, E. Huber, M. Lange, J. Levy and J. Stephens (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Transformations of the State. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015, pp. 671-701.
20. T. Caldeira and J. Holston, ‘State and Urban Space in Brazil: From Modernist Planning to Democratic Intervention’, in A. Ong, and S.J. Collier (eds.), Global Anthropology: Technology, Governmentality, Ethics. Blackwell, London, 2005, pp. 405-406.