Over the years, governance structures in most Indian cities have followed a simple and traditional top-down approach with little or no room for citizen engagement. People rely on the good intentions of the mayor or the municipal corporation, who they trust will take decisions in the overall interest of its citizens. This system has worked fairly smoothly in most Indian cities as the focus of urban local bodies has essentially been on the provision of basic services. And while expectations may have remained low, in the situation that the unofficial trust code is broken and the citizenry are disenchanted with the local administration, there's not much recourse available to remedy the situation in the short term, and the status quo prevails.
However, this status quo in Indian cities is now being challenged by two key developments. The first is that cities are now confronted with newer challenges that were either irrelevant or considered unimportant in the past. Today, cities need to have plans in place to deal with climate change and its effects, develop resilient infrastructure systems, build and secure data network processes, ensure social cohesion etc.
The second and more important development is that India is getting younger by the day. Now, 761 million aspirational Indians are between the ages of 15-64. With estimates of 462 million now having some access to the internet and another 140 million to be added to the middle-class by 2025, there is a real chance to capitalise on the quickly changing demographic situation. In light of these changes, the idea of participative governance may well begin to be seen as the norm rather than the exception.
The challenge, though, is that no real framework exists within local government structures to ensure participation of the citizens in developing a city's agenda or plan. Involving citizens is merely seen as just one of many boxes to be checked in the whole planning process. Till a decade ago, the easiest way to tick this box was to organise an essay-writing and painting competition calling for proposals and ideas.
In the present day, some amount of money is invested in developing a website, an Android app or a Facebook page through which citizens can respond by providing their suggestions or uploading pictures of potholes and suchlike.
More recently, as part of the Smart Cities Competition, several cities sought to seek inputs from the citizens in order to be graded highly and make the final cut. However, as various reports have now emerged, most decisions with respect to the design and planning were already in place and these events were merely a façade to promote what had already been decided.
The current approach is far from participative. Cities hire international consultants like McKinsey, PwC, E&T etc. who then seek out technology vendors such as Cisco, Siemens, Tata, L&T, Microsoft that offer solutions like intelligent traffic management systems, smart street lighting solutions and a bouquet of IoT services. These projects are then incorporated into the overall plan. Some effort is made to show that the projects were a culmination of extensive consultation with the citizens and the community, which is far from the truth.
When confronted about this phenomenon recently, an IAS officer was quick to point out to me that while having utopian notions of ensuring inclusivity in the planning process makes for great prose and intellectual debate, it was easier said than done in a complex and densely populated country like India.
The top-down approach is so deeply embedded within our governance systems that the overall economic, political and social cost of charting a new pathway might in fact be counterproductive, particularly in the short term. Although cynical, it was a valid reservation.
There's potentially more to lose if citizen engagement only delays the planning process, owing to little or no organisational capacity within urban local bodies or the lack of interest among other stakeholders, including the citizenry.
Small data, a concept pioneered by author Martin Lindtsrom, will also be critical. In the framework of the city, small data would refer to planners and designers relying on a mix of keen observations of small samples and applied intuition by spending time with real people in their own environments and understanding how they interact with the city. Both big and small data are equally vital and one cannot possibly work without the other. In the words of Lindstrom, if we want to glean real insights, big data and small data would have to be "partners in dance."