The watchers

In the absence of diligent oversight, democracy in and of itself will not deliver on the commitments made in its name. Just ask the residents of Delhi’s slums, who have turned a law about information access into a powerful tool for defending their economic rights

by Bishnu N. Mohapatra

© SCOPE Magazine, Summer 2011


The history of urbanity in India can be traced to the country’s ancient kingdoms, where movement of goods, royal power, and structured hierarchies defined spaces for human interaction, for material and ideological productions, and for social control. During the British colonial period, the municipal administration emerged as a locus of political rule; it also served as a weak platform for consolidating interests, a mirror in which emerging classes envisioned their political future.

The East India Company established Madras as a corporation as early as 1687, and a modicum of municipal order came into being in Bengal Presidency in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the end of that century, there were nearly seven hundred municipalities in British India, and in a significant majority of them, the members were nominated by the colonial administration. It was Lord Ripon’s resolution of 1882 that gave a new lease of life to municipal governance in colonial India. He argued that local government must be constructed from below rather than imposed from above. By the early twentieth century, large corporations such as Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras had a growing sense of power in relation to taxation, sanitation, basic services, and health. During the anti-colonial struggles, urban spaces provided platforms where emerging nationalist leaders sharpened their political acumen. With national independence in 1947, however, the political fortunes of cities in India were eclipsed. As the provincial and national arenas opened up for political competition, city governments lost their earlier preeminence.

Yet India now lives less and less in its villages. In 1951, 17.3% of its population was classed as urban; in 2011, the proportion is 31.2%. According to some estimates, by 2030 nearly 40% of India’s population will be urban. This surely is not a picture of hyper-urbanization, but in terms of population, it is already the second largest urban population in the world. This population, moreover, is increasingly concentrated in very large cities. The number of Indian cities with more than a million residents has increased from twelve in 1981 to thirty-five in 2001. Metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Madras, and Hyderabad have grown rapidly in recent years, a top-heavy urbanization that creates a distinct set of problems for addressing urban poverty and development in India. The situation of small and medium towns, meanwhile, is to a large extent one of stagnation and decay.

Historically speaking, cities and towns hold an ambivalent position within the Indian imaginary. This ambivalence varies across class and caste lines. Dalits (former “untouchables”), for instance, view cities as places for good fortune, where caste rules do not apply with the same brutal intensity as they do in villages. In modern Indian literature the city is simultaneously a sign of wonder, a crucible of curiosity, and a location where individuals lose their moral anchor—their community—and fall prey to aggressive individualism. But from a neo-liberal point of view, cities are primarily engines for economic growth, and the future of India’s economy depends on how they are governed and replicated. According to this agenda, cities should not only have adequate and cheap supplies of labour, but the productivity of this labour should be enhanced.

The neo-liberal ambition of Indian policy makers is reflected in a consensus visible across political and ideological lines. For example, there is very little difference between the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party when it comes to core economic policies. However, the poor and vulnerable continue to challenge the legitimacy of these policies, and to point out their inegalitarian character. In the struggle for their own well-being, they have often exploited not only the traditional communitarian strategies, but also the growing potential of India’s competitive electoral democracy.

Unfortunately, these strategies turn out to be effective only in limited circumstances. In between elections, in everyday situations, the poor in general and the urban poor in particular have to devise new ways of ensuring the delivery of services and the enforcement of a plethora of rights that the Indian state recently granted to its citizens, such as rights to employment, to education, to subsidized grains, and so on.

Decentralization: promises and parables

Since the 1990s, India has adopted the paths both of neo-liberal economic development and of democratic decentralization. There is a deep-seated tension between the two. Neo-liberalism emphasizes macro-level economic growth, seeking to create conditions for the smooth running of business and the unhindered reproduction of capital. The explicit intent of democratic decentralization is to establish self-government at the local level by creating spaces for greater citizen participation in and oversight of the governance process of the city.  Yet to the extent that the neo-liberal economic order reduces the welfare and agency of the urban poor, it undermines their citizenship.

More than a century after Indian viceroy Lord Ripon’s reforms were enacted by the colonial state, the Indian state constitutionally enshrined the urban decentralization process by including it in the historic 74th Amendment of 1992. Despite the broad democratic spirit informing this amendment, there was greater parliamentary enthusiasm for rural decentralization than for urban; some thought the implementation of panchayat— administration of villages by people—would realize Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of rural self-governance, or swaraj. Urban decentralization, by contrast, did not evoke such high ideals.

Discussion in Parliament centered on development deficits, the financial constraints of both state and city governments, the poor delivery of services in towns, and the rent-seeking behaviour of local elites and administrators. The debate did not carry much conviction or commitment. As local self-government is a matter for states, the constitutional amendment limited itself to providing a framework within which state governments would align the range of existing laws pertaining to panchayats and municipalities. Yet necessary legal changes in states were put off until the last moment, and the rushed legislation that resulted did not significantly alter the internal functioning of municipalities. Many urban administrations, for example, continued to practice the indirect election of chairpersons and mayors.

The 74th Amendment, however, was not without benefits. In the past, election to urban local bodies was erratic, their power and functions were uneven, and state governments’ control over them was enormous. At least in a formal sense, some of these things changed.  Whenever an election was not held on time in a municipality, people now went to court to complain. The most significant change was the entry of women, dalits, tribals, and socially-disadvantaged middle caste groups into the urban political arena in India, made possible through the mandatory reservation of seats in urban local bodies.

But the potential of decentralization remains largely unfulfilled. Eighteen years after the enactment of the amendment, urban politics in general and urban local bodies in particular continue to suffer from huge democratic deficits. Until forced by the judiciary last year, constitutionally-mandated district planning and metropolitan planning committees had not even been formed in several states. The fate of ward committees, the smallest units enabling citizens to articulate their interests and opinions, is no better: in many urban areas they are almost non-existent, in others they are so large as to be ineffective. Eighteen functions are assigned to urban local bodies in Schedule XII of the Indian Constitution, but these bodies have neither the autonomy nor the financial resources to carry them out. The interference of bureaucracy at all levels, the overpowering nature of para-statal bodies like development authorities, electricity boards, and water authorities, the absence of dedicated functionaries, the personal failings of elected representatives, and the poor financial situation have together made urban local bodies both weak and ineffective. Under such circumstances, their contribution towards economic development and social justice, as mandated by the amendment, remains far too limited. An eighteen-year shadow of bad faith and inaction stands between the historic constitutional amendment and its implementation.

Politics and the urban poor

A city of nearly 17 million inhabitants, Delhi is not a single entity, but contains a multitude of distinct and overlapping spaces and enclaves. With its layering of history from the medieval to the modern, it is a palimpsest. As the capital of India, it houses the country’s most powerful people, but it is also home to many powerless and homeless people; an estimated 45% of the city’s population lives in slums. Delhi is also a city of babus— government civil servants—whose presence is strongly visible in the public sphere; nearly 80% of workers in the city, however, belong to the unorganized sector, many of them without any security of employment.

On the first of March this year, fifty women of Motilal Nehru Camp—a slum close to the middle-class residential colony of Munirka in South Delhi—met in a community room, as they did every week. As a researcher, I was allowed to attend the meeting. Members of SNS (Satark Nagarik Sangathan: Society for Citizen Vigilance Initiative), a civil society organization that has been working with the urban poor since 2003, also attended the meeting. The discussion at first focused on the role and responsibilities of elected representatives both in the Legislative Assembly and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, and on how the residents could monitor their activities.  Some women, for example, were critical of candidates bribing voters with cash and liquor—a common practice at election time. The discussion was as much about the existing political system as it was about active citizenship. The urban middles classes often express their cynicism about their elected representatives, but they rarely come together to change the system. By contrast, in this meeting room a critique of the system went hand in hand with a desire to improve it.

Towards the end of the meeting the government’s proposed cash-transfer program came in for some intense criticism. Arguments were proffered as to why the new way of delivering services might not be good for the poor. “If we are not getting the old age pension on a regular basis,” argued an old woman, “what is the guarantee that the cash transfer system will work?”  Many of the women expressed their desire to join a demonstration a few days later to protest against the proposed cash-transfer system.

Over recent years, and with the support of SNS, community groups like this one have fought against irregularities in the Public Distribution System (a program that provides subsidized food grains and kerosene for the poor) in their localities, arguing their cases with local officials and elected representatives. As a result of their continuous monitoring, the PDS works better in their localities today, and community groups are not ready to sacrifice these gains for a new and untested system of receiving cash in lieu of subsidized grains. By facilitating regular conversations on concrete issues and by providing easy-to-digest information on policy issues, SNS has undoubtedly played a significant role in quickening their political agency.

How does one make sense of the political activism of these women? It is certainly not merely a reflection of a generalized distrust of politics and politicians. One could clearly see in their discussion a reasoned political logic, an attempt to recognize the import role of monitoring in changing the character of electoral politics and elected representatives. They also clearly saw an intrinsic connection between their political assertiveness and their socioeconomic well-being. The political agency of these slum women is not an endowment from nature. Quite the opposite: it is an achievement, the product of ongoing mobilization, collective reflection, and support from local activists. In this context, the deep and respectful engagement of SNS with slum dwellers has had a real impact, as has its ongoing leadership program, which brings in local youth and trains them on issues concerning public policy and governance, and makes them aware of a repertoire of tools for citizen mobilization and action.

SNS has assisted slum dwellers in and around Delhi for some time. Soon after its founding in 2003, the organization began working with the residents of Jagadamba Camp  in South Delhi.  Both Jagadamba and Motilal Nehru Camps contain nearly 1500-2000 households each. Densely populated, these slums offer poor living conditions.  The supply of water and electricity is erratic and sanitary conditions appalling. And though a significant number of families in these two camps have been there for a long period of time, the fear  of demolition has frequently been exploited by local politicians aiming to maximize their vote count at election time by offering “protection” from this often non-existent threat.

In the beginning, SNS’s mobilization of slum dwellers in these camps focused on the Public Distribution System. As in many other places in India, the distribution of PDS goods in the camps was erratic, and many poor people were forced to make do without their entitlements. SNS worked with local families to use the Right to Information Act of 2005 (RTI) to get the records of a number of ration shops in these areas. As expected, these records revealed irregularities, so SNS organized a public hearing on PDS at which a significant number of PDS card-holders provided testimonies concerning the working of the local ration shops in their localities.

This activism accomplished three things: first the distribution of rations in these localities improved; second, the government department dealing with PDS was reminded of its duties and responsibilities; and finally, the use of RTI as an important tool for securing transparency and accountability in the system was demonstrated.

RTI enables citizens to access non-classified information; over the past few years, civil society organizations and social activists in India have used and still continue to use the law creatively to impact on the workings of government administration, service delivery, and the realization of socio-economic rights. It is arguable that Indian social activists have not only consecrated the marriage between the right to information and right to life, but have also made it work in many inspiring ways. The strategy of the slum dwellers and their social activist allies, for example, was not merely to point out the leakage in the delivery of services but also to create an ongoing structure of demand that puts pressure on the institutions and personnel responsible for the delivery of services. Today, in the slum clusters where SNS works, citizen vigilance groups work to oversee the delivery of services, including PDS and old age pension.

For some years now, elected representatives in the Indian parliament, state legislatures, and municipal councils have each been assigned a specific fund for local development. Each Member of Delhi’s Legislative Assembly (MLA) gets 20 million rupees per year to spend on development in their constituency, a program known as the Local Area Development Scheme. Each MLA also gets 5 million rupees from Delhi Jal Board to spend on water issues in the member’s constituency. Each municipal councilor, meanwhile, gets between 5 and 10 million rupees to spend on development in the ward that he or she represents. The MLA and the councilor are responsible for the allocation of funds, an the appropriate department of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi implements the project.

In the absence of strong scrutiny, however, councilors used to spend the development funds entirely at their discretion. Maximum resources were spent on road and pavement construction—projects that overwhelmingly benefit the middle class colonies. This tendency has two roots: first, large construction projects are only possible in the non-slum areas, and second, the absence of robust accountability mechanisms has kept the urban poor and their elected representatives disconnected. In 2007, however, SNS used the right to information law to obtain details on the allocation of funds by councilors in Delhi. This data, widely circulated in the media and discussed in several wards in Delhi, revealed the biases of the elected representatives towards the interests of the middle class.

Slum dwellers felt betrayed. While they were forced to live without adequate drinking water, their representatives were spending development funds on building water fountains in middle class neighborhood parks. Yet SNS’s efforts to focus their collective gaze on their elected representatives were generally effective. On more than one occasion, the slum dwellers forced their MLA to allocate funds for digging tube wells or for providing basic amenities in their districts, simply by pointing to the irrational and biased allocation. Such changes became possible whenever it became obvious to representatives that they might lose the electoral support of the poor, who vote in large numbers in comparison to their middle class counterparts.

After its initial experiments, SNS began producing report cards on the individual MLAs of the Delhi Assembly, once again using data collected through the right to information law.  The first time round, in the election of 2007, the cards reported only on the allocation of each member’s development funds; the latest version documents a representative’s performance in the legislature and as a member or the chair of various government committees. A remarkable innovation in the sphere of political accountability in India, the MLA report cards were widely circulated through media campaigns and in community meetings in different parts of Delhi during the Assembly election of 2008. According to one study, voter turnout increased by about 4% in areas where campaigns using report cards were run. Recently, SNS unveiled a mid-term report card, giving elected representatives the opportunity to enhance their performance during the remaining portions of their mandates.

Though far from being a magic formula that can bridge the gap between elected representatives and citizenry in India, the importance of this invention cannot be underestimated. There is no doubt, for example, that report cards can help to make elected representatives more accountable—and there is evidence to suggest that improved political accountability has the potential to yield not only democratic but also development dividends. During my own fieldwork in Delhi, many stories about the re-allocation of development funds to their proper uses were recounted to me by slum dwellers in these camps. To keep this process moving, however, electoral reforms such as transparency of campaign finances and barring people with serious criminal records from contesting elections are also necessary.

A new kind of politics?

The tension between the neo-liberal economic order and democratic decentralization is quite evident in many parts of India today. In a substantive sense, the 74th constitutional amendment is yet to be implemented fully in many parts of India, including Delhi. The struggle of citizens living in Jagadamba and Motilal Nehru camps is not shaped by urban decentralization; on the contrary, it is the absence of true decentralization that they are protesting against.  Whenever the Delhi government has expanded the space for citizen participation, it is the middle-class-dominated Residents Welfare Associations who have captured it. The public sphere of the city remains insensitive to the needs of the urban poor; in judicial rulings the poor are still typically characterized as intruders, polluters, and encroachers upon public spaces. It is within this hostile environment, that the urban poor continue to fight for their rights and entitlements.

The Right to Information Act has emerged as a potent instrument in their struggle by enabling the combination of two critical principles. First, the demand for information often deals with “what” questions: it helps poor citizens find out what is happening to their entitlements, for example, and what the status of their applications for redressing grievances might be. Second, the struggle for political accountability, which is more often about “why” questions. Why are officials behaving the way they do? Why don’t they act according to the rules? Why were the poor refused their entitlements?  It is in combining “what” with “why” questions that the urban poor manage to connect the pursuit of transparency with that of accountability.

By focusing on their elected representatives’ oversight functions, the urban poor of Delhi are contributing towards the effectiveness of those institutions responsible for delivery of basic services.  The bigger question is whether the monitoring of elected representatives on a regular basis will make the political system more responsive and poor-friendly. In other words, can taming the existing breed of politicians enable a new kind of politics to emerge?  In a society which is riven by inequalities and hierarchies, inclusive growth cannot be achieved by administrative fiat—so the creative use of democratic instruments by the poor may well hold the key not only to transforming politics but also to transforming the economic order itself.

Bishnu N. Mohapatra is currently a Visiting Senior Fellow at the South Asian Studies Programme of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore. Prior to this he also taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Delhi, and University of Kyoto. He headed the Governance Programme of the Ford Foundation’s South Asia office in New Delhi from 2002-2010. Bishnu is a well-known poet who writes in Odia, an eastern Indian language. He has published three volumes of poetry; A Fragile World is the first collection of his poetry in English translation.