Inklings of politics in urban India

Published: Sunday 15 March 2009

The traditional non-politics of Indian cities is confronted by rapid urbanization

THERE are signs that urban India is discovering politics after a long interval. City after congested city is demanding funds for new, comfortable buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Municipal managers see a clear political advantage in pushing public transport, and no merkely pandering to the car lobby (see 'More bus rides' Down To Earth, February 16-28, 2009).

Now, Thane has announced an ambitious plan to have a cycle track. The lobbies of truckers and personal vehicles are quite clearly up in arms. Their resistance to the cycle track should be seen in the context of what has happened in the town of Fazilka in Punjab (see 'Come without your car', Down To Earth, January 1-15, 2009). The trader lobby, the interests of which are aligned with the interests of truckers, was dead against restrictions on cars in the main market of the town. They feared the inability to park cars close to the shops would dissuade their clientele. But after the ban on cars came about, shopkeepers said they registered an increase in sales.

There is no mystery at work here, no surprise. When citizens have greater mobility, economic activities only increase. People of Fazilka realized mobility was not the same thing as automobility--private vehicles, when uncontrolled, cause more congestion and immobility than their adverts would have people believe.

Urban planners and city managers in India have for too long mistaken automobility for mobility. This is because they have identified too closely with the interests of the minority that gains from concessions to private vehicles, because urban voters were indifferent. Urban voters did not form as big a part of the polity as they do now, given rapid urbanization. This shift is leading to new strategies among all political parties.

It stands to reason that managment of cities will make or break many a political career. Consider the case of slum redevelopment in Bengaluru. The interests of the real estate sector are not aligned with those of people living in the city's slums. Till now, city managers and urban planners have chosen to not deal with the interests of slums and the people who live there. Low-cost housing has never been taken seriously in India despite several international examples of the social and economic role it can play. It is hoped the discovery of politics in urban India will extend to land use and housing.

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