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September 16, 2015

Reading into stories of "rural" India

Recent developments in Kharghar in Maharashtra display the unintended outcomes of a complex governance system for rural-urban and local-state governance authorities.


India has a three-tier governance system - central, state and local. If a settlement is governed as rural, it has a rural local body, called a panchayat.


Kharghar has a panchayat. The census of India categorizes it as a census town, which means it is actually urban in nature. The rules that govern panchayats are different from those that govern urban local bodies, which means that, although Kharghar is urban, it can technically avail of Ministry of Rural Development schemes and its local body is not held to the same standard of service provision as municipalities are. At the same time, funds and infrastructure to Kharghar are being provided by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) – a state-level organization, providing it another way to gain resources without the requirements and tax collection avenues that accompany municipalities. So there seem to be no incentives for this urban area governed by a panchayat to prefer a municipality.


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This Times of India article reports that... "[b]ecause of its building complexes and colleges, Kharghar is being touted as Navi Mumbai's next destination." Clearly having a panchayat has not stopped Kharghar from developing competitive urban elements, and the fact that it is a prominent urban area has not led the state government to convert it to a municipality. If the panchayat did provide all the services required, this would not be an issue. However, panchayats are not constitutionally required to do things like provide fire services and regulate the construction of buildings, while municipalities are. It is unsafe for urban areas to develop without these provisions. This does not mean that municipalities will necessarily provide them well, or that panchayats will not provide them voluntarily. It does, however, mean that citizens of Kharghar will not have this legal right, and hence depend more on the panchayat providing these services of its own accord.


The article also reports that the panchayat is handing out "freebies - from CCTVs and solar lamps to housing societies to laptops to students,” along with garbage composting machines. It notes that "even as Mumbai waits for its Rs 900-crore surveillance network, Khargar's panchayat has donated 65 CCTV cameras to the local police” and the panchayat’s annual budget is Rs. 20 crore, with a quarter of revenue coming from government grants. Since the state government is providing urban infrastructure development, the governance form of the local body is less relevant. This story has parallels across India, perhaps most prominently in Noida and Gurgaon. Both are urban areas, but Noida is still not governed by a municipality, and Gurgaon constituted a municipal corporation only in 2008. Urban infrastructure has been provided largely by state government bodies.


This could be a valid way to boost short-term development, especially when most municipalities across India are severely hamstrung by insufficient resources and the lack of necessary personnel. But should we accept this compromise of the three-tier governance system, especially since the third tier may not have the necessary capacity to perform its duties? Returning to Kharghar, the article notes that government officials state that while the panchayat has been proactive in introducing various schemes, it does not have the administrative capacity to sustain them. For instance, the CCTV system provided to the police officials has been poorly maintained.


The messiness of India’s rural-urban classifications and overlaps between local and state government authorities may be inevitable given capacity constraints, but India needs to begin acknowledging that it is more urban than what it officially states and channel resources accordingly. An IDFC Institute study found that India is 65% urban by Mexico’s definition, and while other definitions will yield other percentages, it is impossible to defend that India is only 26% urban, if we go by the percentage of population governed by urban local bodies.


The ultimate goal of the Constitution - true three-tier governance - should be kept in mind, and local bodies should be empowered accordingly. An India that thinks the many Kharghars of the country are villages is an India that misreads the requirements and aspirations of its citizens.


Some of the change will be organic. A few months ago, Times of India reported on Mulgaon in Maharashtra, where villagers on one side of the road chose to be governed by a municipality, while villagers on the other side chose to remain under a panchayat. The article claims that the “once-fierce opposition to urbanization has waned”, after residents who were previously afraid of losing farmlands and autonomy saw the better urban services that the municipal area was able to provide. The residents are also turning away from farming and taking up other occupations or getting degrees that will get them jobs in the city.  


This echoes other findings. A Lokniti survey estimates that 60% of farmers want their children to settle in cities, and only 19% think that village life is better than city life. Meanwhile, India’s farms have significant problems of under-productivity, so the country would do well to focus on non-farm avenues of growth as it works to increase the efficiency of farms.


So the slow, bottom-up changes should be supplemented from the top, with a policy direction that recognizes urban India, and leverages this demographic change to spur economic development.

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