Thursday, 9 August 2007

Jamshedpur and governance

This is an article I wrote for DNA last year, probably my last one there. I should have posted it when it was published, but don’t remember why I didn’t. Don't know what the status of Jamshedpur is now, but the questions that the article raises are still relevant.

Anyway, here goes.

Saying tata to good governance?

Saturday, November 18, 2006 21:11 IST

Conundrum of democracy in Jamshedpur


"It is creating anxiety in the people of Jamshedpur as they are used to a certain standard of life ..." B Muthuraman, managing director, Tata Steel, sounded very much like a colonial potentate as he said that on camera during a programme on the brouhaha over the status of Jamshedpur. The natives wanted a benevolent ruler (in this case, the Tatas) to manage their affairs for them, he seemed to be saying.

But there's no ignoring the fact that over 50,000 people submitted a petition against converting the Jamshedpur Notified Area, administered by the Tata Steel-owned Jamshedpur Utilities & Services Co (Jusco) into an elected municipal corporation. The issue of Jamshedpur's status is currently being seen in black-and-white terms - bad politicians versus good Tatas. But it is really one of a choice between a representative democracy versus a controlled democracy.

There's no denying that the century-old administration by the Tatas is what made a backward village called Sakchi into a bustling township that is India's only UN Global Compact city. On the face of it, in a liberal democracy, an elected body is to be preferred over any non-elected one, since the former is seen to be more accountable.

So when Muthuraman said, "While you have one successful model which has been there for a hundred years would you like to bring in some other model which however lofty may not yet have been tried", it did come across like a desperate attempt to cling on to control.

Except that many urban middle class Indians feel that the other model - a municipality - has been tried and has failed miserably. The politically-stoked tumult over the drive against unauthorised shops in Delhi (which has an elected municipality), only reinforces fears about rapacious politicians and urban decay. The other proposal - that Jamshedpur should be declared an industrial township - is also flawed from a democracy point of view, though the 74th Amendment relating to urban local bodies allows this arrangement where companies are willing to provide civic amenities.

Providing basic infrastructure is the function of the state and the industrial township idea absolves the state of its primary responsibilities and pushes the burden on to someone whose responsibility is to generate wealth and employment.

The controversy over Jamshedpur also throws up some larger issues about the quality of democratic governance. Isn't it tragic that in a 60-year-old democracy, a representative institution like a municipal corporation is seen as negating good governance, and a non-elected body is being preferred in its place? Isn't there something wrong with our democracy if people are scared of those they elect to office?

There is a democratic way of solving the Jamshedpur issue. Let its fate be decided by its residents, through a referendum, perhaps. If the majority wants to retain the current status, let it be so. If they want it to become a municipality, so be it.

But the choice of Jamshedpur's residents is not going to be end of story. Why should an elected municipality mean a decline in standards of civic life? Shouldn't the 50,000 people who want Jamshedpur to stay the way it is then get more involved in the way it is run, either actively or by electing responsible people to the municipality?

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. These people - and their sympathisers across the country - can probably never hold their own against greedy politicians and corrupt bureaucrats. Their own apathy will be partly responsible for this. But is the political lethargy of citizens reason enough to prefer a bureaucrat or technocrat dominated system over a representative one?

There are no easy answers to all these. But these are questions each Indian must wrestle with and find answers to. Because on that will depend the kind of democracy India will be.

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