Who decides where your city ends?

As urban sprawl in India unfolds at a frantic pace, it’s quite natural to ask: where does a city begin and where does it end? What is the spatial terrain that makes up a city? What should the boundaries of the city government be? These are some fundamental questions that need to be considered while discussing urban governance. These questions become all the more relevant at a time when there are discussions for the division of a city such as Bengaluru into two or three different municipal corporations.

While questions on the institutional form of the city government have received some attention, its spatial dimension is often ignored. Ultimately, it is necessary for us to ask: what is urban governance the governance of? 

Urbanisation or urban growth is conventionally understood as the increase in the population of a city. However, it is important to realise that spatial growth of the city is perhaps a more fundamental aspect of the urban process. With cities expanding to areas outside its frontiers, it becomes pertinent to examine how systems of governance respond to it.

An interesting question to consider in this context: What is the extent of the actual metropolitan population that comes under the jurisdiction of a city government? It is thought that when there is congruence in the areas of the functional metropolitan region with the administrative boundaries of the city, the governance of the metropolitan region is likely to be more effective.

Research conducted by LSE Cities, at the London School of Economics and Political Science, across 35 different cities reveal that there is much variation between cities in the extent of congruence between metropolitan areas and administrative boundaries.

While 100 percent of the population living in Lagos falls within the jurisdiction of the Lagos city-state, only 8 percent of the larger Manila metropolitan region’s population lives in Manila city and comes under its city mayor. The equivalent proportion for Delhi and Mumbai would be 66 and 65 percent respectively.

Addition, division and multiplication

In case of Bengaluru, it is interesting to note that the spatial boundaries of the city corporation have expanded by more than 10 times in the last six decades. In 1949, the Bangalore City Corporation covered merely 69 square kilometres whereas since the formation of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP or Greater Bangalore Municipal Corporation) in 2007, the area under BBMP has increased to 716 square kilometres.

The critical moment in spatial-governance expansion came in January 2007 with the formation of the BBMP which merged the Bangalore City Corporation (Bangalore Mahanagara Palike or BMP) with many adjoining local bodies – seven City Municipal Councils (Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Dasarahalli, Bommanahalli, Krishnarajapuram, Mahadevapura, Byatarayanapura and Yelahanka), one Town Municipal Council (Kengeri) and 110 villages.

However, it needs to be noted that the integration of these peripheral areas with the city was carried out without consulting any of the neighbouring municipalities and village panchayats, which were subsumed.

The council building decked up for the first session of the BBMP council. Pic: Vaishnavi Vittal/Citizen Matters

The government notification which increased the area of Bengaluru’s corporation explained that such a move would coordinate and improve infrastructure development and service delivery, and also strengthen administrative capacity to ensure better enforcement of rules.  However, eight years later, the move is seen by the state government as largely a failure, and hence the city is sought to be divided again.  

The need to divide Bengaluru is justified given the fact that it has become difficult for a single body to manage the affairs of such a large population and smaller urban bodies are assumed to enhance efficiency in administration.  

A Committee headed by BL Shankar constituted for giving suggestions on the division of BBMP has indicated that it is in favour of trifurcating the BBMP into three regions – Bengaluru Central, consisting of the core Bengaluru region which was part of the old Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP), Bengaluru South and Bengaluru North.

Interestingly, there is widespread opposition to the proposal of division of BBMP from the elected council of the body itself. While the state government is led by the Congress, the BBMP council has a majority of BJP members. The opposition to the division is however reported to be cutting across party lines.

Who draws the boundary line?

As the BBMP looks likely to be split even in the face of opposition from within the council, it is important to look at how decisions regarding the boundaries of a city are taken. At the recent Urban Age Conference – Governing Urban Futures held in Delhi, organised by LSE Cities and the Alfred Herrhausen Society, Gerald Frug, a Harvard law professor, asked a more fundamental question: “Who decides who decides?”

The question is not just whether it is the state, the city, or neighbourhood that decides what a policy should be. The more basic question, according to Frug, is about who has the power to allocate decision-making authority.

In the case of Bengaluru, the decision on the division of BBMP was taken by the State government and not the BBMP itself. The question then is who decides which body has the right to decide the boundaries of the city. In India, such authority also rests with the state government though ultimately the powers of the state are laid out in the Constitution of India.

In Bengaluru, the decision on division is being taken by the state without sufficient discussion with the city. This is similar to the process when the BBMP itself was formed and surrounding regions were added to the city without any consultation; ironically, these same regions are now being proposed to be split off. Interestingly, during both these periods, the state government and city government were controlled by different political parties.

The state government’s move to divide BBMP needs to be critically examined especially because it comes when there are only about three months left in the current term of the elected council of BBMP.  It is useful to recall that in November 2006, the BMP council was dissolved on the completion of its five-year term, without holding of any fresh elections because the proposal for the formation of BBMP was announced.

BBMP functioned as a bureaucratic regime with no political accountability, as there was no elected city council, till March 2010 when the elections were finally held. Processes such as delimitation and reservation of wards delayed the elections. The decision to redraw the boundaries of the city resulted in the absence of local democracy in Bengaluru for almost four years.

There is a very real possibility that we might see a repetition of such a situation in March 2015 when the term of the elected council of the BBMP gets over. Unless key decisions pertaining to reorganisation – such as zoning, delimitation, electoral rolls etc. – are taken without much delay, it may be difficult to ensure that the decision to divide the city does not result in absence of local democracy.

A metropolitan solution?

While a unilateral mode of decision making by the state government is hugely problematic, it may also not be wise to leave decisions on the boundaries of the city entirely with the city corporation, since such decisions also affect the neighbouring areas. Leaving such decisions to localities or smaller units within a corporation might also be regressive since it can result in richer areas opting out to ensure that the taxes collected from the area is not distributed to other areas.

Frug’s solution is the creation of a regional governmental body (above the cities and below the states) at the metropolitan level, constituting all cities in a metropolitan area, to take important decisions on cities. In India, authorities at the metropolitan level do exist (for example, in Bengaluru’s case, the Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority); however these are state-run bodies and are not constituted by the various local bodies in the metropolitan area.

Due to the tight control that the state exercises over the city, urban local bodies still do not perform functions such as city planning and land use management, though they are empowered to do so under the Constitution of India.

Metropolitan Planning Committees, comprised of members of various local bodies, have still not been constituted in most metropolitan cities in India despite it being mandatory as per the 74th Amendment to the Constitution. In Bengaluru, while members to the MPC have been recently elected, it has still not started functioning. Interestingly, the Chief Minister of Karnataka is a member of the MPC while the Mayor of Bengaluru is not!

Even in Kolkata, where an MPC was constituted more than a decade back, the Chief Minister is the designated chairperson of the MPC and the Minister for Urban Development is the vice-chairperson. Since even an MPC is dominated by the state government, it cannot really function as a metropolitan-level body which is representative of the interests of the various localities within the metropolitan area.

Hence, presently, we do not have a system of government that adequately represents the voices within a metropolis. In such a situation, the decision on whether a city government should be broken up or not lies entirely with the state government. But even so, there is nothing stopping the state government to involve the local bodies like BBMP and other affected groups in this process.

In fact, it is vital for cities to participate in key decisions that deeply affect its future. Otherwise, in the future, we might find the decision of dividing Bengaluru into multiple corporations to be just as ill-thought as the decision to merge many local bodies with the city had been.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in Citizen Matters’ sister publication, India Together on November 29th.

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