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By Sundar Senthilnathan and Sudeep Surendra

A well-designed transport system

A well-designed transport system

India is no longer the place where one can romanticize sleepy villages. It is urbanizing at rapid pace. Out of a billion plus people, 377 million are living in more than 7,000 towns and cities. Over the next fifteen years, more than 200 million people could be added to the urban population. The number of million plus cities in India increased to 53 in 2011 from just 35 in 2001. 40% of the total urban populace reside in these 53 million plus cities. There is nothing unnatural about this spectacular growth as economic growth and urbanization go hand in hand. Despite Indian cities disproportionately contributing to GDP, the quality of life however is getting worse by the day. Roads, public transport, traffic regulation, housing, waste management, water distribution network, sewerage systems, health and educations services, and law and order – all in a state of seemingly irretrievable mess. In the 2013 liveability rankings by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Mumbai ranks 116 out of 140 cities. It fares just a notch better than violence prone Karachi and Damascus.

Resolving liveability problems require a systemic governance overhaul. At present, there are way too many city agencies that exist alongside Indian city governments. Planning and infrastructure provision for instance is under the control of bureaucratic bodies quite ironically called development authorities. The city governments have hardly any say in it. In most of Indian cities, water supply, sewerage and transport are not under the city government but under agencies that are accountable only to the state government.  Many city governments are responsible only for street lights, parks, approach roads and storm water drains. This existing system is against the spirit of the 74th Constitutional amendment passed in the year 1992 that mandated establishing directly elected city councils. They were to be given the necessary powers to carry out functions from city planning to poverty alleviation. These city councils were set up as mandated, but were not given adequate powers to govern themselves. Many of them do not have control even over their own budget. The continuing deterioration of quality of life in cities is a function of impotence and inefficiency of city governments.

In a Survey of City-Systems carried out for eleven Indian cities by Bangalore based Janaagraha centre for citizenship and democracy, it was concluded that the essential institutions and processes of urban governance are in terrible shape. Across the board, Indian cities are undemocratic in that there are hardly avenues for public participation besides the representatives themselves being toothless. There are other serious problems faced by all the cities in terms of unscientific planning, archaic processes, anaemic resources, poor fiscal management and high degree of control as well as neglect by the state governments. No amount of recommendations by governmental panels, academia and the business community has brought about meaningful change.

Even an incentive linked reform scheme introduced in 2005 – the top-down Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission that provided funds on the condition of satisfying key governance reforms – failed in relieving local governments and other service providing agencies from the iron grip of state governments. Many reforms implemented under the scheme were merely cosmetic exercises. PAD reforms – improving Processes, establishing Accountability and supporting local Democracy have been negligible. As a result,urban governance is in paralytic state. To illustrate, city roads get re-laid over and over again without any thought to the purpose and its sustainability. Many such projects go on without any work codes, facilitating corruption. Moreover, citizens are often clueless about why such a road was re-laid, and at whose behest. Life in Indian cities moves on even as city agencies carry out their works without even a common base map.

Urban governance and development is a key agenda for aspirants to the seat of power in Delhi. The incumbent Congress party makes all the right statements about empowering city governments. It wants directly elected mayors with longer tenures to be the CEOs of cities. However, it is difficult to believe the earnestness of the intent to empower city governments considering its pathological centralization mindset. In fact, none of the Congress ruled states have initiated real decentralization in urban governance. The Congress also wants to create 100 urban clusters around existing small and emerging cities with power and transport links to scale economic activities. One interesting point, which may not help the party, is that it recognizes the chronic under-franchising in urban areas and thereby promises to ensure equality.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) much awaited manifesto repeats the Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s assertion that urbanization is an opportunity and not a threat. On what it intends to bring about, some of the BJP’s ideas are very similar to those of the Congress. For example, while the BJP talks about satellite towns, the Congress proposes 100 urban clusters.  In addition, the BJP wants to build 100 new cities. One wonders how the number 100 was arrived at by both the parties. The CEOs of industrial corridors, heads of city development authorities and practising architects know very well that the existing system simply does not have the capacity to plan and execute dreamy ideas including integrated transport systems in this country. On devolution of meaningful powers to urban local bodies, the BJP seems to have no plan of action.

The aspiring Aam Aadmi Party, in line with its decentralization and participatory democratic ethos, vouches for empowerment of the neighbourhood itself through Area councils or Mohalla Sabhas. These Area councils will have the powers to identify beneficiaries for welfare programs, and spend untied funds on the basis of neighbourhood priorities. Local health, education and even police authorities would be accountable to the area councils. Once a sense of responsibility builds among the citizens, the area councils would be given the power to initiate legislation. This sub-localism, the party believes, will deepen democracy, and deliver better quality of life. However, there is a risk of this very sub-localism undermining local government, which the manifesto does not address. On urban development, it specifies that India’s tier-2 and tier-3 cities’ urban infrastructure should be given the required attention to facilitate the economic growth of peripheries.

On balance, none of the manifestos is comprehensive on urban governance and development. We find no merit in bringing up 100 more cities or building 100 urban clusters if the basic systems of governance will continue to remain as they are. There is a yawning gap between the manifestos of political parties, barring the Aam Aadmi Party to a certain extent, and the ground realities. The next government instead of pursuing dreamy projects should focus on the onerous task of systemic reforms in all aspects of urban governance – real devolution, community participation, metropolitan planning, strengthening of human and technological capacities and financial management.  It could develop replicable models of improved urban governance processes, with the ward becoming the basic institutional unit. That is, the ward is where civic service delivery issues are to be resolved, citizen participation methods concretized, and local area plans are made in conjunction with the metropolitan plan. This ward specific governance model should then be replicated as the cities grow. Only then the haphazardness of urban development could be overcome. We hope the discussion on India’s urban governance and development moves beyond the basics in 2019. By then the urban population in the largest democracy could be 500 million.

Sundar Senthilnathan is a Public Policy analyst and Sudeep Surendra is Senior Project Associate at Avantika Foundation. Views expressed are their own. Feedback can be emailed to doctorsundhar@gmail.com or kssudeep@gmail.com

By Criminonymous

"Look at Bangladesh today / Buildings once filled with workers are now filled with graves / Six cents an hour’s not a suitable wage"

“Look at Bangladesh today / Buildings once filled with workers are now filled with graves / Six cents an hour’s not a suitable wage”

Learn from history and present times
Help to solve the mystery of how societies survive
If you’ve never seen a gun, you’re a lucky one
And think about your life in the context of the world
Because so many grow up in a place we can’t imagine
A hard life to live, can’t get ahead like Anne Boleyn
Strivers and shirkers: the rhetoric we’ve heard for ages
Simply doesn’t capture the complexities of work and wages
If hard work always led to successes
So many African women would live lives like princesses
If innovation were truly decorated
So many Indian women would be emancipated
But it’s just not as simple as they want us to believe
Our reality depends on power’s distribution
Equally, yes, we have free will; yes, we have choice
But options seem narrow when you’ve lost hope and voice
There’s so much to do, but there’s so little time
Another day goes by, more starving people die
But I feel encouraged, my view isn’t negative
It’s better round the corner, at least that’s our prerogative
To make it a reality, change mentality
And say it really proudly: we can stop the brutality!
We’re overdue a bit of peace, I’d say
And to this, I hope that we will contribute one day

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By Babak Moussavi

5 Days in MayThe tense, uncertain days that followed the British general election in May 2010 seem like a while ago now. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, quite a novelty at first, has become so entrenched in our minds that the previous Labour administration seems to represent a different zeitgeist entirely, where the word ‘austerity’ was not even part of the political lexicon. Gordon Brown seems like ancient history, despite remaining as an MP.

One common refrain on the part of the leaders of the Coalition, in particular the Chancellor, George Osborne, is that the policies enacted have been necessary and inevitable. Indeed, the TINA argument – “there is no alternative” – is the foundation to the government’s ‘deficit-cutting’ programme. This is highly disingenuous.

But with time, it is not just the policies of the coalition, but the coalition itself that has been made to seem inevitable. With hindsight, it has been made to seem as though the only governing coalition possible was between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, given that this combination was the only grouping that could command a majority in the House of Commons, let alone ‘rescue’ Britain.

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By Antoine Cerisier 

On 12 June 2013, the Gava courthouse in Barcelona filed a case against Lionel Messi. The Argentinean player and his father are suspected of using companies based in Uruguay and Belize to defraud the state of more than 4 million euros. A few months earlier, Bayern Munich’s general manager Uli Hoeness and French Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac were both accused of evading taxes through undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland. Ironically, the latter was leading the fight against tax fraud in France. A number of European multinationals, such as UBS and Vodafone, have also been suspected of taking part in proven or alleged evasion schemes. These high-profile cases have raised public awareness of tax dodging in Europe and given credit to its detractors. For instance, the Tax Justice Network estimated that 20 to 30 trillion dollars are currently held in tax havens worldwide. The issue is especially sensitive for European countries in the current context: securing stable tax revenue has become an urgent priority in times of recession and high public debt. Furthermore, the existence of tax havens within Europe – including Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Channel Islands – remains a pressing challenge for the continent.

French Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac “fighting against tax fraud” in November 2012

French Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac “fighting against tax fraud” in November 2012

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1291962_10151906769422578_56970374_nby Eamon Rooke

Darling of the Blairite right, Louise Mensch, made several remarkable public outbursts in her strange political career. One such moment was famously documented on ‘Have I Got News For You’. Whilst discussing Occupy London, Mensch lamented the hypocrisy of the Occupants for buying Starbucks coffee. “You can’t say ‘capitalism is crisis’, and then enjoy everything that capitalism offers”. Her opinion was rightly laughed at for its utter emptiness, since you can clearly hate capitalism and like coffee at the same time, and not be a hypocrite. Or, as another panelist put it, someone on death row can enjoy their last meal. Mensch does, nonetheless, raise an interesting topic: how can an anti-capitalist live ethically?

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By Alexander Green

800px-Azaz_Syria_during_the_Syrian_Civil_War_Missing_front_of_HouseThe obvious should go without saying. However, sometimes it goes much better with saying. It should be obvious, at least to every right-thinking international lawyer, that Western military intervention in Syria would be illegal at this time. Someone had better tell Messrs Obama and Cameron before they do something we all might regret.

This article will first provide a brief summary of the facts before examining the legal position. I will argue, based upon a normative interpretation of international law, that any military action without the consent of the UN Security Council would be illegal even if a deliberate chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian government on its civilian population.

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By Sarah Walker

Bedroom Tax demonstration

Protesting against an ill-thought through policy

On Tuesday disabled families lost a court challenge to changes to social housing benefit. The High Court ruled that the policy, commonly known as “the bedroom tax”, charging a subsidy to those on social housing benefit living in a property which is deemed to have a “spare bedroom” (14% less housing benefit per spare room), did not unlawfully discriminate against disabled people. Whether or not an appeal to the Court of Appeal will be successful remains to be seen. Whatever the legality of the decision to impose the “bedroom tax” (or ‘”spare room subsidy”), the policy, introduced on 1 April 2013, is still a bad one.

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Theresa-May_1716248cby Joseph Markus

In short, the answer has got to be no.

Theresa May – who is known for advocating withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights and from the jurisdiction of its court – is taking too much from what is really the limited significance of all this. What looks to be taking place is that she is using the deportation as a political football under the cover of the handy cross-party unity over whether it was – broadly defined – “a good thing”.

Let’s take each of her claims in turn.

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border2-thumbnailby Joseph Markus

Contrary to what the BBC has been reporting (it’s now fixed it), the High Court on Friday 5 July upheld claims that aspects of the new Immigration Rules – contained in an Appendix FM to the Rules – fell foul of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In particular, what Mr Justice Blake decided, in a long and detailed judgment, was that the range of new financial requirements for spouses coming to join their partners in the UK (who in this case were either refugees or British citizens) were more than was necessary for the legitimate end of managing migration.

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By Babak Moussavi

Ed Balls Day pictureEd Balls Day is a phenomenon that could only happen in the digital age of Twitter. On April 28th 2011, Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, accidentally tweeted his own name from his Twitter account. He was presumably searching for what people were saying about him online, and typed in the wrong box. Curiously, he didn’t delete the tweet, and it went viral. Two years later the anniversary generated some hilarious spoofs, even receiving mentions in newspapers and London Underground noticeboards. Mr Balls fortunately took the festivities in good humour, even tweeting his own name, once more.

Twitter is useful for more than comedy though, and its wider role in British politics is growing. In 2009, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was forced to apologise after referring to people who tweet too much as “twats”. He has since joined the microblogging site himself, and, with the help of the Conservative press team, circulates updates about his activities and policy developments. George Osborne, the chancellor, has recently jumped on the bandwagon too.

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