Why It Is Important to Remember KCS and his Contribution to Urban Governance

Kallidaikurichi Chidambarakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan died on May 28, 2015. A year after his death, Bhanu Joshi remembers him.

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Kallidaikurichi Chidambarakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan. Credit: YouTube

What is the institutional architecture within which we foresee India’s urbanisation? What framework of governance – public or private – do we think would be able to provide better services to urban India?

Kallidaikurichi Chidambarakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan or KCS, as many of us called him, was amongst the first to ask these questions, questions he continued engaging with over his lifetime. Chief executive of the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority, secretary in both the Ministry of Urban Development and the Ministry of Commerce, and professor and chairman at the Centre for Policy Research, he was one of the pioneering interpreters of urbanisation in modern India.

A man whose commentary and work ranged from delimitation to the environment and climate change, from Ganga water management to South Asian cooperation, KCS was most valued for his contribution to understanding decentralisation in India. He was involved in the making of the watershed 65th Constitutional Bill, which later became the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA). The 74th CAA mandated the creation of municipalities across urban areas.

Bringing a historical and political perspective

The numerous books, journal articles and popular writings on decentralised urban governance by KCS employed three related perspectives – historical, legal and political.

KCS assigned great importance to historical continuities. For him, India’s modern conception of devolution still bore the imprint of colonial rule. While colonial local self-government provided a forum for representation and practice, it was the provincial, state and central legislatures which controlled their powers, finances and functions.

The second perspective was the defining of institutional powers and legislative domains of local governments, produced by the coalescence of law and legal jurisprudence. He believed there were limits to which adjudication in the courts of law could help the process. “Courts prefer to dwell upon the letter of the law, rather than the spirit, however relevant it may be for a proper understanding and interpretation of the law. The remedy may not lie in the court, but elsewhere,” he said in a book.

That ‘elsewhere’ lay in polity and the process of people’s participation. He believed that India’s decentralisation project could not bypass the messiness of politics and people’s participation, and in this lay the third perspective through which he viewed the process of decentralised urban governance.

Emphasising urban governance

KCS was secretary in the Ministry of Urban Development when the 65th Constitutional Amendment Bill was brought to the Lok Sabha by the Rajiv Gandhi government. The 74th CAA of 1993, modelled on the 65th bill, opened up avenues of political participation, in the process creating a new political class across urban India.

“We thought we were on the cusp of a revolution,” said KCS in a public lecture in 2012, referring to elected representatives at the local level demanding an increased share in the political domain. Almost 20 years after it was enacted, he recognised that the 74th CAA, though pathbreaking, remained a restrictive framework.

KCS’s work on metropolitan regions in India is revealing of the imaginative restrictions imposed by the amendment. Take for instance the Mumbai metropolitan region, comprised of areas beyond the city corporation, including rural and urban, multi-municipal and non-municipal bodies. KCS argued that metropolitan governance cannot be compartmentalised as rural or urban. Instead, he argued for strong intra-municipal coordination, inclusion of rural local governments and a direct link between the various state and central ministries and the region.

According to him, the idea that the problems of a ‘big’ city must be understood as purely urban problems is flawed. Transport, water supply, garbage disposal and planned development are not city-centred but extend beyond it, and you have to consider the region as a whole. In an essay for the Economic and Political Weekly, he argued that the 74th CAA had failed to “visualise the dynamics of large, complex urban formations”. In his last published chapter, he was equally forthright, “Notwithstanding the initial objectives of enlarging the funnel of participation and providing for a wider system of directly elected representative bodies, in actual effect the amendment has failed to fulfil this objective.”

And herein lies the biggest contribution of KCS. By grappling with the question of the institutional architecture of urban governance, he posed profound questions on how our cities should grow. Who should plan for them – elected or unelected leaders? What forms of people’s participation do we imagine for our cities?

Within the wide canvas of the urban, there has been an explosion of scholarship on issues like housing, migration, role of land, livelihoods, provision of services particularly to the urban poor, urban violence, etc. Yet, the core question of urban governance, by which arguably many of these issues are greatly affected, has received limited attention over the years.

Understandably, the term ‘urban governance’ is not homogenous and cannot be thought to be a panacea for all the things that ail cities. However, understanding and advocating greater autonomy to the city, a politically accountable leadership and an inclusive city government which becomes the forum for city planning are critical.

KCS’s legacy

In the summer of 2014, KCS was appointed chairman of the “Expert Committee on the New Capital for Andhra Pradesh” by the Ministry of Home Affairs. KCS’s doctors had issued a no-travel dictum because of his deteriorating health. Nonetheless, he made frequent visits to Hyderabad, took frequent updates from other members of the committee who visited the newly-carved state and met people across a wide spectrum. The committee submitted its report much before the deadline.

The report of the committee left the decision to the political leadership of Andhra Pradesh, reaffirming KCS’s fundamental belief that in a democracy it is the people who matter. He believed that a democracy would advance not by an orderly progress of law, but only by creating platforms where competing views and interests could contest. It is a question KCS posed to a gathering in Mumbai that offers the best insight into his legacy. “Before you think of becoming Shanghai, shouldn’t Mumbai start thinking of becoming Mumbai first? Like everywhere else, we can lay the contours of battle – it is that much easier for us to promulgate victory then join the battle. The reason why I am spending so much time is because I think we are capable, we shouldn’t be sterile. We need to think out of the box.”

Bhanu Joshi works with the Centre for Policy Research. He tweets at @beejoshi