from Development Channel and Cities, India’s Urban Transformation, and Global Networks

Emerging Voices: Jessica Seddon on Do-It-Yourself Governance in India

Morning in the city of Kolkata, India, November 2012 (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Courtesy Reuters).
Morning in the city of Kolkata, India, November 2012 (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Courtesy Reuters).

Emerging Voices features regular contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Jessica Seddon, founder of Okapi Research and senior research adviser at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. Here she analyzes the rise of governance outside of government in India.

India is often seen as growing in spite of its government: a nation of businesses and citizens overcoming electricity outages and other infrastructure gaps, weak public schools, and limited public health care—a country held back by red tape and those who wield it.

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The limits of this strategy--if it can be called a strategy--have become clear. “India Unbound,” to quote Gurcharan Das’s best-selling narrative on post-liberalization India, has run into new challenges in recent years. Growth has slowed and investment rates are faltering in the face of regulatory and tax uncertainty, land acquisition challenges, and other problems caused by the state waffling on key issues. Individuals enter the labor force far faster than jobs (especially well-paid, high-quality jobs) materialize; and weak transport infrastructure and outdated labor laws handicap would-be employers. An estimated twelve million Indians reach employable age every year. But only three million new jobs were created in the four years between 2005 and 2010, according to the National Sample Survey. Asset and some dimensions of income inequality also appear to be on the rise, without the counterbalance of effective public investment in building the means for social mobility. Das’s latest book laments the fact that “India Grows at Night” (while the state sleeps) and calls for a reinvention of the state.

That is easier said than done, however, even if the need is well-recognized. Nowhere is this more apparent than in India’s cities. According to the Census of India, approximately one third of India’s population lives in urban areas. Many argue that the official methodology underestimates the urban population and that a proportion closer to one half live in conditions associated with cities. This significant urban population produces an estimated seventy percent of GDP  and at least that proportion of economic opportunities. Policymakers recognize that urban areas present many opportunities for dynamism and growth. Yet India’s cities remain congested, polluted, poorly planned, and are haphazardly expanding without adequate infrastructure.

The Indian state has neither obvious incentives nor the capacity to respond to urban residents’ demands. India’s metropolises are essentially overseen by generalist bureaucrats from the national civil service, who are appointed, removed, and replaced by state governments. Urban capital investment depends substantially on transfers from other levels of government, and state governments set the framework for property taxes--the largest chunk of local taxes, which are meant to cover infrastructure-related operations and maintenance. In terms of human capital, the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, where I work as a senior research adviser, estimates that there are about 4,000 qualified urban planners in India, just half of whom work in government. Only 8,000 senior engineers serve over 4,000 officially recognized cities, not to mention the 3,000 other fast-growing areas that the Census of India describes as having urban-like demographics.

Therefore, reinvention from within is a long shot. Local governments have been constitutionally recognized for twenty years, but state governments retain the  right to determine their forms. Most have determined that local elected governments should have limited power; only a few states and cities have elected mayors. The current constellation of national and state agencies that oversee infrastructure investment and control valuable land assets are unlikely to cede their turf to local actors.

Enter the alternative: do-it-yourself governance. Urban governance is now evolving thanks to NGOs, philanthropists, local businesses, and resident associations who are stepping in to deliver important aspects of governance left undone by the government. Civil society’s ability to construct solutions in smaller venues--such as for housing developments, resident welfare associations, local businesses, and neighborhoods-- is starting to connect with government’s authority to enact these plans on a larger scale.

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India’s civil society and business communities are becoming increasingly sophisticated as unofficial sources of policy and urban policy and design. Activists no longer simply demand certain outcomes; they are now providing data, analyses, and plans to ensure that projects actually come to fruition. Academics and non-profit foundations have pro-actively pitched policy solutions and have helped in institutional retrofitting, from enabling Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping centers in urban planning bodies to developing blueprints for land-banking. Architecture, infrastructure, and planning firms are increasingly producing blueprints for public spaces on spec and in collaboration with civil society groups, as well as in response to government requests.

Foundations and business associations also help bring together the fragmented landscape of official urban governance. Arghyam, a water-focused foundation in Bangalore, for example, recently worked with city and state leaders to help the local government access state funding for integrated water management. NGOs and business associations across the country organize and host small, relatively private workshops for key players from various levels of government and specialized urban infrastructure agencies.

These relationships have started to evolve from project-based partnerships to more longstanding relationships. For example, Chennai City Connect (CCC), a loose coalition of business people, civil society leaders, and city and state officials, has worked with Chennai’s official transport planning body on regional master planning, transit-oriented development around public transport hubs, plans to make crowded retail areas more pedestrian-friendly, and parking policy. CCC, along with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, brought together a coalition of local architects and urban designers to redesign forty-eight kilometers along seventy-one roads to ease the traffic flow and create more space for pedestrians and public transport. This same approach will be applied to more roads in the future, especially in newly developed areas on the outskirts of the city. CCC serves as a much-needed, flexible, evolving, city-rooted policy kitchen cabinet.

To be sure, the approach has flaws. Voluntary private provision of expertise for public initiative sounds a lot like lobbying, and in some sense it is. Involved activists, businesses, and NGOs may have the interests of the city in mind, but many of the organizations that interact with the highest levels of government are comparatively elite coalitions. Their vision, and even their understanding of the urban context, does not necessarily match that of the broader, generally poorer population. Many of these organizations meet in the open, conducting discussions in a mix of English and local languages, and collaborate with other groups, but these practices are not formally mandated. Non-government contributors to governance have to manage oversight by their peers, but the media is often the only referee.

Still, the rise of do-it-yourself governance has many advantages in a world where technical expertise evolves rapidly, specializations multiply, and thousands of people engage in ongoing policy experiments around the world and have knowledge to share. The emerging urban coalitions in India are rooted in a locally understood need for solutions, and are able to seek out and learn lessons from experts across disciplines and around the world (subject to budget constraints). They can take advantage of a rotating pool of specialists, and invite them to share their insights without subjecting them to the formal commitments and red tape that comes with official study visits. Do-it-yourself governance organizations are not bound by legacy administrative structures and the associated dissection of integrated urban challenges into line items.

Will reform in spite of the state improve India’s cities? It is still uncertain, but governance outside of government is clearly on the rise.