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The Urban Question: What's on Offer for Indian Cities in Party Manifestos?

Aravind Unni
Apr 24, 2024
Nearly 50% of Indian population lives in the cities, for they are hub of opportunities and significant in country's development trajectory. Yet, the urban landscape remains a blank spot in our political discourse.

The Lok Sabha 2024 elections have already begun. A formidable BJP, armed with machinery, power, and abundant resources, pledges Modi’s Guarantees; while the underdogs – Congress and the INDIA alliance –  prepare to mount a spirited challenge. This election has high stakes and will be keenly fought in many respects, especially as a battle of ideas and new narratives. The election manifestos released by several parties offer an insight into these new narratives and ideas, some of which will shape India’s future. Through an analysis of election manifestos, this article locates the urban within the slew of promises, understanding how India’s cities feature in them.

While the popular assumption that – Bharat Ek Krishi Pradhan Desh Hai (India is an agrarian country/economy) – persists, the reality now is far from the truth. The urban now would almost house 50% of the population and play a preeminent role in the country’s development trajectory. It is where the jobs are, where youth and the workers flock to, and what drives capital. Yet it is also where the deepest inequalities exist, with a lack of access to basic amenities and infrastructures. Our cities routinely stand at the top of the charts for being the most polluted, climate-disaster-prone, and unliveable in the world. It is responses, if not solutions, to these challenges that we seek to find in the manifestos and that tell us of our urban policy drift.

What the Manifestos Mention on Urban

The BJP manifesto titled “Modi Ki Guarantee” banks on what has been delivered in the last 10 years and appeals for “Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar”. The manifesto is mostly seen as a policy continuum, with strong, unmissable Hindu–Hindi, Bharat–Virasat–Vishwa Guru overtones in many aspects compared to the BJP’s previous manifestos since 2014. The urban focus remains strong in the document and has a section denoted – Ease of Living in Cities, highlighting its vision for world-class infrastructure in all cities and the promotion of sustainable living.

The Congress manifesto – the highly publicised Nyaya Patra – is the result of the Bharat Jodo Yatra and discussions with the people. The document focuses on equity and social justice rooted in constitutional values. The urban section in the manifesto is only a part of the combined rural and urban development subsection; the well-defined urban focus, unlike the last manifesto of the Congress, is lacking.

Also read: Why Is Modern Indian Architecture So Banal and the Cities So Unlivable?

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) manifesto is anchored in Left ideology and the urban finds a distinct mention in the manifesto, proposing a comprehensive plan to address land, urban, and employment issues. The CPI pledges to save the nation, constitution, democracy, secularism, and protect livelihoods. The party barely elaborates on urbanisation but commits to developing comprehensive and equitable urban infrastructure.

Aside from the BJP, Congress and the Left parties, the other prominent parties include Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which have released their manifestos for 2024. The DMK emphasises the significant contributions and successful delivery of the Dravidian model of governance in Tamil Nadu but lacks a definitive urban mention. The TMC, as part of the Didir Shopoth (Didi’s Promises) – lists 10 key promises as a summary of the manifesto. The document includes the urban section under the section on development and infrastructure. The RJDs 24-pointer manifesto called Parivartan Patra, though focused heavily on the social justice narratives, fails to mention cities but instead focuses on youth, unemployment, and other pressing – more immediate – needs.

Representative image. Photo: Sriharsha/Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

A deep dive into promises

On the housing front, the BJP highlights the success of PM Awas Yojana, improving living conditions of four crore plus crore Garib Parivar, and promises slum redevelopment policies that will be scaled up in the coming years. It aims to promote affordable housing by strengthening the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act [RERA Act] and facilitating homeownership for middle-income families. They plan to encourage new satellite townships near metro cities and promote mixed-use housing.

The Congress’s nyay patra skips the housing scenario but mentions the right to homestead act for rural areas, not urban.

Instead of only housing, the CPI(M) promises comprehensive land reforms, prioritising oppressed groups and equal rights for women. It also aims to provide house sites and homestead land to all sections of the rural and urban landless. It opposes eviction drives and proposes in situ development of basic facilities in slums.

The CPI promises to undertake a special drive to construct affordable housing in the public sector, recognising the rapid increase in India’s urban population. They also prioritise the social groups for housing – women from SC/ST/OBC communities, female-headed households, widows, homeless, aged, destitute, survivors of sexual violence, acid attacks, etc., emphasising inclusivity and social justice. The DMK mentions housing for doubling funding and support for housing schemes. The TMC promises guaranteed housing for Bengal’s poor, independent of the support of the Union Government, and aims to build 11.2 lakh houses financed by the state.

All parties have mentioned the importance of basic services and amenities in the urban. Whilst the BJP’s focus is on expanding Har Ghar Nal se Jal for clean drinking water and gas connections, the Congress talks about implementing a nationwide plan for potable water in all cities and towns. Highlighting the need for women’s empowerment, it promises to fund state governments to build night shelters for migrant women and provide safe and hygienic public toilets and free sanitary napkin vending machines.

The TMC promises 24×7 drinking water tap connections to all households and piped drinking water to an additional one crore households. Transportation has featured strongly in the manifestos across parties. The BJP mentions achievements of expanding metro services to over 20 cities, promising world-class infrastructure with high-frequency trains for regional connectivity like RRTS between Delhi and Meerut, with a focus on unified metropolitan transport systems, AI for traffic management, and expanding the PM-eBus fleet for affordable transport.

It also mentions constructing expressways and ring roads to improve mobility and decongest cities. On the other hand, the Congress suggests improving transport connectivity between rural and urban areas to enable people to live in rural areas and work in the cities. Plans for multi-modal urban public transport are also included. The CPI (M) bats for strengthening public transport, whilst DMK and TMC mention expanding metros in their cities with more autonomy.

On governance, the BJP aims to promote cooperative urban governance where centre-state-city partnerships will be fostered, whereas the Congress and CPI (M) very strongly call for more powers and resources to directly elected mayors/chairpersons for effective governance, ensuring accountability to the elected council. They advocate for implementing the 74th Constitution Amendments to devolve funds and functions to local bodies.

Regarding urban employment, the BJP manifesto mentions their successful programmes of loans to street vendors as a success model but remains mostly silent on unemployment in urban areas. Most of the INDIA alliance partners offer the promise of launching an urban employment programme for the urban poor. Additionally, the CPI (M) also mentions that measures will be taken to bring more jobs and technological growth to smaller upcoming cities.

The water crisis in Indian cities and climate change-related impacts found acknowledgement in the manifestos, with the BJP aiming to develop water-secure cities and develop sustainable cities with green spaces. They plan to make cities more sustainable through initiatives like open landfill-free through waste management – in line with the Swachh Bharat Mission. The other initiatives included the National Clean Air Programme to reduce pollution in 131 cities and develop sustainable cities with green spaces and revive water bodies.

Also read: The Elusive Smartness in India’s Smart Cities

The Congress also pushes for strengthening the National Clean Air Programme to urgently tackle the problem of air pollution. The CPI(M) aims to address environmental challenges in urban areas through a National Adaptation Plan (NAP) involving stakeholders to combat climate impacts like urban flooding and heat waves. They also advocate for a revised National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) to rapidly reduce air pollution in cities. Additionally, they emphasise the need to prevent the degradation of riverbeds and floodplains, especially in urban areas.

The CPI(M) proposes re-formulating the National Water Policy to treat water as a scarce public good and address the growing water crisis. The DMK proposes a new programme called – Vigilant City, it aims to grant special status to cities prone to disasters, creating a separate fund for their protection. On urban development and policy ideas, the BJP will encourage the creation of new satellite townships near metro cities across India through a combination of reforms and policy initiatives.

Additionally, the BJP will develop global conference hubs, urban governance curriculum, urban land record systems, and modern regulatory planning frameworks for holistic city development. The Congress propose constructing twin cities with a green buffer zone to manage urban expansion. The CPM advocates for a new urban policy prioritizing public welfare over private interests and decentralization of powers to urban local bodies.

What does it mean for Indian cities?

The manifestos are supposed to be in their design and promise very strong propositional – visionary documents. From the urban perspective, the manifestos fall short of offering new perspectives and ideas that may translate to policy and action.

Firstly, from the perspective of focusing on urban, most parties have sections – sub-sections dedicated to urbanisation, but none have pushed the envelope for newer vocabularies and visions for the cities. There is a dearth of new ideas and imaginations. It is starkly visible, especially in regional parties that have forsaken the urban discourse to the national parties. We still remember how Smart Cities captured the people’s imagination in 2014 and were conveniently forgotten by the BJP. This time, there is none on offer from the incumbent and none to counter from the challengers.

Secondly, whilst the challenge of housing provision dominates the urban, and rightly so, a stronger acknowledgement of the need to recognise, protect and regulate informal settlements (slums) needs to be there on the way forward. Demolitions, evictions, and hostility to informality, to the people-built cities, and settlements need to be purged from policy and mindsets.

Thirdly, on the aspect of basic services and amenities, yes, there is a mention of the provision of gas connections, water, toilets and other amenities, but the aspect of urban poor and marginalised and their inclusion was missing in most.

Fourth, the mention of multimodal transport is positive and welcomed across the party spectrum, but the perpetual fixation with big-ticket metro projects, which are money-guzzling initiatives with little benefit to the majority public – especially in smaller cities remains a popular promise. The stress on public transport, bus, walking, cycling and the anti-car–flyover rhetoric, though may not sound the most appealing, but it needs to be circulated in manifestos and actualised through policies.

Fifth, on the development of the new cities, the manifestos – across the political spectrum – fail to realise that before focusing on the new cities to be built as satellites or as twin cities, it is important to look at the existing cities and the urban spread. The idea of having buffers of green to ‘control’ urbanisation are understandings of the urban from the colonial past and will not give us results.

Sixth, urban livelihoods are prominently mentioned across the board – except the BJP – therefore signalling the future possibilities of developing viable and scalable models of urban livelihood generation. The possibility of urban inclusion of existing millions of urban livelihoods was missed here – alongside the more popular gig workers, the reference of street vendors, construction workers, waste pickers, domestic workers and other innumerable informal workers that prop up the urban would have helped.

Seventh, importantly on the issue of climate change and its impacts on the city, gladly there is an emerging articulation focusing on disaster preparedness and adaptation measures. The rest have given climate change a miss in the urban, other than mentioning the cliched electric vehicles as a policy measure. The need to prepare legislations and climate action plans for cities is not surprisingly present. The manifesto’s though positively mentions the crisis around the pollution in our cities but fail to hint, let alone articulation of how we will work on those issues is not addressed.

Eighth, the positive articulation on the need for stronger decentralisation and urban governance in the INDIA alliance is positive, unlike the mention of (non) collaborative urban development – i.e.: centre-led urban development in BJPs.

Ninth, what was missing in most manifestos is that India will be amongst the very few countries that do not have an urbanisation policy, a framework that will help bind and bring together the urban development discourse that is uniquely Indian, foregrounding our needs and aspirations in/of the city – yet open to learning from other world class examples and not merely to copy their trajectories.

Tenth – finally, while the congress and other INDIA alliance manifestos do forefront the grander discourse through a social justice lens, they leave a lot to be desired in the urban. The BJP, on the other hand, uses all the right vocabulary, with almost no numbers, fails to introspect on the last decade and promises an existing policy upscaling and continuum for a wishful Vikasit Bharat.

While the narrative of INDIA alliance partners signals a shift at a macro level with welfare measures and economic support, they miss the mark in translating this into ‘justice’ in urban areas. The concept of social justice needs to be translated into urban equity, inclusion, and opportunity. The urban landscape remains a blank spot in political discourse; the manifestos of the future must address the urban question for truly just and sustainable Indian urbanisation.

Aravind Unni is an urban practitioner and researcher working with informal workers and urban communities for inclusion in urban planning and cities.

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