Thursday, May 8, 2014

The importance of urban leaders

In a recent article I have argued that India needs to reform its urban governance and place cities under the control of directly elected Mayors replacing the current control exercised by career bureaucrats.

In this context, a Times article points to the rise of a group of activist Mayors across American cities who are setting the agenda not just on economic growth but also on social issues. As Thomas Edsall writes,
A wave of newly elected mayors from New York to Seattle has taken office committed to deploying the power of city government and aggressive wage and tax policies to attack inequality and revive social and economic mobility... Urban chief executives are raising minimum wages; requiring contractors to hire inner-city residents and to increase pay on municipal projects; backing local union organizing efforts; initiating or expanding pre-K schooling; extending public transit into poor neighborhoods; and requiring police to videotape contacts with citizens...
They are, in short, enacting at the municipal level many of the major policy changes that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state levels... The political impetus behind this ideological development is the fact that American cities are on the cutting edge of the current demographic transformation of the United States into a majority-minority nation... Urban America is now on a reconnaissance mission for progressive politics. 
No Indian Municipal Commissioner could have had such an agenda on economic growth and job creation, strategic planning for long-term development, or on enhancing social welfare. Their agenda, even among the best of them, is generally confined to grandiose infrastructure projects (read fly-overs, ring roads etc) or operational concerns like improving sanitation or collecting taxes. With the prevailing distribution of powers, mayors would be too powerless to operationalize this agenda even if they had one.

Urban reforms that replace Municipal Commissioners with directly elected Mayors can potentially usher in a paradigm shift in urban governance. As the recent success of Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP in Delhi shows, urban politics is fertile ground for issues-based politics and the emergence of responsive leaders. This is likely to encouragee political parties to put forward strong candidates and also for successful people from other careers to enter politics. Currently powerful local leaders tend to prefer the state assembly or the Parliament over the post of Mayor. A Nandan Nilekani can be transformational as the Mayor of Bangalore than as a Parliamentarian.

India deserves its versions of Mike Bloomberg, Enrique Penalosa, Ken Livingston and the like, to lay the foundations for dynamic and world-class cities. 

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