The article looks at the current trend of deep apathy towards sound reasoning as well as principled approach to making public policy processes work. It highlights the need to give City-Level Advisory Forums more space to make interventions in smart cities initiatives and embedding them with youth, technical and public policy experts with blended technology to bring dynamic changes in policies and project implementations.

In the highly contested political gimmicking of the processes of public policy making, the apex policy-making bodies like Parliament are often made a mockery by few elected representatives who are not only doing a disservice to the processes of public policy-making but also disowned by the very people in the course of time. Ideally, the processes of public policy-making proceed with the combinations of sound reasoning, data and analysis on principled grounds for making well-informed decisions about issues.

Unfortunately, the recent trend shows deep apathy towards both sound reasoning as well as principled approach to making public policy processes work and thereby furthering peoples’ freedom and choice. If we take the debate against CAA, or the three Farm bills, it does not show either well-reasoned sympathy or empathy to the core issues, but merely makes a mockery of democracy. The same deep apathy in public policy processes was followed a few years ago during the debate on the issues of policy-making such as smart city initiatives.

Time and again, few political leaders, irrespective of their affiliations, exhibit that they neither understand the socialist-era regulations and policies which deprived millions of the benefits for decades by keeping them under starvation or without economic freedom; or they do not know what needs to be done to improve the lives of every single voter who had entrusted faith while electing them for a better future.

In India, the urban ecosystems for policy-making are still not blended enough to make the public policy work for the betterment of city residents. It is still a very distant dream for the city dwellers to move safely and make life easy to live and work.

When in dismay, people blame the authorities at all levels for not having a blended city governance ecosystem with an interface between people and policymakers. While the authorities blame the people for not upholding the right behaviour as dutiful citizens to have an ecosystem that will undo the present deep apathy.

There is a huge mismatch between the scale of aspirations of people in general and youth in particular and the infrastructure quality of the cities in the country. With the presence of vested interests, rent-seekers and cronies, the transformation of cities along with the aspirations of people has become impossible. Apart from education, the emergence of new technology has propelled the aspirations of people and youth for seeking better, safe and livable environment in cities which are still lacking purely on account of the absence of systemic blending. 

A new feather has been added to the initiatives of smart cities after five years of the launch of the Smart City Mission. In an effective functional democracy at the grassroots level, what has been brought out now as part of the decision making process to improve city governance should have been taken up at first well before the launch of the Mission.

As part of the smart cities initiatives guidelines, the Union Ministry of Urban Development had notified in September 2016 to create a City-Level Advisory Forum (CLAF) comprising all major stakeholders including elected representatives of that city, local youth, technical experts, associations of taxpayers, residents’ welfare, trade and commerce associations, etc. However, this Forum was not functional until recently and most Smart Cities in the country including Tamil Nadu were created this year or in the last few months only.

This policy implementation has taken four years to work at ground level and that was also not comprehensive as envisaged in the notification of the Union Ministry. It is also not clear how many cities across the country formed the Forum and implemented it with the interests of improving public policy-making process to transform the cities’ ecosystems.

Most of the smart cities were notified more than three to four years ago and the projects finalised by each city were almost given administrative or technical sanctions with specific allocations of funds provided by the Union Ministry and State Governments. Hence, there was no space for CLAF to make an intervention in smart cities initiatives, except in the ceremonial governance system of participation which the typical politicians are fond of.

Though, some of the stakeholders included as part of the CLAF were not part of the Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) created in each selected Smart Cities. Some of these key stakeholders—youth, residents’ welfare, trade and commerce, and technical experts—were all crucial and would have played a critical role to bring out the much-needed projects at city-level and ward-level with sustainable models, if only this Forum was formed well before the launch of the mission.

Thus, the current status of CLAF combination helps to add just one more silo to the city ecosystem of policy-making, and nothing more it could do except tinkering the existing matters. Appointing District Collectors at district level cities or Commissioners in metro cities as chairman does not go well with the intentions of the Smart City Guidelines.

The smart cities ecosystem of public policy-making has become more riddled with new silos which always operate in ad-hoc, out of desperation for rent-seeking or things cooked up on self-made priority and the needs not identified by the expert committees or based on independent research institutions’ reports or reports by the consultancy agencies appointed by the Union Ministry of Urban Development. All the workshops and seminars undertaken after the launch of Smart Cities Mission for innovative practices of policy-making were at best ignored by the planning, engineering and execution officials and departments of most cities.

For years, city residents have been demanding a more clean environment with high quality of hygiene and sanitation maintenance which can be designed and executed through well-defined contract systems embedded in incentives. They also demand and vote for leaders thinking they would bring better storm-water drainage, solid waste and sewage management systems to avoid the spread of diseases during the rainy seasons.

The most underpinning urban ecosystems challenges are on the road with the cold war between public transportation and private vehicles: heavy traffic at all junctions of the cities, road conjunctions without proper pavements, sidewalks, demarcation of streets for a walk, bicycles, two-wheelers, four-wheelers and heavy vehicles, road accidents with huge fatal cases exponentially increasing year after year, etc.

The key stakeholders included as part of the CLAF’s consultations and decision making processes have a strong say in the above issues and challenges faced by cities. Moreover, the functions of CLAF appear to be not transparent at best, and accountability for decisions taken to implement is not encouraging so far. Any new regulatory bodies aimed at improving the facilities for common utilities of residents in cities should have defined goals and objectives along with a timeline to initiate, implement and complete the task within the specified period. 

Without changing the current form of ceremonial governance of one-way traffic in urban ecosystems, the aspirations of people—especially the younger generation upon which the nation banks it thrusts—would not be fulfilled even after a few generations. Too much hope on youth with dynamic interfaces of technology is dangerous for any society’s culture. While the role of youth in paradigm shifts of urban governance obsessed with technology-driven solutions has huge parity for systemic changes in one generation. 

Like the market forces of innovations, competitions and efficiencies are getting invariably inbuilt into the ecosystems of determining prices, delivery, back-end services, etc. for fulfilling the aspirations of people with diversified products, we need a far more efficient and robust technology-driven process for policy-making and execution of projects in urban areas which keep driving the growth of the country’s economy. Thus, CLAF has to be embedded with youth, technical and public policy experts with blended technology to bring dynamic changes in policies and project implementations.

Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Featured Image Source: The Jakarta Post

Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan
Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan
Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan is Research Fellow (Urban Eco-system and Skill Development) with CPPR. His areas of research interest are economics of education, vocational education and skills development, economic reforms, liberal vision for India, water management, regional development, and city development. Chandrasekaran has an MA in Economics (University of Madras) and an MPhil in Social Sciences (Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya University, Indore).

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