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Political Parties Shift to Urban Priorities in Election Manifestos

The 2024 general election manifestos from major national political parties, including the BJP and the Congress, emphasise urban governance, reflecting a shift towards addressing the challenges of India’s rapidly urbanising landscape.

By Kundan Pandey, Mongabay
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Manifestos forUrban India

Political Parties Shift to Urban Priorities in Election Manifestos | India's urban landscape | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

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In the lead-up to India’s 2024 general elections, the focus on urban life and governance has gained prominence in the manifestos of the national political parties, with commitments to address the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly urbanised India, signalling a shift in political priorities.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) have all given considerable space to urban planning and development. From reducing the load of urbanisation on metro cities by creating satellite cities to improving efficiency and sustainability in transport, the parties have committed to various actions supporting the environment in urban areas.

Hitesh Vaidya, a former Director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs, noted that in the last 30 years, during which he has closely followed urban issues, he has never seen political parties place so much emphasis on urban life and governance in their manifestos. This focus signals a shift towards recognising that India is becoming an urban economy. The traditional notion that “India lives in its villages” is evolving as more people are settling in cities. Political parties are now acknowledging this trend, he added.

India’s urban population numbers are a topic of debate. In the absence of an updated census, the data from the one-and-a-half-decade-old census is still used for official figures. The 2011 census indicates that India’s urban population is 31% (318 million people) of the country’s total population. However, several other, more recent reports claim that the country’s urban population has already exceeded 50% of the total. An expert in population studies, who requested anonymity, indicated that urban areas may now comprise 50% of the country’s total population. But there is no government data to support this estimate.

Srinivas Goli, Associate Professor at the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) in Mumbai, states that if we extrapolate urban population numbers using the current annual growth rate of urban population that’s based on exponential growth assumption (2.25% per annum), the core current urban population in India could be around 38% to 40% of the country’s total population. This estimate includes only the core urban population governed by urban bodies. Aside from the core urban population, a significant number of people live in peri-urban areas and rural-urban continuums, which suggests that the combined urban and peri-urban population in India might be around 41% to 44% at present, he explained.

Indian voters and manifestos
Voters at a polling booth in New Delhi during the 2014 general elections in India. As the country votes in the 2024 elections, the national political parties have displayed a focus on urban life and governance in their election manifestos. Photo Courtesy: Election Commission of India

Expansion of Urban Infrastructure

Both the BJP and the INC have focused on infrastructure expansion in urban areas. The Congress manifesto states, “To regulate the mindless expansion of existing cities, Congress will support the construction of twin cities near existing urban centres, separated by a clear green and no-construction zone.” Similarly, the BJP manifesto states, “We will encourage the creation of new satellite townships near metro cities across India through a combination of reforms and policy initiatives, and we will promote mixed-use and transit-oriented development.”

“The idea of satellite towns is a step in the right direction,” says Goli, who elaborates that urbanisation can be beneficial as it enhances the efficiency of government services. However, in India, the issue is not traditional urbanisation but rather “metropolisation,” where large populations concentrate in a few key areas. This puts immense pressure on infrastructure, leading to unplanned development.

Goli explains that in developed countries, urbanisation usually occurs in stages, with people first migrating to smaller towns before moving to larger cities. In contrast, in India, migration often happens directly from villages to major cities where job markets are clustered, contributing to the growth of informal settlements and other forms of unplanned urban growth. However, he warns that for satellite towns to succeed, they must offer amenities like education, healthcare and employment opportunities, as these are the crucial factors that draw people in. He added that it is a good idea to convert existing small and medium towns near metro cities, into satellite towns.

When asked about the planning of new cities, Vaidya noted that while both major political parties promote the development of satellite cities and rapid development of infrastructure, they neglect the need for re-densification and rejuvenation of existing towns. Little attention is given to retrofitting older towns. He explained that there are around 7,000 existing towns, including 4,400 urban local bodies and about 3,000 census towns. These census towns are technically rural but functionally urban outside formal city boundaries.

Regarding transport, the BJP, in its manifesto, promises to create unified metropolitan transport systems that integrate multiple modes of transport to reduce commute times in cities. It proposes to use AI technologies for traffic management. The BJP also proposes to expand electric bus fleets, under its PM-eBus Sewa Scheme, across various cities to provide affordable and safe public transport, with plans to extend this service to other eligible cities. On the other hand, the Congress party declares that it will implement a comprehensive plan for multi-modal urban public transport, with a focus on safety for women and children. The party also aims to improve transport facilities and connectivity between rural areas and nearby towns/cities, allowing people to live in rural areas while commuting to work in urban centres.

Water, waste, energy and natural resource extraction are other urban environmental issues addressed in the manifestos of the national parties. The BJP aims to create water-secure cities by adopting best practices for wastewater treatment, aquifer recharge and smart metering for bulk consumers. It also focuses on developing sustainable cities by expanding green spaces, reviving water bodies and creating natural areas to make cities more adaptable, sustainable and people-friendly.

The Congress party’s manifesto outlines plans to promote green energy, aiming to make panchayats and municipalities as self-sufficient as possible in electricity. It also focuses on using modern scientific methods to explore and extract natural resources, while ensuring these practices protect and preserve local environments and communities. Additionally, the Congress party commits to consulting with representatives from the relevant panchayat or municipality before initiating such projects. The Congress manifesto notes that livelihoods, housing, water, electricity, habitat, pollution, climate change, transport and disaster management are common to rural and urban areas and need a holistic approach to governance.

The BJP promotes affordable housing, while CPI-M advocates for expanding “public housing facilities”, public transport, and parks. CPI-M also commits to tackling pollution and environmental degradation in all its forms.

Local Governance

The Congress party emphasises empowering local bodies, stating that given the rapid pace of urbanisation, it plans to amend laws to grant more executive, financial and administrative powers to directly elected mayors or chairpersons. These bodies would be accountable to the mayor or chairperson and their respective councils. The party asserts, “As the author of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, Congress will encourage states to implement those provisions in letter and spirit, ensuring that funds, functions, and functionaries are devolved to panchayats and municipalities.”

Similarly, CPI-M supports decentralising powers to urban local bodies by reinforcing the 74th Constitutional Amendment. It also commits to ensuring sufficient financial resources are transferred from the government to urban local bodies to support the development of proper housing, water and sanitation facilities for all residents.

A scene from Ahmedabad. An expert notes that in India, migration often occurs directly from villages to major cities, leading to the expansion of informal settlements and other forms of unplanned urban development. Photo courtesy: Emmanuel DYAN/Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast, the BJP manifesto discusses introducing new legislation. It states, “We will work with state governments and cities to encourage them to create a modern set of legislation, by-laws, and urban planning processes using technology.”

According to Hitesh Vaidya, the two major parties, the BJP and the Congress, propose quite different approaches to local governance. While Congress relies on traditional methods, the BJP promotes strategies that integrate modern technology. The 74th Amendment, introduced three decades ago, was a significant step which meant to strengthen urban local governance but fell short of delivering the anticipated results.

He also notes that modern challenges, such as climate change, air quality, gender equality and inclusivity, require fresh thinking and need to be incorporated in planning. He adds that the Congress party’s adherence to its existing framework might not be adequate to tackle these evolving issues.

“The major challenge, for the party that will be voted into power, is implementing manifesto promises. Initiatives such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and the Smart City Mission have shown that mission-oriented approaches often fall short. If a new mission is to be created, cities should develop their own strategic plans, which can then be aggregated at the state level, eventually shaping a national mission. This would be a significant shift from the current top-down model,” he said.

The original source of this article is Mongabay. Click here for the link to the article.

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