I was in Singapore for a few days during my winter vacation. Sandwiched between two weeks in India and a week in Thailand, the contrast between Singapore and these two third world Asian countries could not have been starker. As we all know, a few decades back all three countries were equally under-developed. Today Singapore is an advanced economy and continues to grow (though not in 2009) led by an enlightened government.
The contrast between India and Singapore is a source of great frustration to the many Indian-born executives who work in Singapore. They can see how better governance has made what Singapore is today, while poor governance has left India far, far behind. Some will admit that the comparison is not apt – Singapore is a small state with an authoritarian government while India is a huge democracy. But most know that these are but excuses. Some think that perhaps India has too vibrant a democracy and that what we need is a benevolent dictator to clean up the mess.
I don’t think we can or should tamper with our form of government. Perhaps one day we will get a good leader who has broad appeal across the country and who will get a mandate that will allow him or her to rule the country without pandering to special interests and coalition partners. But until then I’ll take my chances with a mediocre but democratically elected government. We might trundle along instead of making rapid progress, but at least we won’t slide backwards towards Pakistan or worse, Myanmar.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t borrow some lessons from Singapore. The way to look at Singapore is not as a country but as a city. As a city it is a shining model of urban planning and development. At 4.84 million its population will put it at 10th position, if it was an Indian city. At that size, its problems and their solutions were very much the same problems that the leading Indian cities face. However, what is vastly different is the power that the government of Singapore wields and the power that the governments of Indian cities have. They are essentially at different ends of the spectrum. The government of the city of Singapore has all powers, including some that an Indian city won’t need like defence and running a central bank. A large Indian city will have elected officials but the Municipal Corporation is run by a Commisioner who is appointed by the state government.
Nandan Nilekani writes on his blog Imagining India –
…our cities have been passive and subordinate to the state governments. The bulk of city taxes are collected by the state and central governments and administration is dominated by state run agencies. And with local authorities powerless and unaccountable to citizens, city infrastructure has neared collapse.
The reasons why Indian cities starting with the largest ones need more autonomy are clear:
- Indian cities are and increasingly will be where the economy will grow. Ignore them and we will remain a low-income agrarian economy.
- The problems of large Indian cities are quite distinct from the issues in small cities and the hinterland. It is not just possible, it is highly probable that state governments are elected by the hinterland while doing nothing (or worse) for the city.
- Size and complexity demands more decentralization of powers. India is amazingly centralized compared to say the US which is comparable in size (though lower in complexity). New York City elects its own Mayor who runs nearly all public services in New York. The state levies its own income tax, something that even state governments don’t do in India.
The reason why large Indian cities are not given their autonomy is also quite clear. It is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a state politician. Real estate rackets, protection rackets, liquor rackets, octroi rackets – they are all urban in nature. If the state government were to cede control of their large cities to city governments, the pickings would be slim in the rest of the state.
I came upon this website which is called City Mayors and is about urban government around the world. A quick glance through it will confirm what you already know – India has some of the largest cities in the world, but its weakest form of urban government. In fact, rural government in India has greater powers than a city government.
This must change if we are to make anything of our cities. And we need to do something about our cities if we even aspire to be more like Singapore one day.