Sunday, 27 May 2012

How can the governance of ‘mega-cities’ of Asia or South America improve living standards and environmental conditions in the long term Daniel Hilson

Delhi is a massive city with some of the largest municipalities in the world. How have these institutions provided for the citizens, and how can alternative forms of governance improve outcomes?

“When you are making a plan or a policy – think of the poorest people first” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Delhi is the hub of the exponential growth story of India. Despite the global slowdown India is currently growing at 6.9%. The self perpetuated euphoria that surrounds the city was never more evident than at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 when Delhi was clearly on display. At this time there were major investments in roads and rail as well as an ongoing focus on the constrained water infrastructure[1].

Look behind this success story however, and you start to see a façade that reflect the temporary screens that hid slum dwellers during the Commonwealth Games. The other face of Delhi is one of institutionalised division and criminalisation of informality (Rao 2011), where the concept of a “slum free Delhi” (ibid) does not refer to a benevolent social welfare scheme but rather a restructuring of poverty to suit the emerging middle class. Key to this story is an understanding of how to reconcile social, economic and environmental problems within the context of an increasing social divide as well as issues around fragmented and corrupt institutions and an exploding population. 

The goal of this post is to explore how the governance of a megacity such as Delhi can design solutions to these problems while improving living standards in the long term. I provide a detailed understanding of social, economic and environmental context of governing Delhi, of the various actors, and then look at how market, technical, capacity building, regulatory and other levers can be used to improve governance performance. I find that governance can play a vital role in improving living stands if a capacity in integration of service delivery across governance structures can be achieved.

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Social background

Delhi is a city of ethnic diversity; however it remains divided on the basis of religion, socio-economic background, historical context, geography, and education. To understand why, one must look briefly at the history of Delhi and, more broadly, India.

For over six hundred years India was under a complex Jihad (Lal 1973), which was the origin of Muslim-Hindu tension that continues to this day[2]. Islam is a huge minority group in India at 13.4% as per the 2001 census. Currently this part of India is governed under “The Muslim personal law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937” [3]. Although there has been significant integration, tension remains, particularly from religious extremists. Muslims remain and underclass; overwhelmingly poor (40% in the lowest quartile)[4] and uneducated.

The Caste system also divides much of society at birth based hereditary groups such as priests, kings, traders, menials and the untouchables. This system was predominantly based on Hindu practice, although it permeated Muslim culture via Hindu. While the Caste system is now illegal under the Indian constitution there is significant evidence of tension[5] and that despite equal opportunity laws, prejudice remains, particularly against the lowest cast or Dalits which, according to 2001 census, constitutes 16.2% of India’s total population. 

The other critical period that has had an ongoing influence on the governance of India is the British colonial period. India was under British rule, firstly under “company rule” (1757-1858) and then under the British Raj from 1858 to 1947 . During colonial rule significant infrastructure and related investment flowed into the country, but only to ensure the British colonialists were comfortable. To that end a certain amount of Delhi still conforms to international norms around “transport, building environment green spaces, definition of slums and dilapidated areas” (Milbert 2006). But there was significant underinvestment in hard and soft infrastructure outside that needed by colonial rulers and the legacy in terms of poor education, health services and social segregation remains to this day. In addition the colonial administration essentially governed based on “community” divisions such as caste, tribes, races, or religions. Again, these division remain (although cannot entirely be attributed to the British).

Modern day India emerged from Independence in 1947 with the aim of putting this history of inequality behind it. The government put together the Draft Master Plan for Delhi with the assistance of the Ford Foundation (Matthews 2011).  The plan focused on “urban villages” meshed into an overall sense of a single city. Urban planner’s research revealed the presence of voluntary organisations, Mohalla (Neighbourhood) communities, bazaar committees, and religious and caste councils, but none of these really attempted to pull Indian community together.

Matthews (20011) identified the key issues at the time as being poverty, inadequate housing, poor health, deplorable sanitation, illiteracy, and lack of cultural and recreational activities. The urban planners decided to focus on establishment of Vikas Mendal (Citizen Development Councils) which selected leaders based on merit rather than existing power dynamics, and grouped members based on location rather than attachment to other social groupings. Although they had some success, eventually it was too difficult to fight existing norms. A goal was often to get citizens to undertake for themselves what governments were incapable of delivering, and the eventual rise of Resident Welfare Activists (RWA) is a partial realisation of this vision.

The original Master Plan tried to face the most contentious and unresolved issue facing Delhi: the plight of the urban poor. The concept of a slum free Delhi was embroiled with ambitions to be a global metropolis and eventually the Commonwealth Games became a deadline. At the time of the games however, it was clear that these issues still existed[6] . While cities have to balance tensions between exclusionism and human rights, few have institutionalisation of resettlement and slum dwelling that exists in Delhi. The rapid growth of Delhi caused a number of false starts in upgrading the city, as the poor were resettled only to be moved again, often after the dwellers had invested time improving an area. Appendix A demonstrates the impact of resettlement as huge tracts of land are flattened for development (Bahn 2005). Roa (2011) presents a study of a resettlement program and found a complex social situation in Savda Gherva (Delhi) where only a fraction of a community was offered resettlement in an location far from their livelihoods with no infrastructure. Overall it provided no clear pathway to becoming “proper citizens”.

Environmental Background

Delhi is a well planned city with advantageous geomorphologic identity (Jain 2009). It is surrounded by forests and filled with gardens; 10.2% of Delhi city has tree cover.  It is framed by a triangle of geographic landmarks; with the Yamuna and Hindon rivers and the end of the Avaril range, all of which provide critical services to Delhi. For example, the range is critical for gas pollution assimilation, ground water recharge, prevention of erosion and siltation, biodiversity and recreation.

Unfortunately exponential population growth (rising as high as 23 million in 2021), has put all of Delhi’s ecological services under severe strain. The most visible symbol of this devastation is the Yamuna river[7] which travels for 22 kms through the city of Delhi. Effluents flow freely into the river turning it into a “deadly concoction” [8] during this short trip. Water is generally the most significant environmental problem facing Delhi which has traditionally “borrowed” its water requirements from neighbouring states. It has also traditionally had major problems with sewage treatment plants and “line losses of up to 30%”[9].

Pollution from transport is also prolific. There are five million vehicles in Delhi and while buses constitute 60% of transport load, personal vehicles represent 93% of the total number of vehicles, leading to significant parking, pollution and congestion issues(Jain 2009). The Central Electricity Authority recently estimated that Delhi would double its energy requirements from 4500 MW to 8700 MW by 2014. [10] The city is primarily powered by three coal fired power plants. Combined with emissions from transport mentioned above and the extensive use of brick kilns the pollution levels in Delhi are extremely hazardous. A study by Garg (2011), found that 74% of the poor are exposed to annual PH10  levels above 150 ug/m3 with a safe level being 60 ug/m3 . Garg demonstrated in his study that there was an inequitable distribution of impacts of pollution based on income.

This picture should not indicate that Delhi authorities are not doing anything to try to improve the environmental situation. There have been several regulatory and technical solutions employed to great success. For example the Supreme Court has focused on the issue of the Yamuna River since 1994, and in 2011 was able to implement an “interceptor plan” to treat sewage in the river[11].          Public interest litigation has led to the introduction of lower sulphur fuel, phased out of older vehicles, conversion of coal fired power stations to beneficial fuels and reduced electrical distribution losses.  The water provider Delhi Jal Board is looking at delivering on the goal of accessibility of water to all. They are constructing major storage dams and underground reservoirs, and working on rationalisation of supply and hydraulic pressure. [12]  The government has also shifted hazardous and noxious manufacturing from urban areas and shifted non-conforming uses of the Avril Range.

The Carbon Development Mechanism (CDM) is an example whereby technical and market based solutions are also being combined to significantly impact on environmental outcomes. Delhi has introduced a metro rail network, a regional network of 45 stations was launched, and this project was registered as a CDM project[13] and successfully completed in 2005.

Economic position of Delhi

The economic growth of India continues unabated. While some argue about the degree of the current slowdown[14] , recent figures put the growth at 6.9%. This is down from 10% in previous years. Milbert (2008) observed that although Delhi is the most affluent of all Indian cities with per capital income at 2.5 times the national average (roughly $ AUD 4500 p.a.), this hides enormous income inequality.  Within Delhi the top 10% have nine times the income of the bottom 10% [15] .  Slum dwellers represent an incredible 30% of Delhi’s urban population (Baud 2008) .

India has been through a gradual process of liberalisation since 1990. It has been a very slow process (particularly as it pertains to privatisation) which gradually exposed India to economic globalisation with related increases in competition and FDI. India has a relatively stable banking sector, and reasonable debt levels (Pederson 2008). Some key economic indicators are outlined in Appendix B.

Governance in Delhi

Delhi has a very complex, multi-actor governance structure where actors grapple with issues around service delivery and management, while trying to manage a sense of ethics and equity. They are constantly confronted with tensions of the formal versus informal economy, legal versus illegal, social/environmental trade-offs, and centralised versus decentralised decision making and implementation. A brief background of the key actors in the governance of Delhi is set out below.

The State 

The Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi is the over-arching governing body for the area. There are three major local bodies that sit underneath this body: Municipal Corporation of Delhi (“MCD”), New Delhi Municipal Council (“NDMC”), and Delhi Cantonment Board (“DCB”).  The city of Delhi is the second largest by land area in the world with the MCD being the second largest authority in the world. In addition to these three boards, the Delhi Development Authority (“DDA”) works under the Ministry for Urban Development. This complex structure has led to over 120 bodies working in the same territory and the resultant political tensions over retention and control of  responsibilities and funding (Milbert 2008).

There is another critical level of administration which is the Indian Administrative Service (“IAS”). This is the front line interface with the population. Although there has traditionally been a lack of quality and some corruption in these bodies there is now a focus on reforms to address these issues. One on-going issue is the lack of horizontal integration between different departments within IAS .(ibid)

There seems to be frustration with the general lack of coordination at all levels of government, on-going corruption, and opportunism which often leave constituents feeling that the State is the enemy that only focuses on local issues at the time of an election.

The Judiciary and Regulation

The State has used the judiciary as a strong lever to enact social and environmental policy, which has both hindered and assisted sustainability. For example the Land Acquisition Act has often been used as a broad brush that has quashed any attempts by the poor to secure shelter, or the private sector to become involved in development (Milbert 2008). Rent control regulation was historically supposed to control speculation in property, however unfortunately had adverse impacts in terms of under-supply and inadequate maintenance of housing.

Public interest litigation has become a critical regulatory tool which has led to both positive and negative outcomes for living standards, allowing local engagement and dispute resolution (Bhan 2005). It is enlightening that although the goal of this forum was to create legal vehicle for the poor and oppressed, it had often been used principally as a means for the middleclass to manage illegal settlements on environmental grounds. Dupont and Ramanathan (2007) sited that “This crystallizes and even exacerbates the antagonism between environmental considerations in the public interest and the housing needs of the population, especially the poor..”. From an environmental standpoint there have been many positive public interest litigation cases such as banning mining, shifting heavy industry and removing vehicles over 15 years old (Jain 2009). The Supreme Court has oscillated between helping the poor and the environment to doing the opposite. In some cases the Supreme Court has ordered the government to provide public housing.[16]

More broadly, Delhi has a strong history of blurring of the line between legal and illegal. Not only is corruption a common practice, there is a wider ethical question of the law portraying the poor as “illegal land grabbers” and often handing down anti-poor judgements (Ramanathan 2005). This has become such an issue that it has led to the emergence of “legalism from below” where slum dwellers study law to litigate against a “corrupt and brutal system” (Rau 2011).

International Organisations

India as a whole has been one of the core members of the Brenton Woods agreement since its inception and is the largest recipient of finance from the World Bank[17] .  The bank has financed India’s fight against HIV, and is the largest financier of power projects and education. In 2009 the World Bank approved a record $4.3 billion[18] in loans to the Indian Government. There is a high degree of concern about the conditionality surrounding these loans. India a form of coercion is used wherein IMF and World Bank officials influence domestic politics to gain approval for their projects over alternatives (Sengupta 2009). This has clearly impacted on Delhi as it looks to prioritise projects. For example given its significant role in financing energy projects, the world bank hold particular sway with selection of energy generation technology (and all the associated environmental impacts).

The city and wider country has also been willing to engage with best practice from UN organisations such as UN-Habitat which offer solutions to environment and development issues. An example of capacity building was the 2001 launch of the UN-Habitat program  on “good global governance” in Delhi[19]. During this launch the UN promoted decentralised governance in a participative democracy as the solution to the problems of over-population and related poverty and environmental destruction.  Another example of a capacity building program that has been managed by the UN is “Safer Cities for Women” aimed at stopping sexual harassment[20].

Local community actors – Prahans, Local Brokers, Resident Welfare Associations (RWA’s)

The enormous scale of Delhi required decentralised governance at a community level. This has evolved through both formal channels (as per the first Master Plan implementation of Vikas Mendal), and via informal channels (such as based on religious caste and geography). Currently the most prominent localised institutions are Prahans, Local Brokers, and Resident Welfare Associations (“RWA’s”). Prahans are unofficially elected slumlords, usually with basic education who are paid by slum dwellers to act as their representatives. Their role includes bribing police and they must have strong political alliances. Unfortunately they are often self interested and exploitative. Local brokers play a simple role – in that they try to procure recently awarded land titles from slum dwellers to profit from land speculation and cross subsidies.

 RWA’s may represent organised and direct democratic participation. Roa (2008) identifies them as “institutions trying to build...consensus even at the cost of efficiency.”. He believes this is in stark contrast to governing parties who he sees as introducing agendas and corruption. Other functions of RWA’s include contract management, park management, street cleaning, lighting, garbage collection, and election watch – all traditionally roles of formal government. From a governance perspective, Baud (2008) identifies that generally RWA have higher success with government engagement in middle income groups and where house ownership is a pre-requisite. 

Non Government Organisations (NGO’s)

It is difficult to get exact figures for the number of NGO’s in Delhi however a recent government study[21] suggested that India may have one of the highest ratios of NGO’s per capita, with 3.3 million NGOs across the nation. This represents one NGO for less than 400 Indians. Most of the funding comes from the government rather than private sector, and some in government see the sector as a way to deliver difficult services.

It appears that NGO’s have had variable levels of success in Delhi. An example of an environmental NGO that also utilised a technical solution to improving living standards was outlined in a study by Pal et al (2007) who researched attempts by The Energy and Resources Institute (“TERI”) and the Swiss Agency for development (“SDC”) to implement energy efficient and low pollution technologies for the foundry industry. They learnt some valuable lessons such as the impact of providing free technology (which simply attracted less serious participants), the fact that often it was only the energy efficient device and not the pollution device that was attractive, and that there was benefit in holistic engagement in social and operational issues surrounding the foundry operators.

Sarin (2007) studied a social program set up by an NGO called Sharon and Sahara  which was a service for female drug addicts in Delhi and found the service to be fairly effective with 40% of women finding employment. Magar (2003) found in a study around gender based violence that using indigenous dispute resolution in addition to counselling was effective.  An example of an NGO engaged in capacity building was Titus (1997) who also observed a program by Sharan which was involved the development of financial services for the urban poor. This was also successful after confronting issues of trust from the community, both in the NGO and those involved in the scheme.

The biggest issue identified by Sarin (2007) is that there is a lack of funding for multi-dimensional services. Departments should engage across health, social justice, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Perhaps given the massive number of NGO’s this may be an example of spreading government funding too widely rather than fully funding critical programs.

Private Sector and Special Interest Groups

In the past there was little engagement between the state and private interests in Delhi. This has led to the development of interest groups such as middle income groups (MIGs), builders, owners, and the corporate sector. An example of the impacts of these groups on governance structures is the engagement of MIG’s who have been particularly active in environmental and transport issues. Although they depend on the informal economy to provide low cost labour they lobby against the proximity to slums and associated environmental impacts. They are relatively powerful given their inclusion in citizen-government partnership initiatives (Milbert 2008).

More recently there has been some recognition of private interests in development and the move towards multi-actor arrangements. This is a two way street where private groups need to be able to avoid corruption and red tape. The key here has been to engage with the executive function of government to try to circumvent the ingrained corruption that occurs (Baud 2008).  In addition, transnational corporations have become involved in CDM projects and increased focus on social corporate responsibility. Research conducted by Ruud (2001) identified that despite lax environmental standards, rather than creating pollution havens, local subsidiaries of TNC’s are adopting best practice from head quarters in many cases.

Megacity governance – can  it improve living standards in the long term?

Delhi accommodates millions of people from varied backgrounds in high density conditions without a clear narrative around equal opportunity, effective service provision, or ecological protection (Laquin 2005). The ability for Delhi to deliver sustainable outcomes will be dependent on whether it provides a logical and equitable pathway for social progression while managing the ecological destruction that  increased per capita consumption will bring.  To tread down this fine path will require many initiatives; however the question in this paper is how the governance of megacities can play a role in making it a reality. 

Delhi has been liberalising its economy for many years. While not a panacea, in the area of housing at least there is a need for this to continue.  Like many of Delhi’s issues there needs to be a coordinated approach between the market providing housing for those that have the capacity to pay, and then the state providing a safety net for those that cannot. At the same time it is critical that capital productivity (Ranganathan 2003), and corruption is addressed so that corporate and social investment can be deployed in good faith.  Other market based solutions such as CDM’s and citizen/NGO partnerships for provision of social services should play an increasing role. These are not simple solutions however. A service was attempted by Savda (an NGO in Delhi) for garbage collection within a slum at a nominal fee. Even this fee was high for those who can just burn rubbish or defecate in public.

Technical solutions can play a vital role in improving lifestyles and addressing concerns. Some of the examples provided above, with the sewage diversion, new metro train lines, and energy efficient foundries are a few examples. These technologies must however be within a broader planning framework, and an understanding of the relative benefits of centralisation or decentralisation, spatial considerations, and potential for unintended consequences.

From a regulatory perspective, there must be a final end to the opacity surrounding legality in Delhi. Corruption must end to enable all of the society to feel that there is transparency.  While there should be a continuation of public interest litigation, it should not be at the expense of social justice.

A common theme in the literature is the lack of capability in coordinated planning. For example Milbert (2008) lamented the lack of linkages between services at a horizontal level and Baud (2008) suggested the requirement for integrated planning, development, and enforcement, with linkages at all levels of governance. A recent publication from UN-HABITAT on localising the Millennium Development goals[22] is an example of more integrated planning.  Influential planner Arun Maira believes Delhi needs to improve its “capability to produce capability” in the area of governance.[23] As well as growing skills in coordination,  this would also deliver a capability to solve complexities around decentralisation of power and how to ensure that those at the coal face are provided adequate resources and a clear framework from which they can achieve their objectives.


It would idealistic to believe that the fact that megacities concentrate so much infrastructure and intellect empowers technocrats to deliver higher living standards. This paper has shown the difficult path that Delhi has taken, the successes, the many failed experiments, and the continuing divisions within its society. The key to success in the future may be the ability to not only leverage resources, but to feed off this rich history of innovation and experimentation to find technical, market based, capacity building and regulatory solutions and systems of governance that are transparent, accountable, inclusive, integrated and that establish clear social norms around legality, formality and social responsibility. The citizens of Delhi need to finally feed off the strengths of their differences but then find a unified identity for the city that sets a realistic and equitable vision that empowers all within the city to move incrementally toward greater living standards.


Appendix A – Impact of Resettlements

Appendix B – Financial Indicators

Exports and Imports , 1980-2006

Foreign Direct Investments in India

Distribution of ownership of corporate sector assets


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Dutt, P(1955) “India today and tomorrow” Delhi : People Publishers House

Ezcurra, E and Mazari-Hriart, M (1996)  “Are mega cities viable ? A cautionary tale from Mexico - -Environment; Jan 1996; 38, 1; ABI/INFORM Global

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Lal K, S. (1973)  “Growth of Muslim Population in Medieval India” Delhi Research Publications

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Lacquian, A. (2005) “Beyond Metropolis : The Planning and Governance of Asia’s Mega-Urban Regions”  John Hopkins University Press

Magar, P. (2006) “ Scaling Urban Environmental Challenges: From local to global and back” Earthscan, London

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Milbert, I (2008) “Law, Urban Policies and the Role of Intermediaries in Delhi” Sage publications India

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Rao, U.  (2010) “Making the Global City: Urban Citizenship at the Margins of Delhi”, Ethnos, 75:4, 402-424

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End Notes

[1]Bloomberg “Cities of the Future: New Delhi”

[2] “India Muslims have lowest rank” 17th November  2006

[4]“Dont Blame it on the Scriptures” Nov 30th 2006

[6] “Homeless and Helpless in Delhi” NDTV Delhi

[7] India’s rivers are drowning in Pollution

[8] How Delhi makes the spritely Yamuna a ‘dead river’

[9] Bloomberg “Cities of the Future: New Delhi”

[12] Bloomberg “Cities of the Future: New Delhi”

[13] Delhi Metro wins award for best Clean Development Mechanism Project

[14] “India’s slowdown, the case for the defence” Jan 2011

[18] Anon (2009) World Bank approves record loans Country Monitor -The Economist Intelligence Unit

[19] “Urban Governance Campaign Launched in New Delhi”

[21] “First official estimate, an NGO for every 400 people in India”

[22] “Localising the Millennium Development Goals :  A guide for local authorities and partners”

[23] Bloomberg “Cities of the Future: New Delhi”

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