This remarkable collection, arising from a conference held in Puducherry in 2009, focuses on the replacement of public, if often dysfunctional, approaches to public policy by strategies like financialisation, public-private partnerships, and so-called market disciplines. With contributors ranging from activists through academics, trade unionists, and policy implementers to non-academic intellectuals, every paper is clear and informative; while the criticisms are sharp, they also show that things can be done differently and much better.

In an accomplished opening paper, Karen Coelho, Lalitha Kamath, and Vijayabaskar show how participation takes on a life of its own as the space where fierce dispute takes place over the impact of public policy on citizens. The Indian state has long elevated effectiveness above openness, participation, and political deliberation; neoliberal reforms therefore look technical and not ideological, but the pressure they cause to achieve “results” has both suppressed participation and generated new resistance. For example, the 74th Amendment to the Constitution seems to free urban local bodies (ULBs) from governmental processes by letting them raise funds, but — as K. Rajivan and K.T. Ravindran point out — this creates unfunded mandates, which ULBs must fulfil by borrowing from international financial institutions. Revenues then rank above delivery; in places, residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) are assessing property taxes. Furthermore, lenders may require that vacant public-service posts remain vacant; those who can afford user charges least are excluded, and the basic needs deficit widens indefinitely.

Urban elites’ interests therefore prevail. Poorer residents want recognition, regularisation, and resources, but elites want neighbourhoods cleaned up, unauthorised settlers evicted, and corporates involved. Accountability vanishes; proposals to spend Rs. 220 billion in Bangalore alone under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the biggest urban plan in India’s history, give minimal information on the loan conditions. Counter-evidence is ignored; most Public Private Partnership water schemes in Latin America have failed, over 120 French local authorities have taken water back into public hands, and Berlin has started remunicipalising water.

Zainab Bawa, examining water privatisation in Mumbai, shows how the World Bank regards only those who support its agenda as stakeholders, despite the fact that the poor are stakeholders who do all they can, lawfully and unlawfully, through ward councillors and city officials to obtain water. That is a survival strategy for hundreds of millions. Privatisation, on the other hand, can legalise the illegal; as Malini Ranganathan shows, introducing water charges for unlawful settlements legitimises the settlements. Nevertheless, as Anant Maringanti notes, donors also thereby reduce structural imbalances to questions of personal responsibility; Stephen J. Young demonstrates that this strengthens the bureaucracy, as it bypasses elected representatives, and also reveals the elites’ statism. The elites need the state to preserve and promote property values; they are largely untroubled by the way the Nagar Raj Bill Act corporatises the public space by containing elite groups’ proposals for urban governance and by making it a condition for public funding that the Area Sabhas it creates include unelected corporates and NGOs.

Spectator sport

Big capital projects then become the only schemes; participation becomes what Vinay Baindur calls a spectator sport. Rowan Ellis, writing about Chennai, excoriates chandelier consultations which take place by invitation only in luxury hotels, where documents cost Rs. 1000 each, and where proceedings are in English. In any case, city master plans are often 20 years old and bear no resemblance to current urban topography.

The Chennai City Development Plan (CDP) was rejected by the national evaluation panel for not meeting the brief; even the revised text did not fully comply. Nithya Raman shows that the outside consultants wanted to involve poorer groups and did so almost by accident, but that such groups’ demands were for the improvement of existing slums rather than relocation to remote new estates (a lesson the West partly learnt decades ago), for reliable electricity and water supply, and for road layouts which prioritise pedestrians and public transport over private cars. The poor also wanted stable employment, better - and better-paid - work, the reversal of privatisation (which pitches large numbers into pensionlessness and insecurity), and access to low-interest loans; as Raman says, these would have made for a much better city, but they formed no part of the infrastructure-focused CDP.

The elites therefore reshape the country in their own likeness, but the ensuing scale of exclusion is immense. D. Ravikumar reminds us that until the 1950s, Dalits in South Arcot and Thanjavur who crossed their employers would find their doorways blocked with thornbrush, and were forbidden to build permanent dwellings. Satish Deshpande shows how primitive accumulation, or accumulation by dispossession, is not a transitional but an immanent feature of capitalism; poverty is now urbanised, with posh high-rises next to slums, and different kinds of economic informality emerge. In one, corporates outsource hazardous industrial jobs to local workshops; in another, a much larger class expands even further, comprising those who are not engaged with capital at all and do whatever they can to survive, but the rich might not survive without their services.

Favouring business

Politicians, nevertheless, still mount covert takeovers. Maringanti shows that in Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu looked like a donor’s dream, but cultivated that image to supplant the bureaucracy with his Telugu Desam Party as the implementing body; yet his real target was the state Congress Party. Electorally, Naidu succeeded, but by 2007 policies like local groups’ contracts for sanitation and rubbish collection had collapsed. The TDP was then heavily beaten in the state elections.

Delhi saw similar. Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal, Diya Mehra, and Lalit Batra separately identify differences among RWAs and reveal the politics of Sheila Dixit’s Bhagidari scheme; that covered only authorized colonies, or 23 per cent of the relevant population, but Dixit used its RWAs to circumvent officials and even for party infighting. Kamath and Vijayabaskar also point out that RWAs from different social classes often have very different aims, and Nityanand Jayaraman adds that the state now favours business interests and NGOs whose representatives look good, smell good, drive fancy cars, and speak the same language as the policymakers.

M.G. Devasahayam responds; getting public responses is difficult because the public think nobody will listen. Secondly, plans and schemes must not replace elected assemblies and related institutions. Yet, on the evidence, the ordinary public are right; those in power rarely listen to them, and if elected bodies worked even tolerably well the schemes and projects would be superfluous.

Amita Baviskar reminds us that gated communities transfer land from the poor to the rich and create a form of apartheid; property ownership is now the precondition for substantive citizenship. There have been successful challenges to some exclusions, despite the difficulty of mobilizing people whose poverty and insecurity make them desperately vulnerable. More challenges are needed; as Simpreet Singh says, under what passes for participation now, the poor have the right to die by shooting or hanging – but the decision that they must die has already been taken.

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