Creating institutions without commitment widens the trust deficit between citizens and state

Many urban institutions in Chennai either turn dysfunctional quickly or disappear after their inaugural moment. The State regularly introduces new plans and norms seemingly for the citizens’ welfare and to provide a secure living environment, but many of these exist only on paper. Those that manage to come into being hardly function, leaving many to doubt the seriousness and purpose of these actions.

For instance, following the criticism that the city is planned and developed without sufficient public participation and ‘representative basis’, the State government introduced a legislation to create a metropolitan planning committee. This committee, with two two-thirds of its membership filled by elected members of the municipalities and panchayats of the region, was to formulate an integrated development plan, judiciously use the natural resources and decide on the nature of investments.

In other words, instead of a top-down approach, which often leads to confronting positions, a participatory and efficient planning process would be in place – at least, that was the idea.

This bill got the governor’s assent in August 2009, and since then one has hardly heard about the committee. There are no answers to the questions about its status.

It probably exists on paper, buried deep below the file-pile on some government desk.

The case of the amendment to the Registration Act is another illustrative example. In January 2009, the President of India gave assent to the Sate government’s act to modify registration procedures. This amendment would have ensured secure transaction of properties. It gave power to the registration officer to refuse registration of unauthorised sale of lands belonging to temples governed by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, donated to Bhoodan Yagna or the Wakf board. Equally important, the amended act made registration of sales of house sites in unapproved layouts impossible.

This well-meaning arrangement would have deterred unauthorised layouts and secured public property. Unfortunately, the government never notified this act and the proliferation of illegal housing layouts has not been reined in.

The Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, created more than two years ago to facilitate better mobility within the city and pursue integrated transportation solutions, has met only a few times. It has hardly produced any meaningful results. Similarly, in 2008, the government set up a series of committees to periodically review the second master plan for Chennai. This would have helped shape development policies and plans. Even after four years, there is no hint of useful reviews from the committees. After losing many historically significant buildings and after decades of struggle, heritage enthusiasts were happy to see a Heritage Act passed a few months ago. But to their disappointment, there are no signs of follow-up action. Will this legislation go the same way as several others?

Creating institutions without infusing them with seriousness and commitment not only increases their inefficiency, but also widens the trust deficit between the citizens and the state. Such actions are perceived as empty gestures, deceptions and a waste of resources.

Chennai has to realise that investing only on infrastructure is not enough. If it is keen to achieve equitable development, create an inclusive city, efficiently manage its resources, good administration is critical. Cities across the world have realized that conventional urban management alone cannot create better urban environments. Their focus is on improving governance. At the core of their plans are innovative institutional structures, new mechanisms to decentralise authority and enhance transparency, and effective legal frame works.

This is the route for Chennai too.

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