January 29, 2024The Intersectionhyperdiversityliberal nationalismpublic policysocial capital

Why public places in India deteriorate over time

The missing sense of community is the underlying cause of many public problems

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

Five years after Bengaluru’s Church Street received a facelift, it is struggling with dumped garbage, broken pavements, damaged street lights, brazen illegal parking and inadequate maintenance in general. It has been painful to observe this deterioration right outside my office.

At this point, you are perhaps rolling your eyes and saying what’s new?”, since we all know about the corruption in local government, incompetence of city authorities and the lack of civic sense’ among our people.

You are right. This is not new. But if we are to have a better India to go with a richer India, we must grapple with the question of why is it that our public spaces are ugly, dirty, poorly maintained and generally deteriorating. Else our efforts will be Sisyphean at best—a facelift here, an upgrade there, but always with regression to the shabby mean.

My argument is that all the symptoms we can see—corruption, incompetence, inconsiderate behaviour—stem from the same deep cause in the Indian psyche. The lack of a sense of us.’ Public toilets are dirty, public buildings ugly, roads choked, forests ravaged and the environment polluted because these are not seen as our’ common property.

Rather, they are seen as freely available resources that we’ had better exploit before others’ do. There is very little social capital at the city-wide level. The lack of a sense of common community is the underlying reason why urban governance is in such a bad shape. Indeed, the bigger the city, the worse the governance, with small groups of citizens trying to maximize their parochial gains instead of optimizing efforts for the city as a whole. We make parochial, private demands of our governments and democracy gives us what we really ask for.

Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel prize for economics for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.” Her field studies showed that collectively-held natural resources do not always get overexploited (‘the tragedy of the commons’), but that local communities can govern the commons in a sustainable manner. From what she saw in successful communities around the world, she formulated eight design principles for managing common pool resources. I recall being very excited when I came across Ostrom’s work and some of the case studies where it has been applied. In summary, they involve formulating rules that are suited to the local context, imposing graduated penalties, allowing local communities to enforce them and having low cost conflict resolution mechanisms.

So far, so good. But I have come to realize that we run into a big difficulty when we try and apply them in India, because the very first step requires the community’s boundaries—who is in and who is out—to be clearly defined. Now, it is difficult but possible to do this in some small-scale cases. For instance, many lakes and public parks in Bengaluru have been restored by ring-fencing them and using informal local rules to regulate access and use. However, it is extremely difficult to extend the scope and scale to city-wide governance.

We cannot put a ring fence around Church Street and restrict access only to local residents, businesses and customers who might have a stake in the upkeep of the area. It would be wrong to do so. This means that popular spots—tourist destinations face the brunt—are ravaged by itinerant outsiders’ who are not concerned about keeping the place in good condition.

In our country, we have a further problem. Local insiders’ usually do not see themselves as members of the community, and thus are not too interested in upholding norms. Local residents, restaurant owners, retailers, office workers tend to see each other as adversaries and not co-owners. Political scientists will say that local politics should emerge to consolidate the interests of various stakeholders. I am no longer impressed by such an argument. Local politics in India, even in urban areas, is organized along caste and sectarian lines.

It follows that unless India’s deficit in social capital is addressed, public services will underperform even as people get richer. As a colleague once quipped, it means that two big cars will now be parked illegally instead of one small one. Toilets at our swanky airports will continue to need attendants. Public transport, like public hospitals and schools, will be worse than our per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) would suggest it should be.

The next phase of urban activism should shift from technocratic interventions to community-building. Perhaps this is what Gandhi discovered a century ago: that the solution lies in bridging communities and bringing people together, not in drafting petitions to the colonial government. The first step is to create a sense of us’ in the Indian psyche. Not unity or uniformity, but a pluralistic, common community that does not come at the cost of diversity. It is time philanthropy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), social activism and civic leadership focus on building social capital, especially in urban India.

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