Procedures and Practices - Governing an Indian City

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Exploring Symbiotic Relationships of Bottom-Up and Top-Down Approaches

Cities are like living organisms with a mix of interdependent structures and functions coming together to form a complex system. They grow, adapt and evolve both physically and metaphorically; more of than not from a cluster of settlements (cells) to large metropolises (organisms). For any living system to evolve, the feedback loop is the most important chain of communication where fundamental functional issues are identified, gaps are filled and the system grows.

Image Source: Creator - Nobeastsofierce | Credit Getty Images

If we look at the anatomy of the city, the cell can be identified as a citizen (the smallest structure) with specific needs of survival and aspirations of growth; the organ as the community of people formed by individuals of similar needs and aspirations and the organism where various organs - large or small, core or peripheral; symbiotically function for the system to evolve. Here again, the brain sits at the apex of the chain of commands, not only to control the system from top-down, both literally and metaphorically, but also facilitates communication between various cells through a bottom-up approach of feedback loops. However, there is one anomaly here that has affected the governance of cities through their evolution. This phenomenon is particularly seen as an effect of modernization era and experienced in Indian cities, especially in the post Independence era. The most evident result of this has been a formation of a gap in the chain of communication and governance of the city at the cell and organ level.

Image Source: Left - Smithsonian Magazine | © Omar Quintero, Right - Villages - Taste of Shenzhen

The decentralized systems of self governance and self organization like the panchayat that existed when the city was still in the stage of existence as clusters and settlements have been somehow organically eliminated. This has created an absence of an equivalent to the Gram Sabha at the city scale within the urban governance systems.. In the process of growth, the control over needs of survival and the aspirations have shifted from the cell-organ level to the apex. As a result the aspiration of the whole gained precedence over the needs of the parts and the organism essentially became larger, but not necessarily better.

When settlements get formalized into towns and cities, the ward becomes the organ and various compositions of socio-economic needs of the citizen's result into varied aspirations of individual parts of the city that may not necessarily completely align with those of the whole. However, grassroots / decentralized level governance systems can help in filling this gap and recreate the feedback loops at the ward level that can symbiotically align the interests of various parts to form a superior whole. The 74th constitutional amendment and various national schemes are an attempt to empower the cell and the organ that have created a platform for various civil society organizations and NGOs to successfully implement and empower the locals. The greatest challenge faced by these institutions apart from executing the solutions also remains the initial establishment of the sense of trust between the institutions and the community due to the absence of such systems for a very long duration that has resulted in the lack of belief that their needs and aspirations will be seen through to reality. However, the outcome largely continues to remain a voluntary structural enhancement to the practices and procedures of governing the city rather than a mandated one.

The city of Bhuj has been able to address the needs of the citizen through decentralized public participation with the help of various organizations like SETU Abhiyan, Hunnarshala, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, ACT, Sahjeevan and several citizens’ collectives. SETU Abhiyan has set up ward level for committees for 6 of the 11 wards of the city. These five organizations have successfully been able to implement various schemes through decentralized governance initiatives under the umbrella of Homes in the City (HIC) Programme. HIC has been an advisor and facilitator to the Municipality of Bhuj on a wide range of urban issues; ranging from urban water management strategies for a city in an arid region like Kutch, waste management, urban sanitation to empowerment of the urban poor, slum rehabilitation, gender equity, etc. The success of the decentralized approach of planning governance and execution of these urban projects provides evidence that citizens know their problems best and the availability of a platform that can be generated through decentralized frameworks does not only have positive impact in improving the quality of life of the citizens, but also allows the urban local bodies to prioritize the projects that may need immediate solutions and create strategies regarding the distribution of the available finances.

BHUJ CITY WATER RECHARGE PLAN, Image source: urban water management

The Master class 2 by Mr. Aseem Mishra (Director) and Mr. Bhargav Pandit (Planning Consultant) explore the potential of formalized de-central governance systems for Indian cities through grass-root level initiatives and peoples’ participation to create on-ground solutions for the city of Bhuj, Gujarat.



About the Speakers

Aseem Mishra (Director, HIC) is an Urban Planner, presently associated with Homes in the City (HIC) programme as Programme Director. HIC is an innovative Programme coordinated by five organizations having similar philosophy but working on diverse themes in the city of Bhuj along with issue-based collectives, citizens and several other organizations. They are collectively developing Bhuj to be a city where citizens, particularly the urban poor, improve their socio-economic condition and access basic services through political participation in local governance.

Bhargav Pandit (Planning Consultant, HIC) is an Urban Manager and currently working at HIC, facilitating preparation of Ward Plans for Bhuj city, Gujarat.

To know more about Homes in the City (HIC) Programme, visit their website


Blog by Enakshee Bhatia

About the Writer

Enakshee is a practicing Architect, Urban Designer and Academician from Mumbai who has a passion for exploring inter-disciplinary of urban transformation. She believes that writing is a crucial medium of engaging with society to better the practice of architecture and urbanism.


Link to watch the entire Masterclass 02 : "Decentralise Urban Governance and Planning initiatives of City of Bhuj, Gujarat " video :

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