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Warrior of an Unfinished Agenda: Remembering the late KC Sivaramakrishnan


Kallidaikurichi Chidambarakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan died on 28th May 2015. On his first death anniversary, Bhanu Joshi remembers him.

What is the institutional architecture within which we foresee India’s urbanisation? What framework of governance – public or private do we think would be able to provide better services to the urban India?

Kallidaikurichi Chidambarakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan or KCS, as many of us called him, was amongst the first to ask and continued engaging with this question over his lifetime. Chief Executive of the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority, and secretary in both the Ministry of Urban Development and the Ministry of Commerce, Professor and chairman of the Centre for Policy Research, he was one of the pioneering interpreters of urbanisation in modern India.

A man whose commentary and work ranged from delimitation to the environment and climate change, from Ganga water management to South Asian cooperation, KCS was most valued for his contribution to understanding decentralisation in India. He was involved in the making of the watershed 65th Constitutional Bill, which later became the 74th Constitutional Amendment (CAA). The longest amendment to the Constitution of India, it was the 74th CAA, which mandated the creation of municipalities across urban areas.

Perspectives and Approaches

The numerous books, journal and popular writing on decentralised urban governance by KCS employed three concomitant perspectives – historical, legal and political.

He assigned a great importance to historical continuities in his analysis. For him, India’s modern conception of devolution had an antecedent in the nineteenth-century colonial rule. While colonial local self-government provided a forum for representation and practice, it was the provincial, state and central legislatures which controlled their powers, finances and functions. As KCS writes, “In the struggle for independence, urban growth was viewed usually in the frame of large metropolitan or industrial cities and all the want, squalor, slum growth and the blight they presented.”[i] Post-independence, the local government remained a lesser form of government with similar control exhibited by the centre and the state.[ii]

The second perspective was the defining of institutional powers and legislative domains of local governments, produced by the coalescence of law and legal jurisprudence. Although judgements delivered by High Courts and the Supreme Court were central to many of his own arguments; in many of his writings, he was critical of the views taken by the Courts.[iii] He believed, there were limits to which adjudication in the Courts of Law can help the process. Besides, “Courts prefer to dwell upon the letter of the law, rather than the spirit, however relevant it may be for a proper understanding and interpretation of the law. The remedy may not lie in the Court, but elsewhere.”[iv] That ‘elsewhere,’ lay in the polity and the process of people’s participation. He believed, that India’s decentralisation project cannot bypass the messiness of politics and people’s participation.[v] It is a genuine participative process, which is deeply contested that brings a strong and powerful elected government responsible for its successes and failures.

The Question of Governance

KCS were Secretary in the Ministry of Urban Development, when the 65th Constitutional Amendment Bill was brought to the Lok Sabha by the Rajiv Gandhi government. The 74th CAA, modelled on the Bill drafted earlier, opened up avenues of political participation by creating a new political class in big and small cities in India. “We thought we were on the cusp of a revolution,”[vi] said KCS in a public lecture in 2012. The optimism created made it clear that at the local level the elected representatives were going to demand an increasing share in the political domain. “As this demand turns more vocal and insistent, changes in the legal and administrative base of the Nagarpalikas will become inevitable.”[vii]

Twenty years later, the tides changed and there was a recognition that the 74th CAA though path breaking, remained a restrictive framework. His work on the metropolitan regions in India is revealing on the imaginative restrictions imposed by the Amendment. Referring to the metropolitan regions in India; an entity like the Mumbai Metropolitan region comprising of areas beyond the city corporation, to include both rural and urban, multi-municipal and non-municipal bodies, he argued that, metropolitan governance cannot be compartmentalised as rural or urban but there has to be strong intra-municipal coordination, inclusion of the rural local governments and a direct link between the various state and central ministries and the region. The idea that the problems of a ‘big’ city (and hence the region) are of, and restricted to, that city alone is flawed. Transport, water supply, garbage disposal, planned development are not city centred and extends beyond and have to consider the region as a whole. The “74th constitutional amendment of 1993 has failed to visualise the dynamics of large, complex urban formations,”[viii] he surmised. In his last published chapter, he is less charitable, “notwithstanding the initial objectives of enlarging the funnel of participation and providing for a wider system of directly elected representative bodies, in actual effect the amendment has failed to fulfil this objective.”[ix]

And here, then, lies the biggest contribution of KCS. By grappling with the question of the institutional architecture of urban governance, he posed profound questions on how should our cities grow. His body of scholarship leaves a reference point for us to ask – who should head our cities and what structures – elected or unelected should plan for our city? What forms of people’s participation do we imagine for our cities?

Within the wide canvas of indulging the urban, there has been a growth; positively so, on understanding the various facets of the subject. Housing, migration, economic geography, role of land, issues of livelihoods, urban systems, provision of services to urban populations especially the urban poor, urban violence and exclusion, and urban infrastructure have been investigated with great detail. Indeed, these studies provide a lens to subjects hitherto unexplored. Yet, the core question of urban governance, on which arguably, many of these are not only contingent but are greatly affected, has received limited attention over the years. Understandably, the term ‘urban governance’ is not homogenous, and cannot be thought to be panacea for all things bad. However, understanding and advocating greater autonomy to the city, a politically accountable leadership and an inclusive city government which becomes the forum for planning the city are the backbone on which exigencies of urban systems, livelihoods, service delivery tilt on.

His Legacy

In the summer of 2014, KCS was appointed the Chairman of the “Expert Committee on the New Capital for Andhra Pradesh” by the Ministry of Home Affairs. As the Committee was about to depart on a weeklong trip of the newly carved state, KCS mentioned his deteriorating health condition and a no travel dictum issued by the doctors. Nonetheless, constant updates were taken from the members even at wee hours and a few visits were made to Hyderabad. Notwithstanding a jump in his medical regime, the Committee submitted its report much before the deadline.

The report of the committee left the decision to the political leadership of Andhra Pradesh, reaffirming his fundamental belief that in a democracy it is the people who matter. He believed, that a democracy will come to terms not by an orderly progress of law but only by creating platforms where battle will be fought contests would be held. It is in a question, which KCS posed to a gathering in Mumbai that offers a peek into his legacy; “Before you think of becoming Shanghai, shouldn’t Mumbai start thinking of becoming Mumbai first? Like everywhere else, we can lay the contours of battle – It is that much easy for us to promulgate victory then join the battle. The reason why I am spending so much time is because I think we are capable, we shouldn’t be sterile. We need to think out of the box.”

[i] Sivaramakrishnan, KC (1978), Indian Urban Scene, (Shimla, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies), 106.

[ii] Lecture delivered by KC Sivaramakrishnan on ‘Devolution and Urban Development’, (February 23, 2012) part of the Golden Jubilee Lectures on Governance, India International Centre available on http://www.iicdelhi.in/webcasts/view_webcast/golden-jubilee-lectures-on-governance-/ last accessed on 28th May 2016.

[iii] See, generally, Sivaramakrishnan, KC (2010), ‘Judicial Setback for Panchayats and Local Bodies’, Economic & Political Weekly XLV (32): 43-46.

[iv] Sivaramakrishnan, KC (2009), Courts, Panchayats & Nagarpalikas, (New Delhi, Academic Foundation), 257-270, 329.

[v] See, generally, Sivaramakrishnan, KC (2006), People’s Participation in Urban Governance (ed.), (New Delhi, Institute of Social Sciences), 38-51.

[vi] Lecture delivered by KC Sivaramakrishnan on ‘Devolution and Urban Development’, (February 23, 2012) part of the Golden Jubilee Lectures on Governance, India International Centre, Delhi, available on http://www.iicdelhi.in/webcasts/view_webcast/golden-jubilee-lectures-on-governance-/; last accessed on 28th May 2016.

[vii] Sivaramakrishnan, KC (2000), Power to the People, (New Delhi, Konark Publishers), 228-229.

[viii] Sivaramakrishnan, KC (2013), ‘Revisiting the 74th Constitutional Amendment for Better Metropolitan Governance’, Economic & Political Weekly, 48(13): 86-94.

[ix] Sivaramakrishnan, KC (2016), ‘Local Government”, in Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds), The Oxford Handbook of The Indian Constitution, (Oxford University Press), 578.

[x] Lecture delivered by KC Sivaramakrishnan on ‘India’s Mega Cities: Prospects and Challenges’, (March 15, 2012), Observers Research Foundation, Mumbai, available on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JqG_jH5WaM ; last accessed on 28th May 2016.