Proximity and precarity in urban governance


GOVERNING a city is arguably more complex than rural governance – more objectives to balance, more instruments to wield, all in the context of a constantly mutating dynamic environment. By contrast, the rural seems simpler and more static. This is even more so in a country like India, which is going through an intense phase of transformation, as occupations move away from agrarian rhythms and clusters of villages transform into towns.

Yet, as we present in this piece, urban governance in India is significantly less capacitated in its ability to make a difference in the lives of citizens. We illustrate this by focusing on two key axes of difference with respect to rural governance – proximity and precarity.

By proximity, we mean the ease with which a citizen can reach a formal functionary or elected representative of the state, and the extent to which such functionaries and representatives can impact the lives of citizens. This is similar to the idea of surface area of the state in Heller (2018).1 By precarity, we mean the degree of uncertainty with which a citizen is forced to live with, navigating access to essential basic needs, housing and work. Our claim is that, compared to those living in rural areas, the structure of governance in urban areas is such that citizens have lesser proximity and greater precarity.

In an insightful essay, Auerbach and Kruks-Wisner (2020) compare citizen perceptions of responsiveness of government officials in the slums of Bhopal and Jaipur with perceptions in rural Rajasthan.2 They find that while just about half of rural residents believe government officials to be unresponsive, this number jumps significantly in urban areas – with around 85% of urban residents believing the same. One of the hypothesized explanations for this is what they call differences in the ‘depth of decentralization’, or in our terminology, greater proximity in rural vis-à-vis urban areas.

In order to unpack this further, we need a theory of political representation. The closest formal state unit in urban and rural areas, i.e. the municipal ward and the panchayat, is also the level at which elections take place – thereby structuring the ‘nearest’ political representative to the citizen. If the depth of decentralization is greater in rural areas, then the political representative can more easily be reached by the citizen. Indeed, there is evidence that regular access to the panchayat forms the basis for how rural citizens make claims on the state.3 We can contrast this to urban areas, where lesser proximity to the elected official, obliges urban citizens to use unelected intermediaries or brokers – who distinguish themselves precisely by how efficiently they can connect to state actors.4 


Political representation structures responsiveness and delivery of benefits to citizens in key ways. In a panchayat, the elected representative must carry the votes of a broad-based coalition. This compels any panchayat leader to respond in a manner that seen as broadly socially acceptable and in ways that are not excessively targeted to a narrow group. In short, if the elected panchayat leader only responds to a small sliver of wealthy villagers, then the leader (and those allied with the leader) are less likely to win the next election.

We can contrast this to brokers, who compete in a highly competitive market for access to state actors and patronage of local citizens. Without electoral compulsions, their optimal strategy is often to specialize in responding to a narrow subset of the population, e.g., linguistic or caste-based, as well as the most well off – who are most able to pay for assistance and may garner the broker higher social position. Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that while panchayat leaders are more likely to respond to the poor,5 brokers and intermediaries in urban contexts are more likely to respond to the wealthy.6

To understand differences in proximity between local urban governance and local rural governance, we use a simple metric – the average number of citizens per local governance unit. The idea here is that if there are more representatives per citizen, then there is greater ease in reaching an elected representative. It can however be argued that larger political constituencies can be mitigated, inter alia, by, a dedicated bureaucratic staff and technology such as WhatsApp groups and that citizens in urban areas are more likely to possess devices such as smartphones to access these channels. As such, ‘proximity’ thresholds may be higher in urban areas as compared to rural areas.

In urban areas, we consider the municipal ward, and in rural areas we consider the gram panchayat (GP), which is actually closer to a local body than a constituent of the local body, but using abundant caution, we compare a sarpanch to a ward councillor. In practice, a GP has multiple wards, e.g. Telangana has around 8 to 10 wards in every GP.

Using data collated by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) and the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI),7 which provides the number of electors in three diverse states, viz. Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, we compare this to the number of estimated electors in a panchayat using the population of GPs in the Local Government Directory (

Figure 1A shows the distribution of the number of electors in a ward in the three states. In Uttar Pradesh and Telangana, we see that the 75th percentile (i.e., three fourths of gram panchayats have less than these number of electors) is comparable to the 63rd and 73rd percentile of
urban wards, i.e. they are broadly comparable. However, in West Bengal, it is closer to the 94% of the urban ward size, i.e. the GPs are larger in size. This is because in West Bengal, while the villages are similar in size to the other states (around 1500 in population), the number of rural local bodies (GPs) are much smaller – whereas the national average is a population of 3,500 per GP, in West Bengal, it is closer to 19,000.

However, the picture changes once we look only at the municipal corporations (MCs), i.e., the larger towns and cities in a state. In Figure 1B, we see that the ward size in MCs is much larger than that of GPs and in West Bengal, it is broadly comparable (though in Kolkata Municipal Corporation, 80% of wards are larger than the 75th percentile of GPs in size) in size. In terms of proximity as measured by the number of electors per elected representative, we find that in the larger urban areas, the urban citizen is more distant from the elected representative than in rural areas. Even in West Bengal, this would be true if one compared a GP ward – usually, every GP has more than ten wards – to an urban ward.



But proximity is not just about whether a representative is more reachable, it is also about the capacity of local government to impact the lives of citizens. Table 1 shows the sectors in which works were approved under the GP Development Plan (GPDP) for seven states, viz. Uttar Pradesh (UP), Telangana (TS), West Bengal (WB), as well as Andhra Pradesh (AP), Tamil Nadu (TN), Maharashtra (MH) and Bihar (BH), that account for 74% of cost of approved works in 2020-21 (Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for 46%). For each state, the top five sectors are chosen.

It is not the contention that these works are actually implemented by the GPs to the fullest extent – rather it is that, in all these areas, GPs have the authority to provide services. In all seven states, drinking water, roads and sanitation are priorities. However, the share of these three sectors varies across these six states, from 80% in Bihar to 54% in Maharashtra. GPs in states also show considerable diversity in other priorities, e.g. land improvement and water conservation are key in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, while education is important in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, social welfare in Bihar and Maharashtra, and so on. Telangana spends almost one fifth on administration. Others (beyond the top five sectors) vary from almost 30% in Maharashtra to under 8% in Tamil Nadu.

This pattern of works is indicative of both the breadth of activity undertaken by GPs, as least as the implementing agency, and the flexibility in deciding expenditure in ways that are responsive to the local context. Much of the GP budget in these states either comes under the grants from the Finance Commission or from funds received under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

In addition to these services, there are a number of schemes where the panchayat plays a key role in determining whether or not a household is included and the level of benefits it would receive, such as inclusion in the MGNREGS (more important for SC/ST households where works can be taken up on private agricultural land, e.g., building a pond), benefits under PDS, etc.

By contrast, we see very little of this dynamism in urban local government. For example, Praja’s Urban Governance Index 2020 (p. 23)8 finds that the only function that is fully devolved (ULBs have the sole responsibility) across almost all states is the handling of solid waste (27 of 29 states). Other functions that are widely devolved include cremation and burial grounds and cattle pounds (21 of 29 states) and regulation of slaughter houses (19 of 29). Similarly, the performance audit reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) finds that out of 18 functions mentioned in the 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India, only two are fully devolved in Rajasthan, three in Karnataka, four in Madhya Pradesh, five in Punjab, seven in Kerala and eight in Chhattisgarh. In sum, the rural GP has a relatively wider ‘surface area’ (Heller 2019) with respect to citizens, as compared to the ULB.

These distinctions in proximity are highly consequential for the quality of life of urban and rural citizens. Not only are rural citizens more likely to directly access their most local political representatives, but these representatives, and the level of government in which they reside, are more capable in addressing the needs of citizens.

One of the most prominent theories of urban governance characterizes cities as ‘growth machines’.9 In this theory, urban regimes are characterized by coalitions between those who develop urban land (i.e., builders) and politicians, something that plausibly holds true for Indian cities. However, these theorists argue that because this coalition seeks to maximize the value of the land, a set of coherent planning and governance practices yield broadly ‘inclusive and equitable’ outcomes.

Yet, when we observe Indian cities, we don’t see growth as being particularly inclusive or equitable. As Heller, Mukhopadhyay and Walton (2019) argue, the alliance between politicians and builders in India does not yield preferences consistent with inclusive growth:10

‘[T]his is at best a ‘growth cabal’, and more often a ‘rent extracting cabal’, in which the particularistic, and often informal, pursuit of land (and other) rents is only weakly aligned with either the coherent economic growth of the city or the construction of an urban living environment that could cater effectively to the basic needs of established and migrating populations.’ (p. 152)

They see the dominant urban institutional formations of ‘growth cabal’ and ‘rent-extracting cabal’ as being affected by (a) the fragmented structure of state, (b) its consequent weak disciplining power, especially in controlling collusive rent-extracting deals. This is compounded by the limited devolution of political authority to the city, despite the 74th Amendment, which results in weak societal accountability of city-level political and administrative structures.

These cabals, unlike coalitions of growth machines, which are often institutionalized, operate around institutions and in segments of economic activity, where some investments may occur. They cannot coordinate effectively and are unable and unwilling to support inclusive growth, unlike a growth machine, where returns to rents may find their way into growth-inducing investments, reinforcing the arrangements that generate rents. In India, the additional fact that the political power is constituted at higher levels further undercuts the potential for coherent urban coalitions. This decoupling of value creation from political and institutional power leads to a situation where the coalitions that can mobilize prefer to extract short-term rents, as it requires less coordination than returns from investment.

Building on the above logic of the ‘cabal city’, we illustrate two channels through which such urban governance leads to greater precarity than rural governance: control over land and migration flows.

First, core to the logic of the cabal city is that the alignment of builders and politicians is crucial to political finance, something that has been both empirically demonstrated11 and the basis for close field observation on the dynamic role of local capital in politics.12 The role of builder capital in political financing fundamentally distorts the growth machine logic. Rather than standardizing the process of urbanization, the political class aids builders in extracting rents from the population, a part of which can then be circulated into political parties. Of course, this rent is available only in the larger cities where land is valuable, in part because of regulatory restrictions on land use imposed by the state.

Second, urban citizens often are unable to put down roots in a city because of the non-availability of legally authorized land. Land ownership is clearly demarcated in rural areas for agricultural land but while it is not so clear for homestead land (though this is now being done under the Swamitva scheme of the Government of India, see there is almost always a clear common understanding. A rural household is not in danger of being dispossessed, except in situations of land acquisition and even in such cases, homesteads are only infrequently disturbed.


In urban areas, land tenure is often unstable and uncertain because the city does not want to be obligated to give certain services and also because it does not plan for population growth and therefore does not demarcate sufficient land for urbanization. Regardless, the demand for housing
in the city is met by unauthorized conversion of agricultural land for housing, leaving the housing vulnerable for demolition. This is accen-tuated by the fact that the absence of formal tenure rights makes eviction easier, should the land be needed for real estate or infrastructure – both channels for the rent extracting cabal.

In order to illustrate the nature of precarity in urban areas, we analyse grants from the most prominent government housing scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY). In particular, we focus on what is termed as beneficiary-led construc-tion (BLC) – which implies that a household is able to build its own house through grant support.13 In rural areas, land for homestead is not disputed and it has long been the practice to support rural households to build their own houses.



In the current government, the innovation was to adopt this practice in urban areas – households ‘desirous of availing this assistance …approach the ULBs with adequate documentation regarding availability of land owned by them.’14 In practice, there has been considerable flexibility adopted in determining ‘adequate documentation’. While ex post, all PMAY beneficiaries would have substantial security of tenure, households that were supported under BLC appear to have had low ex ante precarity. We adopt the extent to which BLC is used as the channel of implementation in an urban area as a measure of absence of precarity.

Figure 2 shows the proportion of BLC sanctions to total houses approved under all four methods of the scheme, by city size. While it is used much less in the larger cities (in 38% of cities over a million, the share of BLC is less than 20%), it is the preferred method is most other cities. In 53% of the cities between 300,000 and 1 million, the share of BLC is over 60%, above 80% in 50% of the cities between 100,000 and 300,000 and it is over 80% in 79% of the smaller cities below 100,000. The last two categories of cities, i.e., below 300,000, comprise nearly 85% of all BLC houses approved (BLC houses comprise three fourths of all PMAY (Urban) houses).


This pattern is consistent with the precarity of land tenure being positively related to the value of the land in an urban area. In the smaller urban areas, land is less valuable and consequently, there is limited rent to be extracted from retaining the ability to evict, and political benefits to be gained by providing security of tenure to the citizen. Consequently, the level of precarity is low. As the cities get larger, land increases in value and eventually, the rent extraction motive dominates the decision process.

The other key aspect of precarity is the status of migrants in the city. This is because the nature of migration in India, which is circular (i.e. migrant circulates between the origin and destination and the destination itself may change over time), means many migrant households are multi-locational, divided across origin and destination. This means that their status as both workers and voters remain uncertain.

Regular and casual work differ not only in terms of job security but also in terms of wages. Depending on the sector, the wage regular workers earn anywhere from 1.5 times to four times as much as casual workers. However, casual work wages do not differ much between urban and rural areas once price differentials are considered. Table 2 shows the ratio of expected price-adjusted urban wage to rural wages across broad sectors, by the education level of the workers.15 

It is reasonable to expect that while the worker searches for regular salaried work, which is where the wage premium lies, s/he will be engaged in casual work. In this sense, the ratio of rural casual wage to urban casual wage is important. Table 2 shows that during this precarious urban existence, adjusted for price differentials, there is almost no increase in the wages of the worker, as long as s/he is engaged in casual work. However, if s/he secures regular wages, then, on average, the increase can be substantial, for example in other manufacturing, the expected wage is almost 2.5 times higher than the casual wage. While they continue to labour in expectation of securing regular employment, they have an enhanced incentive to save on housing costs, renting in unauthorized settlements, and retaining their space in their village, i.e. going back to the village from time to time and especially during local elections.

This, however, is less feasible for long-distance, e.g. out of state migrants. As Figure 3 shows, the share of such migrants is much more in the urban areas, compared to rural, e.g., 27% of rural to urban migrants are inter-state, compared to 7% of rural to rural migrants. This number goes up even more once one considers only the large metropolises (it is 38% in cities of more than 4 million).  The numbers below the horizontal axis refer to the share of each flow, showing that the flow to urban areas is rising. The share of migrants to urban areas is 46% in the past four years compared to 32% for those who migrated twenty years ago.

Importantly, this means that migrants, either by choice or compulsion, often do not exercise voting rights at their destination, excluding them from the political equation in the city.16 The Election Commission of India (ECI) too is concerned about this issue as is the Supreme Court. In a letter addressed to political parties on remote voting for domestic migrants, issued on December 28, 2022, the ECI notes that: ‘Internal migration is one of the assessed important reasons required to be addressed to improve voter turnout in low voter turnout States.’17 In this exercise, they also draw upon the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s directions on this issue.18 The decreased proximity for migrants adds to their already precarious existence.

India has the largest rural population in the world, comparable to the continent of Africa. The urbanization of India is among the major development transitions that the world will witness in this century. But, if development is not just about accumulation, but also organizational change, then the greater the extent of democratic participation, the more it is likely to be wide-ranging and effective.19

Yet, as we see in the discussion above, urban citizenship in our larger cities is characterized by stunted participation, a lack of proximity to the state, resulting from overly large constituencies and limited devolution of functions to urban local governments. This is exacerbated by precarity, especially in housing. Both these challenges are especially severe for migrants to the city.  Indeed, one can ask: why would anyone make a permanent transition to the city? Why leave a place where you have a voice in decisions that affect you, where you are proximate to the state, and where your existence is secure for a space where you are in a constant state of uncertainty, and the state, such as it is, is distant and aloof?

Cities cannot be spaces where citizens, particularly the poorer among them, are unable to lay down roots because governance actively prevents them from doing so. Beyond moral considerations, the highly precarious nature of urban citizenship will stymie India’s development transition, retard India’s and the world’s economic growth, as labour productivity remains low, female workforce participation continues to be stunted and citizens do not invest, in the face of fundamental uncertainty.

If that transition is to occur, if India is to become truly urban, then is time that urban governance becomes more proximate to the citizens, enabling them to lead a less precarious life. If not to emulate, Brazil’s Estatuto da Cidade (City Statute), which requires that all urban policies be subject to popular participation and ‘introduces a series of innovative legal instruments that allow local administrations to enforce the ‘social function’20 may be a model to study.

Indeed, it is perhaps wise in a situation such as India, where settlements are in a fluid state of transformation from rural to urban (and vice versa, on occasion), to consider a common frame for local government without the constructed distinction of rural and urban. Indeed, the constitution does permit it even now, since the eleventh and twelfth schedules are not mandated and states can choose to give functions from the twelfth schedule to rural local governments and that from the eleventh to urban local governments, should they choose to do so. It needs one state with imagination to try.



1. Patrick Heller, ‘Divergent Trajectories of Democratic Deepening: Comparing Brazil, India, and South Africa’, Theory and Society 48, 2019, pp. 351-382.

2. A.M. Auerbach and G. Kruks-Wisner, ‘The Geography of Citizenship Practice: How the Poor Engage the State in Rural and Urban India’, Perspectives on Politics 18(4), 2020, pp.1118-1134.

3. G. Kruks-Wisner, Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

4. A.M. Auerbach and T. Thachil, ‘How Clients Select Brokers: Competition and Choice in India’s Slums’, American Political Science Review 112(4), 2018, pp. 775-791.

5. M. Schneider and N. Sircar, ‘Whose Side Are You On? Identifying the Distributive Preferences of Local Politicians in India’. Centre for Advanced Study of India Working Paper 15-01, 2015.

6. N. Sircar, ‘Politicians and Netas: The Politics of Grievance and Political Intermediation’, in S. Chakravorty and N. Sircar (eds.), Colossus: The Anatomy of Delhi. Cambridge University Press, 2021.

7. ‘TCPD-CASI Urban Local Body Dataset (TCPD-CASI-ULB), 2008-2021’. Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University and Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania. 


9. J.R. Logan and H. Molotch, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. University of California Press, 1988.

10. P. Heller, P. Mukhopadhyay and M. Walton, ‘Cabal City: Urban Regimes and Accumulation without Development’, in C. Jaffrelot, A. Kohli and K. Murali (eds.), Business and Politics in India. Oxford University Press, 2019. pp. 151-182

11. D. Kapur and M. Vaishnav, ‘Builders, Politicians, and Election Finance’, in D. Kapur and M. Vaishnav (eds.), Costs of Democracy: Political Finance in India. Oxford University Press, 2018.

12. H. Damodaran, ‘“From “Entrepreneurial” to “Conglomerate” Capitalism’, Seminar 734, October 2020, pp. 33-37.

13. The other modes of implementation include affordable housing in partnership (AHP), where beneficiaries are relocated to apartments, often, but not always at the periphery and in-situ slum rehabilitation (ISSR), where existing homes are demolished and apartments built on the same site for erstwhile slum residents on a certain part of the land, with the rest being used for market priced housing or commercial use. A third method, credit linked subsidy scheme (CLSS) subsidizes the interest on housing loans, and is for relatively more affluent households who are eligible for and can afford to take loans from banks for housing.

14. Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban) Housing for All Scheme Guidelines, January 2021 (p. 13), accessed at

15. The expected urban wage for a given sector is the weighted average of the regular salaried wage and casual wage in that sector, weighted by their respective shares of the workforce. This expected urban wage for the sector is then price adjusted by the ratio of the urban poverty line to the rural poverty line in 2011-12.

16. Ashwani Kumar and Ram Babu Bhagat (eds.), Migrants, Mobility and Citizenship in India. Taylor & Francis, 2021.


18. On 1 November 2022, in the matter of WP No.80 of 2013 and WP No.265 of 2014 and others, the Supreme Court disposed of the petition, since ‘the learned Attorney General for India has assured this Court that every step shall be undertaken to see that the persons living outside and migrant labourers are still part of the entire electoral process and every facility shall be extended which would ensure the confidentiality of the election.’ 

19. P. Evans and P. Heller, ‘Human Development, State Transformation and the Politics of the Developmental State’, in S. Leibfried, F. Nullmeier, E. Huber, M. Lange, J. Levy and J. Stephens (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Transformations of the State. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015, pp. 671-701.

20. T. Caldeira and J. Holston, ‘State and Urban Space in Brazil: From Modernist Planning to Democratic Intervention’, in A. Ong, and S.J. Collier (eds.), Global Anthropology: Technology, Governmentality, Ethics. Blackwell, London, 2005, pp. 405-406.