Institutional innovations in public participation for improved local governance and urban sustainability in India
Improving urban governance is an imperative for India, with its accelerated rate of urbanization, distrust of government, and inadequate public involvement in policy development and decision-making. Deliberative democracy initiatives in other parts of the world, and similar experiences in rural India have demonstrated their effectiveness at resolving complex issues with decisions that are acceptable to constituents, and are seen to be in the public good.
Learnings are drawn from two cases of action research in Pune, India about achieving inclusion and deliberation in public engagement efforts, and their influence on public decision-making. The stratified and complex socio-economic and political context in India, power imbalances, inadequacy of decentralized governance structures, and information for civic decision-making makes public engagement challenging. From this experience, we inductively developed a potential framework for good governance, of deliberative democracy initiatives (induced participation), inclusive civil society (organic and invented) participation, overseen by an independent third party. It is contended that such a framework can enable city governments, in India and elsewhere, to resolve complex urban sustainability challenges with more implementable decisions.
Based on what was learnt from the Pune case studies, this article suggests that a combination of leaders willing to pioneer good governance, capable third-party facilitators, and strong organic participation groups working together through the structured approaches of deliberative democracy can effectively integrate the public into civic decision-making. However, to implement deliberative democracy in urban areas in India, the framework proposed will require advocacy at multiple levels. It will be critical to find ‘champions’ within political, administrative and civil society willing to pioneer deliberative democracy initiatives, to build professional capacity to conduct high quality deliberation, and to ensure the outcomes of such processes are influential. Good governance will rely on an ecosystem supporting such democratic renewal.