Key analyses of decentralization in India have evaluated it from the democracy prism and concluded that it has failed to enable participation. Many argue that provincial state governments have been reluctant to devolve adequate powers to the local level. However this argument, while partially correct, can be misleading for two reasons: a) an expectation from decentralization to deliver democracy has focused attention on failures and weak capacity of local governments and b) an easy categorization of the state and local on a dichotomous scale has limited the analysis of their relationship as antagonistic as if power-sharing between the two is a zero-sum game.
This essay focuses on the relationship between the state government of West Bengal and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) to argue that the prevailing analysis does not capture the ways in which the two collude to create an external set of losers. When it comes to projects of the state such as urban renewal for example, the municipality can be rather effective in freeing up land by evicting street vendors or acquiring prime land from rich lessees. A failure to distinguish when the local has the capacity and when it does not hides the invisible ways the state is operating through the KMC.
Thus the paper tries to show how even if municipal governments are not autonomous entities, they are not entirely incapacitated; and hence, matter, for urban governance. Taking the local-state relationship as the starting point allows us to move beyond what local governments are not doing (enhancing participation) to look at what they are doing (state-making). Decentralization in this paper is presented as a form of state-making, irrespective of whether this outcome is intended or not.