Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Sep 24, 2018
A futuristic view on how urban planning ought to be overhauled over the next three decades if India’s cities are to survive  
Urban planning: Then & now (2045)

Welcome, 2045. It will be 75 years since the founding of CIDCO and the startup of the Navi Mumbai project. And two years from now, it will be 100 years since Independence. A good point in time to review the momentous changes what have taken place over the last quarter century, particularly from my current vantage point as Director of Urban Planning for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR).

I report to the Regional Minister for Urban Development. You could say my rank corresponds to what was formerly called Principal Secretary to Government. Except of course that the geographical range of my powers is way more restricted. Their reach was all Maharastra. Mine is limited to the MMR. But therein lies the single most important change in urban governance that has taken place in our first century of Independence – the devolution of real power to the third tier, that is, to smaller regions consisting of one or more Districts, or parts of Districts, instead of the single entity of the State, which, in Maharashtra’s case, comprised 36 Districts.

We took a while to understand that democracy is not about swapping governments once every five years: it is about spreading decision-making over as large a number of people as possible, much like softening butter to spread it over bread, rather than keeping it in hard and icy lumps at one or two places. The devolution happened only because the same political party was in power both at the Centre (the first tier) and in many of the States (the second tier). It made sense to split these larger States into smaller entities, more manageable, in principle more responsive to local electorates. And of course (I am not being cynical, only realistic) with a much-widened circle for political patronage and also with lots of new political appointments for Regional Chief Ministers and their Cabinets. Although reporting supposedly to the State Chief Minister, who coordinates and manages all inter-regional matters, these Regional CMs are quite powerful on their own turf.

How urban planning has changed! For three quarters of a century before devolution, it was like a bear waltzing with a rabbit. The rabbit was the Directorate of Town Planning, headquartered in Pune. Or maybe two rabbits, the second one being the Planning Department of the local Municipal Corporation. Between them, the two rabbits were supposed to prepare a 20-year Development Plan freezing land uses for the next two decades. The process went something like this. Start with a map of Existing Land Uses (ELUs). Predict what the population will be in 20 years’ time. Keep your guesstimate low, because you know you’ll find it hard to provide the urban amenities — school places, local parks, adequate road space, markets etc. — if you choose to plan for a higher number. Doesn’t matter if your plans don’t mirror reality. What’s important is that your planning dream is internally consistent, never mind that the future it envisages will never happen (something you know perfectly well). Locate the various amenities. Then plan each plot’s land use. So now you have your PLUs (Proposed Land Uses) coloured yellow for residential plots, blue for commercial, purple for industrial. These various uses are completely separated because that is what your planning doctrines demand. No matter that such doctrines, inherited from the British, have long since been abandoned in the UK. No matter that they contradict the mixed-use reality of Indian cities where the residential space of a shop owner is directly on top of the commercial space of his shop, cheek-by-jowl with his industrial neighbour who runs a tailoring establishment. Do NOT ask how your PLU will be implemented.

This is the rabbits at work, doing what Malini Krishnankutty called “technical planning”, while the bear is doing the heavy lifting, what she called “sovereign planning”. This is random, dictatorial stuff, just what you would expect from a whimsical king. Like deciding to build 55 flyovers in Mumbai, or the Western Coastal Road, or jack up FSI to unlivable levels, or reduce the space between taller and taller buildings to the point where the lower floors need tube lights through the day, and natural ventilation is so bad that a tenth of all homes get TB. All these apparently random decisions give the overall impression that urban planning had failed. But in reality, those decisions are not so random. Each one helps the developer lobby in some way. People’s well-being is irrelevant. The king’s fancies and the durbar culture prevail: with the Chief Minister of the State being the king for all practical purposes.

After devolution, all that changed. Now we recognise that land use is only one aspect, one small corner of urban planning. We begin instead by spelling out our objectives: equal access to amenities, regardless of income group; cheap, clean, comfortable and fast public transport, heavily subsidised because this reduces pollution and reduces traffic congestion, and is indeed the backbone of urban life; and land prices that are cross-subsidised, so that the poor pay less and the rich pay more for the land they occupy in the same locality — it’s a way of ensuring the poor live close to where their jobs are, often within or close to the homes of the rich. Note that our objectives discourage segregation by income groups (unlike Chandigarh), and discourage monumentality (unlike Amravati).

With objectives defined, the next step is defining policies. These are of two kinds. One is regulatory, like minimum open spaces between buildings to ensure good natural light and ventilation. The other is (to coin a new word) induce-atory, to nudge private players into doing this or that, like financial incentives to preserve heritage structures. And finally, we have projects, like a new transport link, or the Shivaji statue, or storm water drainage proposals that will guarantee no flooding in Mumbai, or schemes for solid waste segregation and disposal. My ministry’s job is to evaluate all policies and suggest revisions or new ones from time to time and also to evaluate all projects, compare costs with benefits and how well each one serves our objectives, and rank them in order of priority.

Urban planning finally boils down to policies and projects, with mapping of layouts and land uses becoming a subordinate and more local exercise. All three, policies, projects, and layouts are required to demonstrate consistency with objectives. And then of course we have to follow up with a regular evaluation of outcomes, to make sure implementation is really happening as intended.

My most anxious time is the annual public meeting, much like a Corporate AGM, where my Minister and I have to explain last year’s performance and our proposals for the future. But so far, thanks mainly I guess to our collaborative format of governance, the public has been gratifyingly appreciative of our work, and of the resulting improvements in the quality of urban life.

The author is a civil engineer and urban planner, one of three professionals who originally suggested the idea of New Bombay ([email protected]).

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