Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Feb 26, 2024

Unless urban planning is heavily incentivised with quality men and money, development plans are likely to remain on paper

Why city master plans fail to materialise

Ever since the Union Finance Minister (FM), while discussing urban matters during her annual presentation of the National Budget 2022-23 in Parliament, devoted her entire attention to urban planning, a much-neglected subject was drawn centre-stage in urban academic discourse. Till then, city conversations had remained overshadowed by the emphasis on the implementation of the 74th Amendment and its mandated reforms in urban governance, particularly transparency, accountability, local capacity, and the need for mayoral leadership in municipal bodies. The neglect of urban planning meant that cities would grow much like wild weeds, unkempt, and unorganised. Hopefully, in the coming years, the thrust towards city planning sought to be imparted by the FM should initiate a beginning in altering the sorry condition in which urban planning finds itself languishing today.

The neglect of urban planning meant that cities would grow much like wild weeds, unkempt, and unorganised.

In her Budget Speech, the FM believed that by 2047, when India completes 100 years of independence, half of India’s population will be urban. Good urban development, therefore, was vital for the national developmental salubrity. Thus, the megacities needed to grow into vibrant hubs of economic progress. Furthermore, Tier 2 and 3 cities needed handholding so that they were in a position to take on a larger role in the future. This could only materialise if there was a radical reimagining of urban planning. To oversee this rebuilding process, a high-level committee was proposed to look into the issues of urban planning and design, building bylaws and teaching curriculum. The FM proposed centres of excellence in the area of urban planning be set up in the country with endowment funds of INR 250 crore each.

Urban planning is placed at the top of the list under the 12th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which lists municipal functions. Moreover, in state municipal statutes, each urban local body is required to prepare a futuristic development plan (DP), also referred to in certain parts of the country as a master plan (MP). These are spatial development blueprints of a city, to be implemented in a 20-year time frame. They generally comprise an existing land use plan (ELU), a proposed land use plan (PLU) based on city data and demographics, development control regulations (DCRs), also termed development control and promotion regulations (DCPRs), which explain the principles, objectives and targets on which the plan is based. It also contains standards for the many amenities or services that a city is required to provide in proportion to its projected population. For example, if the standard is the provision of 10 sq m of open land for each citizen, then a city with a population of one million people with 100 sq km of area is required to put aside 10 sq km for green, non-buildable space. These standards are not uniform nor nationally mandated, despite the existence of the Government of India’s ‘Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation (URDPFI) Guidelines’. State town planning directorates prescribe standards for state ULBs. Sometimes large cities like Mumbai stipulate their own standards.

Since the predominant characteristic of the city is economic, non-cognisance of such changes in the external world will build up planning deficits in the city, rendering the city unresponsive to emerging needs and heightening inefficiencies.

Towns and cities are dynamic and keep changing in size, shape, and texture over time. They also get majorly impacted by science, technology, technological innovations, digitization, and the way the urban world transacts business. Since the predominant characteristic of the city is economic, non-cognisance of such changes in the external world will build up planning deficits in the city, rendering the city unresponsive to emerging needs and heightening inefficiencies. These changes need to be taken seriously and quickly and should be reflected in the plan. However, while we discuss the preparation of quality master plans and the need to continuously tweak them in the face of changing dynamics, the fact is that on the ground, urban planning is in a sorry state of affairs.

The present state of urban planning is that most cities do not have a DP. NITI Aayog’s report ‘Reforms in Urban Planning Capacity in India’ found that 63 percent of the 7,933 urban local bodies in India did not have DPs and, therefore, had no road map on how to move ahead with the settlement’s further challenges of development. Those urban local bodies that have taken the initiative to prepare one have, in general, not been able to prepare them in time. The ones that somehow got prepared, lacked the quality that one would want in Indian cities. Clearly, there is much that is wrong with urban planning, and it is widely agreed that independent India’s urban planning strategies have not moved in sync with the country’s socio-economic needs and technological innovations. But a matter of even greater concern is that the prepared ones went largely unimplemented despite the long window of twenty years.

Several factors stand in the way of the preparation and implementation of DPs. The first is that ULBs do not possess internal spatial planning capacity and are required to hire external professional teams to put together a DP and guide them through the entire process. There are very few ULBs in the country, if at all, that can internally take up this challenge. Most ULBs that employ a bidding process to identify professional master planners find it difficult to identify proper agencies to take up this work. Several rounds of bidding are the norm. Furthermore, the job is costly and many ULBs may find it difficult to set aside the resources for preparation.

Most ULBs that employ a bidding process to identify professional master planners find it difficult to identify proper agencies to take up this work.

In the event ULBs succeed in preparing a master plan, they have a document on their hands that presents a financial mountain to climb. Since the plan is a spatial plan, it naturally follows that a lot of land would have to be acquired to provide municipal amenities/services to the citizens. Unfortunately, the acquisition of urban land has been made prohibitively pricey by the Land Acquisition Act and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. ULBs need to pay twice the annual reckoner rate/circle rate. Given the scale of acquisition involved in a master plan, no ULB in the country could dream of outright purchase of all these lands. Using land instruments that allow ULBs to compensate the owner through additional grants of FSI (floor space index), TDR (transfer of development rights) or accommodation reservation (AR) are alternatives that have their own negative fallouts for the city. In many instances, landowners are not willing to accept any of the alternative modes of payment and insist on money, failing which they drag ULBs to court. In such cases, litigation causes interminable delays and areas a prominent impediment in the implementation of DPs.

ULBs themselves are also guilty of neglecting to implement the DP. Lands that are of municipal ownership or government lands require only construction costs to be borne to build a service. However, a DP does not statutorily become a mandatory document for budgetary provision every year. While preparing the annual budget, no specific attempt is made by the ULB administration to take up DP implementation and accordingly provide for DP works in the budget. Services will thus remain unbuilt and unprovided if there is no provision in the annual budget, inevitably leading to a poor quality of life in the city.

Using land instruments that allow ULBs to compensate the owner through additional grants of FSI (floor space index), TDR (transfer of development rights) or accommodation reservation (AR) are alternatives that have their own negative fallouts for the city.

Against this backdrop, while some of the above-cited measures may result in a greater percentage of ULBs getting their DPs made, it is likely to remain on paper due to the overall inability of ULBs to implement the plan. There is no doubt that master plans are central to a city’s well-being. However, unless urban planning is heavily incentivised with quality men and money, nothing out of the ordinary is likely to happen.


Ramanath Jha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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