Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Apr 06, 2023 Updated 20 Days ago
States must be incensitived to heed Central directives on urban planning for proper urban development
National Budget 2022-23 and its focus on urban planning Last year, in her Union Budget speech for 2022-23, India’s Finance Minister (FM) Nirmala Sitharaman, while dealing with urban development, turned her attention entirely to urban planning. Her assessment that increasing urbanisation in the country was spawning a demographic transformation that would make cities the predominant human settlement by 2047 formed the basis of her focus. It was also her view that India could realise its economic potential and larger livelihood opportunities only through the orderly progress of its cities. National well-being and messy urbanisation could not go together. The FM singled urban planning as the key instrument for achieving systematic urban development. She devoted six paragraphs of her speech to elaborate on the steps needed to set urban planning right. She stressed the need to nurture megacities and their hinterlands so that they became current centres of economic growth. Additionally, she stressed the need to assist tier 2 and 3 cities in taking on a similar mantle in the future. Such a panoptic urban vision would require reimagining cities into sustainable living centres with opportunities for all, including women and youth. For this to happen, urban planning cannot continue with a business-as-usual approach and requires a paradigm change.
National well-being and messy urbanisation could not go together. The FM singled urban planning as the key instrument for achieving systematic urban development.
The FM proposed setting up a high-level committee of urban planners and economists to make recommendations on urban sector policies, capacity building, planning, implementation, and governance. She pledged support to the states for urban capacity building. The budget proposed the modernisation of building byelaws and town planning schemes (TPS) and the Government of India’s (GoI) financial support to the states for mass transit projects and the implementation of transit-oriented development and TPS. Five existing academic institutions in different regions were designated as centres of excellence with endowment funds of INR 250 crore each, tasked to develop India-specific knowledge in urban planning and design. In addition, the budget tasked the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) to improve the syllabi, quality, and access to urban planning courses. Consequently, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs constituted a high-level committee of experts to recommend urban planning reforms. The committee will work with states and union territories (UT) to identify gaps in urban planning, work out short- and long-term measures, and come out with state/UT-specific reports highlighting how to strengthen urban planning. The committee will also carry out a gap analysis by assessing the implementation status of recommendations of past committees, suggest measures for resolving the issues related to the preparation of master plans in cities, and draw a roadmap for bringing about state-level urban planning reforms.
Five existing academic institutions in different regions were designated as centres of excellence with endowment funds of INR 250 crore each, tasked to develop India-specific knowledge in urban planning and design.
In this connection, NITI Aayog prepared a report in 2021 on reforms in urban planning capacity in India. It found that several bottlenecks restricted urban planning capacity in the country. For example, 65 percent of the 7,933 urban settlements had no master plan. Many cities had outdated development control regulations. They did not have accurate cadastral maps. The report referred to a study conducted by the Town and Country Planning Organisation and National Institute of Urban Affairs, which indicated that the states must establish over 12,000 posts for town planners against the 4,000 sanctioned positions; half of them were lying vacant. The NITI Aayog found the private sector underprepared to undertake urban planning in cities and wanted concerted measures to strengthen their overall planning capacity. It recommended strengthening the town planning departments, revising Town and Country Planning Acts, and involving citizens in the planning process while maintaining technical rigour. At the urban planning education level, it recommended a more exhaustive treatment in the curriculum of the history of human settlements in the Indian subcontinent. The efforts of the GoI on urban planning, without a doubt, deserve acclaim. However, such a transformation will require specific fundamental changes to the approach to urban planning, including modernisation and local contextualisation of urban planning. Most city planning in India needs to be ‘Indianised’ to fit the socio-economic context in which the plan would operate. At the same time, it needs to consider technological developments impacting plan preparation and the spatial alterations that technology forces on cities. Given the significance of plan implementation, cities cannot prepare plans without considering their implementation aspects. The 20-year city plans need to be broken into five-year implementation plans and annual plans, backed by finance and other instruments to facilitate implementation. What is beyond ‘implementability’ should not form part of the plan despite their desirability.
It recommended strengthening the town planning departments, revising Town and Country Planning Acts, and involving citizens in the planning process while maintaining technical rigour.
However, it seems that the GoI is unduly optimistic about the states’ enthusiasm to accept these recommendations. The recommendations perforce require governance reforms in line with the constitutional stipulations that suggest planning as a municipal and not a state function. Experience regarding such exhortations of voluntary renunciation of state power has been disappointing. For instance, the GoI recommended a model municipal law in 2003. It included governance reforms, private sector participation, and greater financial devolution. The states gave it the cold shoulder. The GoI urged cities in many states to implement the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) and provided money to see it through. However, as soon as the central money went dry, BRTS began withering away. States provided assurances regarding adopting the Area Sabha Model Bill; however, once they received the GoI funds, they cleverly subverted the Bill, making it inoperational. The Model Rent Act of GoI, too, is gathering dust in the state corridors. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that states are willing to pay heed to the GoI’s counsel in the case of urban planning reforms. Just as the GoI believes that urban planning cannot go on as usual, it is equally valid that they cannot, as usual, pressure states to follow its exhortations. Such blanket exhortations will be ignored. Instead, the GoI must consider the following course of action.
  1. The GoI prepares the planning blueprint for implementation by the states and consults states and cities wherever customisation is required.
  2. The GoI identifies companies/institutions that would be able to prepare quality plans and shortlist them through a process of public bidding. The cost of planning per acre could be fixed for different categories of cities and towns. This would prevent each city from wasting years in the bidding process, which is the current norm. If states employ the shortlisted companies for plan preparation, the centre should bear the entire cost of plan preparation and the substantial cost of plan implementation for a select group of 500 towns across India.
  3. States that refuse to accept the national blueprint and the implementation methodology would lose all the financial incentives offered for embracing the proposed reforms.
Since urban development constitutionally is a state subject, experience makes it abundantly clear that the GoI’s writ will run in cities only if the states are put in a situation of massive revenue loss if they fail to comply with central directives. It would be utterly naïve to think the states will come on board driven by altruism.
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Author

Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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