The Urban Planning Conundrum in India

Dr. Darshini Mahadevia examines the emerging challenges in creating liveable urban environments, at the FP Lecture Series 2017
by: Sarang Barbarwar
2 March 2017

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Dr. Darshini Mahadevia is a Professor at CEPT University, Faculty of Planning. She has over two decades of experience in teaching and research. She has vast expertise in the field of urban development policies with regard to housing policy, urban poverty, human and gender development. Her publications include 20 books, discussion papers and booklets and 92 articles in books and journals in addition to articles in newspapers and websites. Her most recent publication is ‘Shelter Security in Urban India’ (2015). In 2009 she incepted the Centre for Urban Equity (CUE) at CEPT University, and currently holds the position of Director at this centre.

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The Urban Planning conundrum was a knowledge sharing session by Dr. Mahadevia that went through issues of climate change, social equity, urban violence, bureaucracy and conflicts in the context of urban planning. She also discussed the curriculum of Planning programs offered in schools in India and how it should be periodically questioned and reviewed. Here are some of the highlights of the lecture -

The presentation was part of her research on how planning curriculum can be made more inclusive. She referred to the 12th five year plan that talks about inclusive growth, inclusive cities and goal of resilient cities etc. She talked about her exploration of the genesis of urban planning and how the idea of urban planning changes in a larger, global context. She reflected on global experiences and the challenges that India is facing.

She began by explaining that those who are working for the urban poor sector realize that the current planning scenario excludes them, instead of being inclusive. There has been candid agreement on the issue that government planning is not reaching everyone. She mentioned how the interventions through missions like JNNURM in infrastructure etc. are actually perceived as a threat of displacement by the people, where the urban poor feel that they are being excluded from the urban context.

“It has also been said that we planners are great and we plan great but the problem is with implementation. We are constrained by political interference and so our plans don’t get implemented – is a statement that many planners make”, she added. The session then dug deeper into whether the Indian urban situation is in this state due to limitations in the concept of planning or in their implementation, or both.

 

Dr. Mahadevia took up the case of Ahmedabad to further explore the subject. While teaching a bunch of students in the past, she questioned them regarding their first impressions of the city and remembered how most of them had replied saying “transport mess”. The city is being segmented in such a way that transport mess is the first thing that strikes people. However, it is an issue because a recent report by WHO on Indian air pollution levels suggests that Indian cities have higher pollution levels than Chinese cities. She also mentioned about reports of constantly increasing numbers of fatal road accidents and a general negligence about such issues in India. Clearly, transportation planning scenario in this country is a result of inadequate planning effort, she added.

She spoke about multiple urban scenarios from various parts of the country, referring to them as ‘urban cocktails’. Going further with the case of Ahmedabad, she pointed at concerns regarding water and sanitation. It was not just the unplanned and informal settlements that had this problem, her studies in BSUP site in Vatva showed there were everyday conflicts among residents over settlement for water. Even after shifting to the newer, more formal housing programs, the water situation has not shown any signs of improvement. 

The session then went ahead to explore the case of Guwahati, a place of wetlands and hills and also extremely haphazard housing development on a fragile terrain. Lack of planning in this area led to serious problems with basic services. Local people protested about these issues but eventually took matters in their own hands and initiated informal systems to solve problems such as water supply. 

 

 

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Indian cities flood in monsoon yet face water supply challenges. There were extremities in various aspects. In the case of Ahmedabad the water demand is increasing, the green cover is decreasing and the lakes are declining. There are links; increase in mortality with the increase in heat in the city is a cause of concern. All of this climate change phenomena directly affect our cities and their planning.

“Informality and informal Housing is going to be a part of India’s urbanisation process unless some issues regarding land are addressed.”

“There are large segments of population that cannot afford a formal land,” she stated. Now if the area is not legal and not accepted as legal by the government, it will not provide water sanitation lines in it. Only when the town planning scheme comes the road, sanitation etc. get put up there. She mentioned another example from Ahmedabad in which, there was informal developers who planned an area and developed a plan. Interestingly, there was a regular layout, plots etc. and it looked like a private development but there was no permission taken. By that fact, it comes in the category of informal housing. 

Dr.Mahadevia showed a few pictures of kind of ownership documents which were given in such cases which were of course illegal.

In a series of incidents she explained the layered complexities of planning. The session carried forward in the discussion of Town Planning Schemes 38 (1) & 38 (2). There were several designated uses that were public purposes land, S.E.W.S. housing, neighbourhood centre hospital etc., in the scheme in contrast with the existing built structures. Dr. Mahadevia pointed out that how all these implementations would bring in a series of evictions. There was an estimate that about the 10 % houses would have been demolished. She went ahead describing how there was a big mobilisation of people and they protested.  The way forward meant that the space provided for schools hospitals etc. will not be provided as there was no land available. She highlighted that such decisions would have required a negotiated solution for the area and relaxation in the planning mechanism but the traditional bureaucratic approach in planning which doesn’t allow that.

 

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In the lecture she explained that there was also an issue of land for economic activities. There were multiple conflicts on the street as there are multiple claims on space. She added that Guwahati where there are everyday fights, there is a lack of room.  Vendors and their activity is one amongst the endless claims.

Coming to our own city she gave an example of Gujarat High Court’s decision to accommodate the vendors in the master plan. The judgement was followed various schemes were made that would lead to displacement of many vendors..

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“Even if legal actions or litigations are made, favourable judgements are passed but when it comes to implementation and dealing with land, it’s the biggest challenge and urban planner faces today, – the issue of Land!”

She further explained that there were multiple challenges in multiple sectors that planners had to deal with in the city. If planners don’t deal with the challenges then it would lead to violence. She stated that urban planning is one of the drivers of violence in Indian cities and many other developing country cities. The challenges were addressed through the existing planning paradigm of bureaucratic practices. Challenges that planners have addressed were through what was called single rationality, there was one idea there was one planner. Here was where the speaker stressed a shift from the conventional bureaucratic approach.

Also, the planning schools have not engaged formally in how this discourse should be or what is it that they needed to do. She went ahead describing how the group at CEPT have tried to address it repeatedly and have been doing the restructuring.

She cited how reports of Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) state that urban adaptation for urban planning land use planning, management, regulation, zoning  are important for climate adaptation. The urban planning does not respond to existing realities that leads to poor state subversions.

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At many places all the project master plans are made after the new programs and projects have been included. She gave an example of Beijing where the Master plan didn’t inculcate the space for 2008 Olympics and was later on revised according to the project location. She questioned the relevance of Master plans in such cases. Here, the plan was responding to the changes and projects that are outside the master plan and those were decisions like on the airport, stadiums etc. They were not based on master plan discussions but were based on outside dynamics and other discussions.

Moving to Ahmedabad again she shared how the BRTS was not a part of JNNURM plan when it was proposed. Also, there was the interesting case of Bhadra plaza. The plaza had been designed and developed under the JNNURM heritage funding. She stated how India doesn’t have an idea of culturally what a plaza is and it was designed. Currently, if one goes they would not see an inch of land that looks like a plaza. It has been completely taken over by hawkers again. Earlier there were around 2500 hawkers and 

today there are 4000 hawkers. It is difficult to walk there. This is what the speaker has described as subversion in planning.

The session was a combination of knowledge, challenges and motivation. For planners or professionals in the urban field it was certainly a glimpse of the actual urban conundrum. Lastly, as Dr. Mahadevia says, we need to constantly keep asking ourselves–

“What is urban planning? Do we bring in multiple ideas multiple stakeholders, multiple -rationality? Are we so attached to what has been described as urban planning to change what we have been doing for so many years?”