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Planning for the people (.Hindu)

It has now become a truism that Indian cities are poorly planned and governed. Plans do not have complete sway over our cities since they are constantly violated and a significant section of the urban population lives outside “planned” neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, the state religiously performs the ritual of master planning every 10 or 20 years. Bengaluru is now in the midst of drawing up its master plan that will guide the city’s development till 2031. The planning process initiated by the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) has come under severe criticism from civil society groups. In public consultations held by the BDA last month, citizens were critical of the planning process and even questioned the legitimacy of the BDA to plan for the city.

The dissensions brewing in Bengaluru are symptomatic of the larger crises in the institutional framework for urban planning and governance in India. India’s urban planning system is seen as an undemocratic, non-participative and top-down exercise in which bureaucrats, aided by foreign consultants, draw up static master plans that will actually have limited influence in regulating urban development. Hence, it is worthwhile to examine the institutional infirmities that plague India’s current planning system and explore whether there are any alternatives.

Urban planning and local democracy
One of the fundamental issues with our planning process is the incongruence between urban planning and local democracy. Even though the 74th Constitutional Amendment sought to empower urban local governments to enable them to function as “institutions of self-government”, they still have limited influence over how the city is planned. Urban planning, regulation of land use, and planning for economic and social development are functions listed under the 12th Schedule of the Constitution and hence States are expected to devolve these tasks to the Municipal Corporation. For metropolitan cities with a population of over 10 lakh, the 74th Amendment mandates the creation of Metropolitan Planning Committees (MPCs) which will integrate the plans prepared by local bodies within the metropolitan area. For every city with a population of over three lakh, the Constitution also mandates the setting up of Ward Committees to carry out municipal functions within the ward.

However, more than two decades after the passing of the 74th Amendment, we find that these institutional frameworks for decentralised governance are yet to take full shape in most cities. The legislations governing urban planning have not been significantly altered to ensure that these institutions are made an integral part of the planning process. Though the Union government in 1996 issued a Model Regional and Town Planning and Development Law, which requires Municipal Corporations to prepare local plans and the MPC the regional plans, most States have failed to incorporate these provisions in their planning legislations. So, under the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, the Local Planning Authority responsible for preparing the master plan of Bengaluru continues to be the BDA and not the Municipal Corporation or the MPC. Also, the legislation does not mandate that plans be prepared on the basis of public participation and merely asks for public comments on the plan after it is already prepared. Similar provisions govern other cities in India.

Hence, planning continues to be a top-down bureaucratic exercise, disconnected from the institutions of local democracy provided under the Constitution. An urban planning system, which is in line with the spirit of the 74th Amendment, would require that instead of development authorities — agencies only answerable to the State government — planning processes should be exercised at the legitimate units of urban local governance-Ward Committees, Municipal Corporations and MPCs. Such a multi-scale planning framework can help planning become an iterative process through which the needs and aspirations of various localities are incorporated into the plan for the metropolitan region.

Beyond static master plans
The other key concern with India’s current urban planning regime is that it is still based on the outmoded practice of static, land use-based master plans. The Town and Country Planning Acts of various States are principally based on a 1947 British legislation which has actually been significantly modified in the U.K. Under this planning regime, master plans are principally restricted to zoning which segregates areas into various categories: residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc. Our planning legislations do not require the master plan to design the transport, water and energy networks of the city. Even when master plans are comprehensive and integrate various sectors into the plan, these elements of the plan are not statutorily binding. What makes these sectoral plans even more difficult to implement is the fact that these functions are typically under the jurisdiction of multiple parastatal agencies.

Considering the institutional infirmities of the current planning regime, it is important to explore alternative approaches to urban planning. In an environment where municipal functions are carried out by multiple agencies, it is important to develop new institutional mechanisms for the inter-sectoral coordination and implementation of plans. We should also consider moving beyond static land use-based master plans and adopt a planning process which is more dynamic and responsive to the needs of the people. Instead of freezing plans for 10 or 20 years, there should be mechanisms providing for the periodic review of plans. An inflexible urban planning system which is ostensibly based on rationalistic and scientific criteria, and therefore “apolitical”, is prone to be more exclusionary. Hence, we should explore new frameworks for urban planning that respect the spirit of local democracy envisaged under the 74th Amendment, integrate multiple sectors within the plan, provide for multi-scale planning processes, and view the plan as a dynamic, living document.

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