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Who plans cities in India? Developers who adhere to colonial masterplans

Every time our cities suffer a major crisis, like the recent flooding in Chennai, ‘haphazard’ urban planning becomes a topic of public debate. It is crucial to examine the roots of India’s current urban planning regime as it has often been cited as the cause of India’s ‘dysfunctional’ cities. A key question regarding the institutional framework of urban planning in India is: Who has the authority to plan the city? Is India’s urban planning process framed the way it is?

In India’s Constitution, urban planning is the responsibility of elected local governments. However, in Indian cities, urban planning is largely the responsibility of non-representative bureaucratic agencies that are subordinate to the state government.

Planning Authority
The Indian local government system underwent an immensely significant change in 1992 when the constitution (in the form of the 73rd and 74th Amendments) empowered rural and urban local governments to work as ‘institutions of self-government’. The 74th Amendment gives elected municipalities the authority to develop and implement plans and schemes for economic development, social justice, and other subjects listed in the 12th Schedule. Planning for urban development, land use regulation, and economic development are the first three subjects listed in the 12th schedule.

The 74th Amendment calls for the creation of a metropolitan planning committee (MPC), with at least two-thirds of its members being elected local representatives, to prepare a metropolitan development plan for the metropolitan area, incorporating local plans. Accordingly, constitutional reforms have made elected municipalities responsible for urban planning, along with the MPC that prepares the plan for the region at large.

State-controlled Development Authorities, not the municipal government or the MPC, are primarily responsible for urban planning in most of India’s major cities. An authority is a statutory body that oversees the development and housing projects in a city, as well as urban planning. There is no local representation and no accountability to the local government. Every 10-20 years, these agencies prepare ‘master plans’ that regulate land use and development across the city.

Planning Institutions: Their Colonial Origins
In India, urban planning has a long history of being divorced from local democracy. In response to the bubonic plague which struck Bombay in 1896, the British colonial government created the planning institutions and laws that constitute India’s current urban planning system. Most of the British-built Indian cities were dual towns with the British-occupied ‘fort’ area separated from the indigenous ‘native’ towns. Prior to the outbreak of the plague, the British were primarily responsible for administering the cantonment and adjacent civil lines. With the plague killing 6% of Bombay’s population and halting commerce, the colonial government felt it necessary to intervene and regulate the city.

In 1898, the Bombay Improvement Trust was established, paving the way for a variety of similar trusts to be established throughout British India. With the intent of preventing epidemics, the Trust laid paved streets, constructed houses, and decongested crowded areas. In the colonial government’s opinion, overcrowding and insanitary conditions in ‘native’ areas were the primary cause of the spread of the plague and, therefore, the Trust was granted ’eminent domain’ to demolish and improve slums.

Many British-controlled cities such as Calcutta, Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, Delhi, and Bangalore established City Improvement Trusts. Following Lord Ripon’s 1882 resolution on local self-government, these Trusts operated independently and parallel to Municipal Corporations. Such trusts ensured that the colonial bureaucracy could control urban development without interference from elected municipalities. A legacy of postcolonial urban planning and development ringfenced from local politics is the transformation of City Improvement Trusts into Development Authorities.

Despite efforts to decentralize powers to local governments over the years, the bureaucratic power structures that grew embedded in the state couldn’t be dismantled through constitutional interventions. Nearly three decades after the passing of the 74th Amendment, democratic planning processes have yet to be instituted in legislation governing urban planning and development authorities. Currently, most state laws on urban planning are derived from the union government’s Model Town and Country Planning Law of 1960. This law itself is based on the British Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. The legislations provide for a centralized and top-down planning system unconnected to local government and with little scope for public participation.

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Master Planning and Its Limits
India continues to rely on a British-inspired archaic planning system, which has been completely overhauled in the United Kingdom. Unlike much of the world, India has a planning regime where the ‘master plan’ is at the center of any development in the city, at least theoretically. As per state planning laws, the master plan is largely used to regulate land use and buildings. It does not need to incorporate key sectors such as transportation or the environment. In spite of the inclusion of these sectors in the plan document, as some of the newer master plans do, these provisions are not legally binding. Therefore, the city continues to be divided into various mono-functional zones like residential, commercial, and industrial.

India’s urban reality is characterized by diverse urban forms, dynamic spaces, and complex history of mixed-use development. Zoning regulations based on rigid zoning regulations do not align with India’s urban realities. As a consequence, the contradictions between the plan on paper and the actual built form in Indian cities are not surprising. Because of the inherent ‘failure’ of the plan, a variety of exceptions can also be made to the planning regulations and various ‘regularization’ schemes may be introduced that condone planning violations. The modern rationalistic master planning system that is being imposed on the Indian city is hollowed out by a thousand cuts, arguably not by accident but by design.


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