Reforming Urban Planning: Nirmala Sitharaman’s Least Talked About Budget Announcement That Can Transform Indian Cities

by Arihant Pawariya - Feb 3, 2022 06:37 PM +05:30 IST
Reforming Urban Planning: Nirmala Sitharaman’s Least Talked About Budget Announcement That Can Transform Indian CitiesNo populist announcements in the Union budget 2022 (Representative Image)
Snapshot
  • Indian cities are a victim of bad planning and terrible urban development regulations.

    The recent budget announcement shows the Centre is aware of the root problem and is vowing to fix it with the help of the states.

We have all lamented over the sorry state of Indian cities and wondered why they are so chaotic and haphazardly built, all are different yet similar in their bad planning and looks and why we don’t have beautiful landscapes and skylines in the developed world that dazzle us, adding more insult to injury. Ask about the best designed city in India and quick comes the answer from the majority - Chandigarh. Yet, only crorepatis can afford to buy a land parcel in that city and only those crorepatis who have no work to do but only are there to spend their retirement in peace.

There is a reason for that. The failure of Chandigarh as a city lies in too much planning, not lack of it. One of the world’s best experts in urban planning Professor Alain Bertaud, who started his career at the age of 23 from Chandigarh in the office of Pierre Jeanneret aka Le Corbusier, writes in his book ‘Order Without Design’, “In addition to the street networks for these cities (Chandigarh and Brasilia), planners imposed detailed regulations specific to each private block. These regulations were so detailed they essentially designed each block’s buildings. They specified the use of land, the size of lots, the height of buildings, the area of dwellings, the lot coverage, among other things. These planner-designed regulations completely prevented market forces from contributing to the shape of the city.”

“Originally, every building—whether a community facility, an apartment block, or a commercial area—was designed in advance through regulations. Nothing was left to markets: prices were ignored, FARs were set for every single block, and land was allocated to residential and commercial use based on arbitrary design norms,” he adds.

No wonder that Chandigarh, despite relaxing regulations in later decades with government selling leaseholds for housing units and allowing changes in design, has remained a glorified retirement complex masquerading as city and neighbouring Mohali in Punjab and Panchkula in Haryana have emerged as more lively centres of economic activity.

On the other extreme are metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru et al whose residents contribute the most to India’s progress but their standard of living is terrible thanks to poor urban planning. There is no dearth of master plans for these places either, mind you. But the regulations are stuck in the same socialist era of control and refuse to keep up with the quick pace of development and changing demography.

As architect Bimal Patel says, ‘The roots of many of our urban problems, from slums to poor infrastructure, can be traced to this misguided way of planning—this misguided way of regulating urban development’ where ‘Urban planners have attempted to ‘design’ cities instead of enabling their growth‘ and urban planners make assumptions ‘about the size of population of a given town or city in the future, and specify the types of homes they should live in, the standards they should adopt as well as the type of industries that should come up’ when the truth is ‘planners are no better at judging where we are going or where we ought to go than anybody else.’

In light of this, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s least talked about announcement in the latest budget to help states reform their urban planning laws is significant. Sitharaman stressed the need to nurture not only the megacities and their hinterlands to become current centres of economic growth But also facilitate tier 2 and 3 cities to take on the mantle in the future.

‘By the time of India @ 100, nearly half our population is likely to be living in urban areas. To prepare for this, orderly urban development is of critical importance,” she said emphasising that urban planning cannot continue with a business-as-usual approach and the government plans to steer a paradigm change.

She announced the formation of a high-level committee of reputed urban planners, urban economists and institutions which will make recommendations on urban sector policies, capacity building, planning, implementation and governance. Since, this is a subject in the States list, the Centre intends to use its schemes to nudge states in modernisation of their building byelaws, Town Planning Schemes and Transit Oriented Development.

Now, nudging won’t work merely by formulating model laws as the past record of failure of states in adopting various model acts issued by the Centre shows. That’s why the government has tied a financial incentive. Out of Rs one lakh crore grant to the states (50 year interest free loans), a part of it will be given for initiating ‘reforms related to building byelaws, town planning schemes, transit-oriented development, and transferable development rights.’

It is yet to see how fast the high level committee is set up and submits its report. Only then the actual tough work of convincing the states to change their old style of thinking and navigating lobbying by various interest groups can begin in right earnest. There is no denying the fact that the heavy lifting will have to be done by the States and only Chief Ministers who are really committed can deliver on the implementation front.

As far as identifying major problems and recommending the right solutions is concerned, a big chunk of work has already been done by the Niti Aayog whose high-level committee comprising mainly of secretaries in the government but also had top expert like Bimal Patel submitted its report last year on ‘Reforms in Urban Planning Capacity in India’.

So, it’s surprising that the government is going back to the committee stage. Probably, the scope of the work of the new committee will be much larger. (For instance, the Niti Aayog report had recommended forming a High-Powered Committee for re-engineering the present urban-planning governance structures)

Nonetheless, some of the good recommendations of the Niti Aayog report were:

- a central sector scheme covering 500 cities with interoperable base map of the city on GIS platform; mapping of all relevant sub-sectors of a city, development of a spatial strategy; annual assessment and revision of plans every five years to tailor to the changing needs; using tech to monitor haphazard construction; uploading plans on websites in form of videos, infographics, etc for citizens to understand better, etc

- revision of development control regulations and building bye-laws; developing virtual 3D models to depict various scenarios of urban form, skyline, densities, and streetscapes with different floor area ratios, building height, ground coverage and assessing costs of infrastructure provisions for each scenario, etc

- ramping up Human Resources by filling positions of qualified urban planners including with lateral entry of experts for 3-5 years because there is debilitating lack of state capacity with only 3945 sanctioned posts of town planners (42 per cent of which are vacant) when the country needs to have 12,000 posts of town planners

- rejuvenating of capacity-building institutions of the Centre/States and upgrading them to the tune of Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie because these institutions play an important role in building skills and technical capacities of the officials.

- revisioning the town and country planning acts enacted by various state governments and to periodically revise them.

- steps for strengthening urban planning education system by revising existing curriculum and introducing more urban planning centres and courses in central universities, etc

- and involving private sector in various aspects and at various stages of urban planning

Even if the states can deliver on these aspects, there can be radical changes in how cities develop.

To illustrate with just one example will be enough here. Niti Aayog’s report states that bad regulations often lead to underutilisation of valuable urban land. ‘Larger proportion of land gets consumed in the fragmented and poorly utilised private open spaces than in the public realm – which in turn creates scarcity of land for provision of infrastructure like roads, water supply, playgrounds and so on. Moreover, they create distortions in the land market that pushes development to the peri-urban areas, reduces availability of serviced land, particularly for low-income groups in the cities, increases commuting distances and their environmental costs,’ the report says. (Emphasis mine)

This is something Bimal Patel has been highlighting for years and it shows that the committee has taken his inputs seriously. In his presentations, he often compares the state of Indian cities with those where private open spaces are much less and how that makes all the difference in citizens’ lives.

In one of his recent lectures, he gives example of Ahmedabad’s Ashram Road (25 ha area) out of which public streets comprise of 16.8 per cent of total area, public open space is non-existence 0.4 per cent, building footprints cover 25.6 per cent and private open space is 57.2 per cent. Similarly, in 25 ha area of Mumbai’s Nariman Point, over 53 per cent area is private open space.

In stark contrast, he cites example of 25 ha area of London’s Regent Street where private open space is 4.8 per cent only and in 25 ha area of San Francisco‘s Union Square, it’s 3.4 per cent area only in private open space.

Screenshot of one of slides of Bimal Patel’s lecture
Screenshot of one of slides of Bimal Patel’s lecture

This shows how poorly we use land space in our urban areas and something that can be changed dramatically by tweaking development regulations and building bye-laws.

Understandably, there is a lot of work that needs to be done from the committee stage to the implantation one. But if the governments can come together and really put their heart to it, Indian cities can witness see change in coming decades. Indians are surely not pre-disposed to living like they currently do. They are only victims of bad policies. The centre has shown that it’s cognisant of the issue and must be commended for identifying the root of the problem. Now, it’s only a matter of acting on it.

Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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