When we think about Indian cities the issues that occur to our mind are lack of availability of serviced land, traffic congestion, pressure on basic infrastructure, extreme air pollution, urban flooding, water scarcity and droughts which indicate a deep and substantial lack of adequate urban planning and governance frameworks. Despite huge investment over the years, our cities still face many efficiency-and sustainability-related challenges. None of our cities feature among the top 50 cities in many global rankings. Therefore, there seems to be an urgent need to rethink, reimagine and re-establish the very purpose and approach towards planning of cities and towns in India and for long-term sustainable urban transformation, systemic issues need to be identified and addressed.
Problem lies at the planning stage itself
Our problem starts at the planning stage itself. Several bottlenecks and impediments have been restricting urban planning capacity in our country. To begin with, a significant proportion of urbanization in the country is unacknowledged. This keeps them out of the purview of the government radar and as a result most of their problems remain unaddressed. Almost half of the 7933 ‘urban’ settlements are census towns, that is, they continue to be governed as ‘rural’ entities. Small and medium towns face vulnerabilities due to rapid growth and inadequate planning. According to Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI Aayog “With business as usual, the country may become a haven for unplanned urbanization.” Some experts are of the opinion that the current definitions of ‘urban’ are not reflective of the extent of urbanization that the country has already witnessed.
Authority of ULBs often undermined
Further, the transfer of the urban planning function from States/UTs to elected urban local governments did not happen as was envisaged through the Constitutional (Seventy-Fourth amendment) Act 1992. Many agencies are involved in urban planning, implementation, infrastructure development at the city as well as State levels. By establishing such agencies, the state governments and UTs have been nullifying and often usurping the power given to ULBs under the Constitutional (74thAmendment). The existing framework has become complex, which often leads to overlapping of functions, lack of accountability and coordination, time delays, resource wastage, etc.
No master plans for majority of the urban settlements
Master plans are statutory instruments to guide and regulate the development of cities and are critical for managing urbanization as well as ‘spatial sustainability’ as they are usually prepared after considering citizens feedbacks. However, in India, statistics suggest that 65% of the 7933 urban settlements do not have any master plan. This leads to piecemeal interventions, haphazard constructions, urban sprawl, and environmental pollution, which can further aggravate issues such as traffic congestion, flooding, etc. Cities that have master plans confront with various shortcomings in the approaches of city planning and bottlenecks in plan implementation.
Need to shift from text-based to form-based regulations
In a country that is soon going to become world most populous country land will always be a scarce resource and this more so in urban areas. Urbanizable/developable land is costly due to limited supply. Local bodies guide and regulate development of land through planning regulations and building bye-laws. In many cities, development control regulations were formulated several decades ago and have been updated arbitrarily without sufficient empirical evidence on their impacts. Its only recently that most States/UTs have revised their respective bye-laws based on the Model Building Bye Laws 2016. Such steps would minimise the variations in bye-laws between various cities. Further, there is a need to shift from text-based to form-based regulations to ensure the optimum use of urban land and enable development based on a suitable urban form.
Limited private sector participation
Massive capacities for problem-solving, innovation, and ideation are required to address the present and future challenges in the planning and management of cities, towns, villages and their infrastructure and accomplishment of this objective may not be possible for public sector alone which may need the involvement of private sector too. It’s also heartening to note that over the years, many private sector companies developed in India in the domains of architecture, civil engineering and construction. Despite this evolution, the ecosystem of the private sector in urban planning domain has remained under-utilised.
Limited citizen participation
Though the public participation in planning is slowly increasing its far less than what has been seen in developed world. This is partly due to lack of platforms for citizen participation and the limited awareness of the citizens about the process of urban planning and development. There is a perceptible communication gap between planning agencies and the people, who are the ultimate beneficiaries.
Scarcity of urban planners
However, biggest hurdle faced by the state agencies and urban local bodies is that of non-availability of qualified and experienced human resources. Scarcity of urban planners is well publicised and this problem cannot be resolved overnight. As a result, prospective employers end up hiring professionals from other disciplines to undertake the tasks of planning, thereby creating a negative feedback loop. This restrains the growth of urban-planning capacity in the country in terms of quantity of fresh graduates as well as the quality of work being delivered in this sector.
For long-term sustainable urban transformation, these issues need to be identified and addressed. India’s urban story may be lauded globally or suffer irreversible damages in the next 10-15 years depending upon corrective policy measures and actions taken at the beginning of this decade.