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August 19, 2019

Tapping Indian cities’ unrealised growth potential

As India aims to become a $5 trillion economy, it must be cognizant of where that growth will come from. Cities contribute extensively to the country’s growth; it is estimated that 59%-70% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) comes from them. However, to continue playing this catalysing role, they require the right planning frameworks. This will enable urban areas to be more habitable and economically viable for labour and businesses, and will drive economic growth. The current urban planning regime is ill-equipped to make this happen.  


Typically, Indian cities are planned through a development planning framework where a planning authority — usually the municipality — prepares land use plans. These plans demarcate and freeze land use, and reserve land for amenities for a period of 2o years. They assume that the composition of economic activity, technology, demography and modes of transit is simply going to be a linear projection of the present into the future. Further, in an attempt to be precise, plans tend to be over-specific and most changes from the planned use require prior permission from the planning authority. This effectively renders them unable to adapt to unforeseen changes.  


To take an example, the 1981 Mumbai Development Plan was prepared keeping in mind the textile manufacturing base of the city. But the state government only approved it in 1994,  around the same time that the textile industry was on the verge of collapse. While the services sector gained momentum in the post-liberalisation years, changing the use of land from industrial to commercial continued to be a complicated process with many delays. A 2013 study by Pethe et al. found that for a selected study area in Mumbai, 69% of the land use changes from the sanctioned land use required prior approval from the municipal corporation, while 22% land use changes could be considered illegal violations of the plan since these land parcels were occupied by slum settlements. In sum, 91% of the land in the study area was used differently from what the plan had originally intended.


Another outcome of the existing city planning process is the lack of adequate open spaces and streets in most areas within cities. A study of Lower Parel — a recently developed financial district — by urban planner Bimal Patel finds that open space and streets form just 12% of the land, the land area under building plots is 49%, while 39% is frittered away in set back areas, i.e. the minimum distance by which a building must be set back from roads, water bodies, etc.


Finally, the planning process in cities and metropolitan regions involves multiple authorities with little coordination between them. In metropolitan regions, urban development authorities make plans for those areas that are not within the planning jurisdiction of existing Urban Local Bodies. Parastatals such as new town development authorities and special planning authorities may also create land use plans. The Kasturirangan Committee on Governance in the Bangalore Metropolitan Region set up in 2008 found that there were at least four master plans prepared by different authorities in operation in the region. Even within cities, special planning areas are carved out and given to parastatals to develop and plan while not taking into account surrounding areas outside their jurisdiction. 


These problems require urgent attention if urban planning is to become an instrument for ensuring that cities continue to grow in a sustainable manner. A recent reform agenda proposed by IDFC Institute highlights the planning changes needed for this to happen. At the city level, planners need to be trained to convert the current static system of planning to a more strategic, dynamic one. One way this can be accomplished is to simplify plans; identify and eliminate rules that serve little purpose (such as requiring prior permission to change land use from industrial use to commercial use) but create delays and add to costs to build. For plans to be responsive to the needs of citizens, the process should incorporate suggestions and consultations with the public at various stages. 


At the regional level, it becomes important to pay heed to the directions in which cities are growing. Since most sprawl occurs outside large cities, these areas need to be planned with foresight. A two-tier framework (like the one instituted by Toronto), which demarcates powers between city and metropolitan levels, could help achieve planned urban growth.


State legislatures need to enact or amend town and country planning acts that overhaul the planning paradigm. Cities need strategic spatial planning, which integrates spatial forecasting, design and urban transport into a single coordinated process. This mechanism allows for greater productivity and mobility, reduced emissions and carbon footprints, better access to public services, and so on. Additionally, Urban Local Bodies, which are governments in their own right, should be given the power to ratify plans. The consequent improvement of the lives of urban residents will be instrumental in contributing to city growth, and further, to the country’s $5 trillion economy goal.

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