Finding the missing pieces of the urban planning puzzle in India
Planned urban development in a nation depends on its capabilities and systems. This article breaks down the complexities of India’s current capacity for urban planning and management.
The urban maze in which a third of India lives has undergone multiple transitions – technological, digital, lifestyle and demographic. It is estimated that by 2050, India could become a semi-urban country; currently, a third of the population lives in urban centres. Union and state governments have been investing heavily in the urban sector since 2014. However, gaps in urban planning capacity at all levels appear to be a deep-rooted legacy problem.
Often, inefficiencies in cities are attributed to the way cities are planned in India and the skill level of city planners. More often than not, these notions lead to fragmented capacity building events for a handful of planning officials. While relevant, these approaches alone have not produced radical transformations of the size and scale the country needs.
NITI Aayog constituted a High Level Inter-Ministerial Advisory Committee chaired by Dr. Rajiv Kumar, Vice President of NITI Aayog, on “Reforms of Urban Planning Capacity in India” in October 2020. It comprised 14 members, including the CEO by NITI Aayog, President, CEPT University, Ahmedabad and Director, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. The committee did not choose the path of prescribing an ideal city or a “one-size-fits-all” framework for all Indian cities – given the country’s diversity, this would not have been helpful. In fact, the committee focused on mechanisms to build capacity that could propel India to become “Aatma Nirbhar” in the field of urban planning and management.
From October 2020, a series of intensive consultations and workshops were conducted by NITI Aayog. Inter-ministerial deliberations with the Ministries of Housing and Urban Affairs, Education, Panchayati Raj and Rural Development outlined the constraints of rural-urban continuum planning. Leading planners, think tanks, professionals and civil society organizations were consulted. Each consultation revealed critical bottlenecks at several levels.
Simply put, India’s urban planning capacity rests on three pillars: the education and research sector, the public sector and the private sector. The robust capacity of each individual pillar and its seamless functioning with the other two is essentially a desired scenario, which needs to be created.
A snapshot of the current situation highlights ironies and a compelling need for reform. Of the 7,933 towns counted as “urban” in the Census of India (2011), almost half are called “census towns”, meaning that they are administratively “rural”. Master plans are regulatory tools to guide urban growth. However, nearly 65% of India’s 7,933 urban centers continue to grow without them.
The urban planning system is the foundation for integrated development and socio-economic growth. This cannot be created without investing in the ‘intangible capital’ of skilled planners in local urban bodies, national land-use planning departments and national private sector companies. The number of sanctioned positions of planners in the state planning and land use planning departments is 3,945, which is only one-third of what is needed (estimated based on population and workload). Of this number, more than 40% of positions are vacant.
To get a better sense of the extent of the shortage, there is currently not even one planner per urban center in state land use planning departments. Ironically, qualified planning graduates are struggling to prove their eligibility for planning jobs as cities face unplanned growth. Cities like Singapore were not built without strong organizations with a skilled workforce.
Who is an urban planner is a widely contested question. Let’s break it down to understand better. Cities are not just a collection of buildings. They are living entities where society, economy and environment must coexist. An imbalance in this equation can result in an unreasonable consequence on the other, which happens if one looks at cities solely through the prism of spatial design.
Urban planning involves complex decision-making and moderation between various competing land uses, societal considerations, economic policies and environmental constraints. Therefore, it needs a multidisciplinary skill set and dedicated training. Age-old beliefs that any professional with knowledge of space planning can fulfill the role of planner are therefore misleading.
Also, it is urgent to understand that urban planning deals with land. Whether creating houses, roads, railways, ports, industrial areas or riverbanks, each activity is interdependent and interdependent in terms of functionality. The current approach to urban governance does not ensure such integration. It must be integrated horizontally and vertically to bring efficiency gains.
The tools used by state governments to plan and manage cities – land use planning legislations to create a basis for the preparation and implementation of statutory plans, the recruitment of city planners, etc. – have become obsolete. In many cities, development control regulations were formulated long ago and are being updated without sufficient empirical evidence of their impacts.
Public sector bodies are statutorily responsible for city planning and management. However, they face technical, systemic and human limitations in engaging private sector companies. As a result, the private sector ecosystem in this sector has also remained underdeveloped in the country.
With about 50 institutions offering courses in urban planning, the education sector in this field is large but qualitatively insufficient, except for a few leading institutions. Institutions are also facing a shortage of teachers. The diplomas awarded to urban planning graduates vary by up to 25 nomenclatures, creating confusion in the market. There is no statutory body to represent and regulate the planning profession through which any untrained professional is allowed to undertake the planning work, posing great risks to the quality of the work.
In a nutshell, India’s current urban planning capabilities are extremely skeletal. This structure must be nourished by systemic reforms and a change in mentality. The final report of the NITI Aayog Advisory Board details current capabilities and offers a set of recommendations that could bring about step change. On the demand side, he proposes a central sector scheme to create 500 healthy cities, the creation of positions for side entrants, the upgrading of rules, etc. On the supply side, he is fighting for the standardization of the nomenclature of diplomas and the creation of a national city council. and land planners and national digital land planner platforms. The report also suggested systemic reforms such as research-supported upgrading of regulations, land and city planning legislation, urban governance frameworks, to create an enabling environment.
Albert Einstein once said that we cannot solve problems using the same type of thinking we used when we created them. Changes from a ‘business as usual’ approach could be difficult to implement and all stakeholders (Union Ministries, State Urban Development Departments, Academics and Urban Planners) need to work together in a systematic way.
Dr. K Rajeswara Rao, IAS is Special Secretary, NITI Aayog and Anshika Gupta is Senior Associate, NITI Aayog. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.