Urban planning in India cannot be free from political or economic ideology

It’s a week of budgets, with the Union budget unveiled earlier this week and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation budget for the city unveiled on Thursday.

Budgets are important for allocations, but there is another reason why budget statements are also important. They spell out governments’ intentions and give us an overview of the thought process that informs government decisions.

The BMC budget is indeed about the city of Mumbai, but this year’s Union budget surprisingly contains substantial elements on cities and urbanization. He was right about a fact about urbanization: nearly half of India’s population is likely to live in urban areas over the next 25 years or so.

To enable this, and sensing an opportunity to influence the creation of the city in the political philosophy of the Narendra Modi government, he proposed the creation of a high-level committee composed of reputable urban planners, urban economists and institutions, which will formulate recommendations for the urbanization of the new India. .

The words of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman are expressive, not so much for their elegance as for their intent. Stressing the need for “orderly urban development,” she said, “on the one hand, we must ensure that megacities and their hinterlands become current centers of economic growth…on the other hand , we need to help Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities take over the mantle in the future.

This would require us to reinvent our cities as centers of sustainable living with opportunities for all, including women and young people”. Urban planning cannot continue with a business-as-usual approach, she seemed to chide people in her brand height. Urban planning or city-making is, ultimately, the exercise of power and the power to decide who lives how in created or fabricated spaces. Cities are ideological in the sense that their spatial arrangement and expansion are guided by capitalist impulse and worldview.

They are made – undone and remade too – by those who hold political power at a given moment in history. Remember how many times the current dispensation in power pejoratively rejected Lutyens Delhi before becoming the new Lutyens himself? Town planning cannot be free from political or economic ideology. It would be naive to believe that the Modi government approaches this in a politically agnostic way. As soon as the Minister of Finance spoke of a high-level committee, he whispered to himself that some of the most favored architect-planners would be part of it, such as the one who chairs most of the Modi government’s big budget projects such as the Central Vista and Kashi Vishwanath Corridor or the one that advises state administrations on urban planning, including in Jammu and Kashmir.

These men praised the budget initiative and were quoted in interviews ridiculing Indian urban planning as informed by socialist-era philosophies and supporting Gujarat as a model. Urban planning by government-aligned experts is not as big a paradigm shift as some of the darbar courtiers claim. It would even be ahistorical to suggest that.

The cities of India were not strictly planned down to the smallest detail of the corner, many or most of them grew organically around their best natural resource as usually happens , but as part of a vast structural plan devised by those in power. There was a broad plan by the British to develop Bombay as a prima in indis urbs, but several other aspects of it emerged in response to prevailing circumstances.

The Bombay Improvement Trust, for example, was set up to improve the city for its commerce by providing affordable and sanitary housing for its working classes following the plague of 1896-1897, as the city’s economy needed this social arrangement. Independent India’s rendezvous with planned urbanization began when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru saw the city as the place of newly imagined India and, according to experts, the five-year plans promoted urban development in as a state project in which individual architect-planners had a role to play. role to play. New Bombay or Navi Mumbai, moreover Chandigarh, to name but two, are cities born of urban planning paradigms initiated or encouraged by the government of the time.

There were reasons why central Bombay in colonial times was a haven for the wealthy but turned into a working-class area in the 19th and 20th centuries, only to become the playground of the super-rich in the 1900s. India’s post-liberalization so much so that it is now one of the fanciest pin codes in the country – no turning point in history could have happened without planning.

Similarly, the development of large urban agglomerations such as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region or the National Capital Region – with cities in neighboring states connected to the national capital – which today count as the economic engines of India finds its origin in planes. The challenge of urbanization in India has not really been to create cities but to build sustainable and equitable cities for every citizen who lives there. Cities represent strong inequalities everywhere. Indian cities feature glittering billionaires and crushing poverty often on the same street.

Making cities equitable, but also ecologically sustainable, does not necessarily involve city planners and urban economists – the usual suspects – but widening the picture to include health and education professionals, experts in ecology, experts in gender studies, housing professionals, designers and artists. , etc For too long and in too many ways, men with a tunnel vision of architecture have presided over urban planning and city building. The Modi-Sitharaman push for urbanization, far from being a paradigm shift, is actually giving us more of the same.

In fact, Sitharaman’s words of “ordered urban development” are enough to evoke apprehensions of an authoritarian regime structuring its cities in a certain way with a top-down approach where order – rather than human interaction and creativity – reigns supreme. Cities need structural frameworks, not necessarily order, which limits opportunities for people. In any case, given the architecture of Indian federalism, this top-down approach can at best be recommendatory or persuasive to state governments, which in turn exercise control over urban local bodies.

This is a classic reason why the BMC is unable to be the sole or main planner for Mumbai, for example. Its role is limited to planning at the granular level, which is also necessary but not as impactful as urban macro-planning, and which has a direct impact on the lives of citizens. The BMC budget then becomes more a financial exercise than a political one. There are a number of issues that can be focused on in the city budget, but the most important is the use of allocated funds.

The administration presented a budget estimate of almost Rs 45,950 crore for the financial year 2022-23, up 17.7% from last year, and allocated almost half of it to capital expenditure. for major infrastructure projects. Of the nearly Rs. 18,750 crore allocated for capital expenditure in last year’s budget, only half was utilized. Going back to the Modi-Sitharaman budget plans, there is no evidence that the cities they envision will be more egalitarian and sustainable.

Remember that the poor were hidden away in Ahmedabad when Prime Minister Modi hosted then US President Donald Trump in February 2020 – this is hardly a model of urbanization that India should follow.

(Smruti Koppikar, journalist, urban columnist and media educator, writes about politics, cities, gender and development. She tweets @smrutibombay and surfs Insta @bombayfiles)

(To receive our daily E-paper on WhatsApp, please Click here. We allow the PDF of the document to be shared on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)

Posted: Friday February 4th 2022, 08:33 IST