Urbanisation is a positive phenomenon provided the cities are able to harness its potential. A recently published UN-Habitat global report on human settlements shows that not many cities in developing countries such as India have managed to do this. Indian cities struggle to manage the swelling numbers: they tend to have inadequate infrastructure, poor mobility, and a lack of affordable housing. The challenge they face is twofold — efforts to distribute growth across urban centres have been inadequate and the urban planning practices are outdated. Much attention is paid to mega cities, leaving the smaller cities largely unattended. Of the 5,161 urban centres, as the Eleventh Five Year Plan points out, only 1,500 have some form of a plan to manage their growth. With quality of life suffering in the smaller cities, more people tend to move to the metros, burdening them further. Although the need for developing small and medium-size towns was highlighted as early as 1988 by the first National Commission on Urbanisation, not much has happened on that front. As for the bigger cities, the additional attention and the presence of a master plan have not necessarily meant improvement.
Managing a city through a single unified master plan has failed to deliver. The reason for this, aside from poor implementation, is that the plans are conceptually flawed. Indian cities are complex composites. Alongside the formal city exists a large and an equally important informal city inhabited by the poor. Even the formal city is composed of many parts such as the historical core, the colonial enclave, and new areas of post-Independence growth. Notwithstanding these differences, the master plan tends to paint the city with a single brush, favouring the new formal areas and ignoring the informal. This has fragmented cities further and skewed development in favour of new areas. The recommendations in the UN-Habitat report do offer a way forward. The suggestion to implement the strategic spatial planning system should be immediately adopted. Unlike the master plan, such innovations recognise the intra-city differences better and help focus on priority aspects or areas. They should help eventually to mitigate spatial inequalities, integrate infrastructure, and evolve compact city forms that will optimise travelling within the city. Simultaneously, the institutional framework for planning should be strengthened with an emphasis on people’s participation and regional networking. Earnest implementation and regular monitoring of the plans are equally vital for reaping the benefits of planning.