The Centre's prescriptions for urban renewal are either a recycling of earlier ideas or a retelling of misplaced World Bank views.

The assessment of seven expert committees, which reviewed the state of urban planning ahead of the 12th Five-Year Plan, is that Indian cities will soon reach a precipice—unless a course correction takes place, cities will turn into a nightmare. While the diagnosis is on the button, the expert committees themselves have failed to prescribe innovative solutions that can provide hope for the future of urban India.

First, the conclusions of the expert committees: while cities are rapidly expanding and outpace all projections, institutions that manage them are moving on leaden feet. The plans they make are rigid, least comprehensive and less inclusive. Lack of institutional clarity, poor intellectual capacity and dearth of enabling tools are making things worse for the cities and their citizens.

The urban population at present is 377 million (31 per cent of the total population) and about half this number live in the 50-million-plus cities. When the urban population surges and crosses 600 million in 2031, mega cities will burst at the seams and even the newly created metropolitan areas would face what is now a familiar pattern of urban ills. The pressing question is this: if the cities cannot cope with current levels of urbanisation, how would they measure up when “a true scale of urbanisation” unfolds?

The 12th Plan expert committees have prescribed various strategies and plans as a way forward. They include preparation of national spatial strategy, drafting regional plans, making flexible local-level plans, strategic densification of cities, urban regeneration that will pay for itself and devolving planning powers to the local bodies.

Some of these proposals are recycled ideas and a few others seem to unthinkingly mirror the well-known but misplaced views of the World Bank on FSI. Some totally miss the point.

That the locus of city planning cannot be the geographical boundaries of the city, and should include the surrounding region for a balanced urban development, is an idea under consideration for many years. As early as 1966, a model Regional and Town Planning and Development Law was circulated. In the 1970's plans for various regions such as Dandkarnaya and Chandigarh were formulated. Even the expert group constituted during the 11th Five-Year Plan also recommended a regional plan.

The question to be asked is why this suggestion, repeated every five years, has not been implemented? The same question should also be asked about transferring urban planning powers to local bodies and strengthening them, a recommendation that all expert groups make without fail. From the time the 73rd and 74th Amendments were made to the Constitution in 1993, these objectives have remained elusive.

Recommendations such as “promoting symbiotic development” between urban centres and rural hinterland, building capacities at the Centre, State and local level and establishing a professional cadre of State development authority were also made five years ago. No headway has been made.

It is evident that neither the Central government nor its experts have been able to influence State-level urban policies. Directing urbanisation from the cosy seat of New Delhi has not worked. Attempts to directly influence the urban planning of select cities through the cash-rich Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission have also not made any deep impact.

Some recommendations are deeply flawed. For instance, the present working group on Urban Strategic Planning has concluded that Indian cities suffer from archaic density regulations. By irrationally sticking to a low Floor Space Index (FSI, a ratio that determines how much area can be built on a given plot), cities do not optimally use land, it says. The suggestion is that the FSI be increased. This is also the World Bank's position on Indian cities.

Chennai and Mumbai have low FSI—1.5 and 1.33 respectively—but they also have one of the highest population densities in the world. Chennai has a density of 26,597 persons per square kilometre and Mumbai 20,057 persons per square kilometre. This density is comparable to that of Manhattan, a pet example of policy makers, which has a residential FSI ranging from 3.5 to 10. Lower FSI in itself is not an issue. It functions in relation to other factors such as the size of plots and per capita ownership of built up area. To the credit of the planners in such cities, despite tremendous pressure from lobbying groups to increase FSI, they have stood their ground and reminded them that there is more to city planning than just recovering land prices. Poor enforcement and violation of this regulation is a different issue.

In this context, when a national policy unmindfully recommends higher FSI, it is bound to undermine local reasoning and arguments that favour a low-rise and high-density city pattern over high-rise city growth. What is also conspicuously missing in such a recommendation is the possibility of increasing FSI only for the purpose of social housing to reduce the mounting housing deficit. And linked to this, why should government lands be unlocked to monetise them without dedicating it for low-income housing?

Expert group recommendations may serve the limited purpose of helping the Central government arrive at its funding figures and allocation. But if any change has to occur and cities have to meaningfully grow, the locus of action has to be at the State level. This is needed not only because urban development is a State subject; for all reasons, initiatives for policies and plans, vision and priorities have to emerge locally to address space, resource, mobility and environment issues. The effort and focus then has to be on finding ways to push the State government to radically rework its urban development.

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