Can our cities survive if every law made to encourage orderly growth is defied with impunity?

STREETS that turned into rivers, landscapes carved out of garbage, smog that you could cut with a knife, human habitations where humans should not live - these are the images of urban India in 2005. In no other year have we been reminded, so powerfully, of the absence of urban planning in a country where over a third of the population now lives in its cities and towns. Cities should not fall apart if there is too much rain. Yet, this is precisely what happened in both Mumbai and Chennai this year.

Flagrant violation

Admittedly, the deluge of July 26, 2005 in Mumbai was unprecedented with over 900 mm of rain falling within 12 hours in suburban Mumbai. Some disruption was inevitable. But for over two days? As the days that followed that downpour clearly revealed, the devastation was compounded many times over by flagrant violations of building and planning norms by the very people who are supposed to implement them. Thus the natural flow of a river was diverted to make way for a runway for the airport, what remained of this river soon became a gutter as illegal industries located on its banks dumped their waste, road works failed to take note of the need for storm-water drains, mangroves that should have been left to act as natural drains were filled up. The list of such transgressions is endless. The story in Chennai after the December deluge follows a similar path as also in other cities in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.


The other image that illustrates the lawlessness that is the leitmotif of our cities is the bulldozer. Most often this is associated with the demolition of slums - those cities within our cities where now up to half the population lives. From December 2004 until early this year, the municipal corporation in Mumbai rendered over 80,000 people homeless as it razed to the ground slum settlements in the city's northern suburbs. The poor protested, but no one could stop the demolitions. The slums were "illegal", so they must go, we were told.But at the end of the year, the bulldozers were pulling down buildings of brick and concrete in Ulhasnagar, the town outside Mumbai built by Sindhi refugees from Pakistan. Again, people protested - but this time their voices were heard. These were not the poor; they were businessmen, middle-class people who had bought into the illegalities, much as their poorer cousins in the slums had done.In both cases, the people who are supposed to implement the law had broken it. Slums could not have sprung up on vacant land if people in authority had not looked the other way. Over 855 "illegal" constructions in Ulhasnagar could not have been built unnoticed if those in charge had not colluded in breaking the law. In New Delhi, shops could not have materialised in residential areas if someone in authority had not endorsed the violation of planning norms.Can our cities survive if every law made to encourage orderly growth is defied with impunity? Clearly not.The challenge before urban planners is how to change this "rule of lawlessness".