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Exclusionary cities

By Amita Bhide

2015 marks a centenary of urban planning legislation in India. This is as good a time as any to reflect on how the poor have been excluded from the planning process and how the colonial legacy of a divided city has continued in independent India. If the poor have staked a claim on the city it is in spite of urban planning, not because of it

Town planning legislation in India completes a centenary in 2015. This, then, is an opportune time to review the trajectory of urban planning in India and particularly what it has meant for the poor.

Urban planning has entrenched the colonial legacy of a divided city. The poor have staked a claim to the city in spite of urban planning, rather than because of it. Further, planned projects have more often than not been characterised by violence towards the poor. In the backdrop of this historical trajectory, the question of relevance of planning to the poor is moot. However, revisiting the idea of urban planning is important in the context of the struggles of the urban poor in the political domain, on the one hand, and the emergent contours of city development on the other.

This article argues that engagement with planning is an imperative for the poor in the contemporary moment. Urban planning needs to be recognised not as a technical exercise but as a social enactment that involves extension of power in multiple domains. Consequently, engagement with planning needs to be seen as an empowering process for those hitherto excluded from the plans.

Urban planning in colonial India

In the chequered urban history of India, urban planning is clearly recognisable as a colonial legacy. This legacy is intertwined with multiple strands of colonial urban development -- the extension of private property rights and the establishment of the eminent domain (Dossal 2010); the threat of disease and the need to extend public health (Dutta 2012); colonial aesthetics and the need to produce familiar environments (King 1976) and economic growth. Several of these rudiments are shared with the planning history of UK, with one critical departure -- the absence of universal citizenship (Chaplin 1999). The focus of planning, as shaped by these concerns, was land use rather than socio-economic planning. This made planning essentially a project of dominion, of exertion of control.

Colonial urban planning was India’s first encounter with the ‘production of space’ (in the Lefebvreian sense) by professionals and through an institutionalised space. Planning seen in this fashion brought together several instruments -- law, projects and schemes. The British used law as an instrument to facilitate their control over space; often projects of major importance were conceived and executed as collaborations between certain indigenous interests and the rulers. Town planning institutions were powered by experts and acted as agencies of the municipal bodies. Plans were envisaged as a series of projects that would get implemented. Those who got short shrift in the plan were expendable and often relegated to the rural peripheries; they were not the concern of the planning authorities. Sharan (2006) notes how the plans were preoccupied with notions of nuisance, defined as a broad range of ‘offences concerned with public health, safety, convenience, morals and decency’. Fines and cessation of activity were the two principal modes of dealing with such offences (Sharan, op cit). Such planning produced divided cities or planned cities with unplanned peripheries.

This legacy was developed in major cities such as Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore, and some hill stations, and gradually extended from a few parts of the town, in the form of town planning schemes and improvement plans, to more comprehensive city plans.

Post-Independence urban planning: Continuing the colonial legacy

In post-Independence India, planning and urban planning in particular was equated with modernism. The goal of democratic socialism outlined in the Constitution was acknowledged in the national Five-Year Plans but not in urban plans. The attempt to continue the same trajectory and ensure even more grandiose plans saw the light in new state capitals and the national capital. The other golden child of the post-Independence era was the Master Plans. Ford Foundation supported the creation of the Delhi Master Plan, and other cities such as Bombay, Calcutta, Ahmedabad, Bhubaneshwar followed in quick succession (Correa 1965). These plans wanted to do away with the colonial legacies of slums and congestion by creating a more comprehensive planning base and by giving the state an enormous plane of action based on rational plans.

However, the key change was not in content but in institutional tilt. In their content, the plans did not deviate from colonial traditions except to give more emphasis to physical planning (Nallathiga 2007). Ostensibly, these plans covered the entire city so that ‘the needs of all members of the urban public could be served’ (GOI, cited in Sharan 2006). However, they failed to create an equitable space for the poor in the cities, except for creating a space for workers and weaker section housing in the peripheries, albeit in places with some access to work opportunities. The Chandigarh Master Plan, for example, provided for some space for migrant construction workers only after an agitation (Sarin 1982). Here too, the concern was with providing ‘minimum standards of services’ that would ‘enable a transition of submerged citizens to community consciousness and integrated citizenship’ (Mayer).

In other cities that did not enjoy the benefits of resource investment on this scale, planning continued to have grand visions; however, very little was translated into actuality. Less than 15% of Mumbai’s first Development Plan of 1964 was thus implemented. In cities with less resource capabilities, the extent of plan implementation was even lower. The inability to implement gradually became a characteristic of Indian planning. It had no impact on the nature and content of plans which became more and more ambitious in their reach and scale. In Maharashtra, for example, town planning schemes gave way to city Development Plans in 1954 and then to regional plans in 1966. While planning expanded, its implementation lagged. In all these enhanced scales of planning, planning for all or for the weakest was a key note. However, the actual extent of reservations for the poor or weaker sections was low and it is in the matter of these reservations that implementation almost never happened. Singh (2007) shows how lands reserved for the poor or for weaker sections in the Development Plan for Mumbai were actually used to benefit the more privileged sections.

There are multiple analyses of the failure of Indian cities to plan. Nallathiga (2007) attributes the failure of plans to their excessive focus on physical planning without due attention to economic dimensions and unrealistic controls imposed by them. Others, for example Phatak (2009), attribute the failure to an excessive use of legal instruments. Verma (2002) attributes the failure to the softness of the Indian state, its inability to pursue its own stated preferences under the influence of NGO lobbies and other actors interested in the perpetuation of slums and other informalities. Roy (2009) concludes that Indian cities can never plan because they use informality as a technology of governance and are embedded in a series of simultaneous mapping and unmapping.

The failure to plan is correlated to the emergence of cities where people live in unacceptable living conditions. The dichotomy between stated plans and the actual state of irregularities which are accommodated through a regularising regime has become a defining characteristic of Indian urbanism (Nair 2013). Jai Sen in 1975 wrote of the ‘unintended city’ that had been created as a result of planning. This unintended city comprised informal, semi-urban forms of life at total variance with modernist planning. The Indian urban scenario today is replete with unintended cities, with such cities exceeding the ‘planned’ component in places like Mumbai. Should one therefore assume that the violence associated with planning has also been kept at bay and made Indian cities more inclusive?

Staking claim to cities: Limits to political society

It is evident that Independence failed to transform the relationship between plans and the poor and that the place that the poor have in cities is a space that has been acquired through their struggles. Asef Bayat (1997), in the context of Cairo, sees these assertions of the poor in space as the quiet encroachments of the ordinary, as revolutions from below. In a similar vein, Neuwirth sees cities generated through the claims of poor people as shadow cities, as an assertion of claims to capital-driven, planned cities that advance the logic of property. Sundaram (2010), following Benjamin (1991), argues that a regime of pirate modernity is in place, a regime that locates itself in ambiguity and porosity, enabling the subaltern to pursue new routes to access the city.

These routes to access the city are negotiated routes. Benjamin in his thesis on occupancy urbanism explains the networks that feed on the porosity of state systems and operate as a system of exchanges enabling access to several. Such access that has been generated in the context of Indian cities has taken the form of slums and has been treated as a separate discourse, kept apart from the discourse on urban development. Chatterjee (2004) invokes the concept of ‘political society’ to refer to this space located between the rights -- recognised governmentality and civil society of modernism and populations that are compelled to bypass its moral and legal norms. There is no doubt that this space was mobilised and expanded via representative politics of the governed in most Indian cites in the 1970s and 1980s. It is this route that has enabled recognition of a phenomenon called slums by urban policy and today made it ‘an integral part of Indian urbanism’.

What is often not recognised is that slums, in spite of their ubiquitous nature, are treated as exceptions and dealt with accordingly. Though policies pertaining to slums have theoretically progressed from clearance to improvement to upgradation and redevelopment, slum-dwellers are treated as secondary citizens. They are perennially vulnerable to eviction, the quality of amenities available is poor, and they are perpetually dependent on external and especially political networks. Living in a slum implies a daily struggle for the most ordinary life tasks. In cities like Mumbai which have a significant proportion of third-generation slums, the label ‘slum’ is one that restricts dwellers in further development of their settlements and lives. As Roy (2011) points out, this route may have enabled access to the city, but it has not led to a just city.

The Mumbai case makes for an illuminating example. Slums occupy about 8% of the land area of Mumbai, though they house over half its population. The Slum Redevelopment Scheme, which can be said to be a continuation of the political society regime in the neoliberal era, began to be implemented in 1991. The scheme was heralded as a recognition of claims of the urban poor on space, and their value addition to the same. More than two decades after the launch of the scheme, the underlying principles have come under critique. ‘Free’ housing has enabled the state and developers to form a nexus and has drastically reduced the space under slums. Occupants of the new houses have claims over developed property but several more have been displaced and others are condemned to live in vertical slums devoid of critical infrastructure and living space that is even more congested than the erstwhile slum.

Contemporary approaches to urban development: State abdication of planning?

In contemporary times, cities and urbanisation have received a fillip in the national imagination. There is a substantive investment in creating new cities and in developing infrastructure in others. From an excessive focus on physical planning, contemporary approaches to urban development emphasise the economic dimensions, both as outcome and as a part of infrastructure-generation. The framework that guides these investments is being led by a different regime of planning. Framing development through projects that are not part of a publicly laid out plan, that are funded by bilateral and other international sources, has become routine in large cities. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) which heralded the beginning of massive investment in cities compelled beneficiary cities to prepare Vision Plans or Comprehensive Development Plans. The latest version of planning to be introduced is City Investment Plans which have also been prepared by several cities. This new regime of planning is one where government agencies and town planning authorities are reduced to commissioning agents; plans are prepared by consultants and approved by higher levels of government. There is no framework where priorities and goals are agreed upon, where several domains of the city, its present and its future, are addressed, and where projects are aligned in their objectives and operation. Moreover, there is no process of public debate or consultation. The other trend is where Master Plans or Development Plans are seen as an unmanageable exercise. In Maharashtra, the state where town planning legislation took birth, Master Plan periods for several cities are exhausted. New plans haven’t been prepared or haven’t been sanctioned. It seems like the state which celebrated planning is in the process of abdicating planning or identifying shortcuts to the process.

Sundaram and Benjamin (ibid) had suggested that ambiguity marks the access of the poor to cities. Our research in small cities in Maharashtra shows that there is a lot of confusion on the ground in terms of prevailing uses and norms for approval of any construction. In the meantime, cities are developing via an informal route. Ambiguity has increasingly become an instrument of the privileged and has, in several cases, reduced the poor to accessing the most degraded environments for staking claims. The regularisation of informalities favours those who are better-off and leaves the poor to fend for themselves.

Claiming a right to the city via planning

It is in this backdrop that there is a need to recognise planning as a domain for struggle. Yiftachel (1998) proposes that planning structurally involves a relationship between state-social peripheries-space. This takes planning beyond a technical, professional exercise to a recognition of the paradoxical, reform-control, resistance-compliance dialectic therein. Yiftachel further suggests that planning as a public policy and decision-making domain has four dimensions: a) territorial (involving land ownership, allocation of relative value), b) procedural (participation/exclusion of particular groups, notional participation to consultative), c) socio-economic (relative impacts on particular social groups), and d) cultural (values upheld/undermined; impact on diverse identities). Planning today represents one of the few available public domains, though under threat as the state in India is well on its way to abdicating planning. A regime that thrives on informalities and regularisation can only facilitate this abdication.

Hence it is important to recognise the dialectical tensions in planning and engage with the process in its multiple dimensions. Such an engagement should contest the planning dimension in all its structural dimensions, leveraging the ostensible ‘public’ character of the process. Minimally, it can only lend strength to the political struggles of the urban poor and push the envelope on ‘justice’ in the perpetuated history of divided cities.

(Dr Amita Bhide is the Chairperson of the Centre of Urban Planning, Policy and Governance in the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She has been deeply involved in issues related to urban poor communities and housing rights movements. She has been on several committees of the local and state government in addressing issues of housing and poverty)


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