Finding the Missing Pieces of Urban Planning Puzzle in India

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Finding the Missing Pieces of Urban Planning Puzzle in India
© Provided by News18 Finding the Missing Pieces of Urban Planning Puzzle in India

Planned urban development in a nation depends on its capacities and systems. This article unbundles the complexities of the present capacities in India for city planning and management.

The urban maze in which one-third of India lives has been enduring multiple transitions—technological, digital, lifestyle and demographic. It is estimated that by 2050 India might become a half-urban country; presently, one-third population lives in urban centres. The Union and state governments have been investing heavily in the urban sector since 2014. However, deficiencies in urban planning capacities at all levels emerge as a deep-seated legacy issue.

Often, the inefficiencies in the cities are attributed to the way cities are planned in India and the level of skills of urban planners. Most commonly, such notions lead to fragmented capacity building events for a handful of urban planning workforce. Though relevant, these approaches alone have not yielded sweeping transformations at the size and scale the country needs.

NITI Aayog constituted a high-level inter-ministerial advisory committee chaired by Dr Rajiv Kumar, Vice Chairperson, NITI Aayog, on ‘Reforms in Urban Planning Capacity in India’ in October 2020. It comprised 14 members including CEO of NITI Aayog, President of CEPT University, Ahmedabad and Director of School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. The committee did not choose the path of prescribing an ideal city or a ‘one-size-fits-all’ framework for all Indian cities—given the diversity in the country it would not have been useful. In fact, the committee focused on mechanisms to create capacities that could propel India to become ‘Aatma Nirbhar’ in the domain of urban planning and management.

Beginning October 2020, a series of intensive consultations and workshops were conducted by NITI Aayog. The inter-ministerial deliberations with ministries of housing and urban affairs, education, panchayati raj and rural development depicted the constraints in planning of rural-urban continuum. Eminent planners, think tanks, professionals and civil society organisations were consulted. Each consultation unveiled critical bottlenecks at multiple levels.

Simply put, urban planning capacity of India has three pillars—education and research sector, public and private sector. Robust capacity of each individual pillar and its seamless functioning with the other two is essentially a desired scenario, which needs to be created.

A snapshot of the present situation highlights ironies and a compelling need to bring reforms. Of the 7,933 towns counted as ‘urban’ in the Census of India (2011), almost half are called ‘census towns’, meaning they are administratively ‘rural’. Master plans are statutory tools to guide urban growth. However, almost 65 per cent of 7,933 urban centres in India continue to grow without them.

The urban planning system is the foundation to achieve integrated development and socio-economic growth. This cannot be created without investing in ‘soft capital’ of qualified urban planners in urban local bodies, state town and country planning departments and domestic private sector companies. The number of sanctioned positions of town planners in the state town and country planning departments are 3,945—which is just one-third of what is needed (estimated based on the population and workload). Of this, more than 40 per cent posts are lying vacant.

To get a better perspective of the magnitude of shortage, presently there is not even one town planner per urban centre in the state town and country planning departments. Ironically, the skilled planning graduates struggle to prove their eligibility for town planners’ jobs while cities face unplanned growth. Cities like Singapore were not built without robust organisations with skilled workforce.

Who is an urban planner is a widely contested question. Let us break it down to understand better. Cities are not just a set of buildings. They are living entities where society, economy and environment must co-exist. Imbalance in this equation can cause an unreasonable consequence on the other—which is what has been happening if one looks at cities only through a lens of spatial design.

Urban planning involves complex decision-making and moderation among various competing land uses, societal considerations, economic policies and environmental constraints. Therefore, it needs a multi-disciplinary skillset and dedicated training. Age-old beliefs that any professional who knows spatial design can suit the role of a planner are thus fallacious.

Also, there is an urgent need to understand that city planning deals with land. Be it creation of houses, roads, railways, ports, industrial areas or riverfronts—every activity is inter-related and interdependent in terms of functionality. The present approach of urban governance does not ensure such integration. It needs to be horizontally and vertically integrated to bring efficiencies.

The tools that are used by state governments for planning and managing the cities—town and country planning legislations for creating a base for statutory plan preparation and implementation, recruitment of the town planners, and so on have become dated. In many cities, development control regulations were formulated long back and are updated without sufficient empirical evidence of their impacts.

The public sector organisations are statutorily responsible for planning of cities and their management. However, they face technical, systemic and human resource limitations to engage private sector companies. Resultingly, the private sector ecosystem in this sector has also remained underdeveloped in the country.

With about 50 institutions offering degree courses in urban planning, the education sector in this domain is wide but qualitatively not strong enough, except for few front-running institutions. The institutions also face faculty shortage. The degrees awarded to the urban planning graduates vary to the tune of 25 nomenclatures, creating confusion in market. There is no statutory body to represent and regulate the profession of urban planning due to which any untrained professional is allowed to undertake the planning job—posing great risks to work quality.

In a nutshell, the current urban planning capacities in India are extremely skeletal. This structure has to be nourished with systemic reforms and change of mindsets. The final report of the advisory committee of NITI Aayog elaborates on the present capacities and puts forward a set of recommendations that can bring a sea change. On the demand side, it has proposals for a central sector scheme to create 500 healthy cities, creation of posts for lateral entrants, upgradation of rules, etc. On the supply side, it bats for normalising the degree nomenclature and creating national council for town and country planners and national digital platforms of town and country planners. The report has also suggested systemic reforms like research-backed upgradation of bylaws, town and country planning legislation, urban governance frameworks—to create an enabling environment.

Albert Einstein once said that we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Changes from a ‘business as usual’ approach might be difficult to implement and all the stakeholders—Union ministries, state urban development departments, academicians, and urban planners need to work together in a systematic manner.

Dr K Rajeswara Rao, IAS, is Special Secretary, NITI Aayog and Anshika Gupta is Senior Associate, NITI Aayog. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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