Narendar Pani

Why urban planning is such a joke

NARENDAR PANI | Updated on January 08, 2018

The nature of corruption changed after the withdrawal of urban development authorities such as BDA, with disastrous effects

As the south-west monsoons recede they leave — as all monsoons seem to do these days — several Indian cities licking their wounds. The loss of life due to flooding in Bengaluru or other rain-related disasters elsewhere generate the usual despair about the state of infrastructure in our cities. Equally predictably is the finger-pointing at those in power. In the midst of this high-decibel response there is little room for a more reasoned analysis of the problem.

Silent factors

One consequence of high pitched reportage overwhelming the need for clarity is that several contributors to the present crisis are ignored. One silent killer is the largely undebated change in urban policy after liberalisation. Prior to liberalisation the dominant urban approach was one led by a parastatal agency, such as the Delhi Development Authority or the Bangalore Development Authority. As cities grew to envelop villages these authorities acquired land and developed them, including providing basic infrastructure.

The prominent role of the parastatals brought with it the scope for corruption at different points, ranging from the award of contracts to the sale of sites. There were substantial leakages in this process. But the size of the basket of corruption was directly linked to the amount of infrastructure built. There was thus an incentive to build infrastructure even if it was at a far higher cost than required and involved substantial kickbacks to a variety of individuals including those in political power.

The high levels of corruption contributed to the anti-state paradigm after liberalisation gaining momentum in urban policy. There was a quiet consensus that the way to get around the rampant corruption of the parastatals involved in urban development was to bypass them. In the 1990s and later the momentum shifted quite firmly towards private builders, both large and small. While these builders were concerned with the specific areas they were developing, it was expected that the regulatory authorities would ensure that all the assorted pieces provided by private builders, from unauthorised colonies to large gated communities, would all fall neatly in place to create a perfect picture of urban development.

That picture itself was never clearly drawn, apart from occasional revelations of an apparent desire to ape major western metropolises. But even if such a picture did exist there would be at least two factors working against it becoming reality. The dynamic effect of corruption has changed in the new urban policy paradigm. In this new scenario the scope for corruption emerges from not doing what is to be done, unless there is the lubrication of a bribe. This causes delays as the corrupt wait for a bribe. There is also an incentive not to carry out activities unless they are specifically bribed for. As these bribes would be concentrated in areas that directly affect builders there would be little incentive to carry out local, relatively small but essential, infrastructure investments for which no one is willing to bribe. Thus while corruption in the earlier parastatal urban strategy had an interest in rapid development, corruption in the post liberalisation urban strategy has a vested interest in holding up development until it is bribed for.

Ignoring internal dynamics

The second reason for the ideal picture not being realised lies in the nature of the picture itself. India’s urban planners have preconceived notions that often have little to do with the internal dynamics of the city. If the local MLAs have a stake in the governance of the city, the experts would insist that the planning should be done by members of the city corporation, or the nebulous category of civil society. Indeed, even the preconceived notion of how the city should grow typically has little room for the economic dynamics of a city. Thus plans are drawn that look excellent on paper even as economic pressures are pulling the city in very different directions. This is a battle the economic pressures win, leading to an unplanned urban sprawl.

The divergence between building urban castles in the air and the economic dynamics of the city is evident to those who live in it. But there remains the hope among those who can influence policy that the aspirations of a global city will gloss over the reality of a Third World urban space. This leads to the incongruous phenomenon of projects worth lakhs of crores being sold, sometimes effectively, to people who are simultaneously aware that there are no resources to fix the local drain.

In this tragicomedy of Indian urban policy it is easy to ignore inconvenient facts even when they stare you in the face. In the recent floods in Bengaluru the areas developed under BDA corruption did much better than those developed under the free market corruption of the post-liberalisation era.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

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Published on October 22, 2017
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