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Urban Planning and the Curious Case of Indian Cities

By Rajat Chaudhary

With cities becoming an integral part of world growth, the planning of urban areas becomes a pertinent question to explore. Despite being labelled as dysfunctional, Indian cities are one of the oldest cities with plans. Yet, the contemporary state of Indian cities is worrying. It, therefore, becomes worthwhile to explore the state of urban planning in India and its origins. 

India is witnessing one of the largest urban transitions across the globe with each year witnessing an increase in the percentage share of the urban population. Various estimates put India among the top countries to have maximum urban growth by the year 2050 along with China and Nigeria, with a total of two-thirds of the entire world population living in cities around the same time. The trajectory and reasons for such rapid growth of urbanization are not easy to gauge especially in the case of India where even the state policies, not a long time ago, approached urban growth with a critical eye. Similarly, the perception of Indian cities was built on the notion of “India lives in villages”. But as the cities became the major contributor to the economic growth of the country this perception altered and now we are seeing a hitherto unseen focus of the state on the urban and numerous policies are being pumped to capitalize the most from this urban growth.

The picture is not all rosy though, the reverence towards cities as places of emancipation and economic growth which were once in the popular imagination of a common citizen of the country got challenged as we all saw the images of migrants walking back to their villages as the pandemic engulfed India. This pushes one to look at this transition from a more critical lens as this rapid urbanization will not only bring enhanced economic opportunities but will also push the cities toward more inequality and environmental degradation to name a few concerns. The focus though shouldn’t be to discard the transition because it’s inevitable but to face it with more robust planning as we already know what is to come. 

Despite the transition towards urbanisation being new to India, the practice of urban planning is not new at all. Scholars like R. Ramchandran argue that urban planning existed in ancient India right from the prehistoric to the medieval period with even the earliest cities being built on the concept of ‘dual towns’ with the fort/citadel on the higher ground and the rest of the city termed as ‘lower city’ housing majority of the population and provided with the least resources. Without divulging much into ancient history, one could easily make a connection about the dualistic nature of cities which we even see in contemporary India.

Urban planning under British rule was no different and like in other colonies British continued on their same principle of maximum exploitation of the natives while ensuring maximum output for themselves. The cities under British rule followed the same principle of urban planning of ancient times with cities having almost a dual structure and perpetuated this differentiation between the ruling class and the ruled class. The bubonic plague of 1896 which engulfed Bombay became the origin point of modern urban planning in India, the origins of the disease were traced to the poor sanitary conditions of the impoverished households of Bombay and gave the British a reason to push the dual nature of cities even further. The Bombay Improvement Trust was created in 1898 which eventually became a precursor to many such trusts across Indian cities. Spatial and Social segregation became the guiding principles of urban planning under trusts with an aim of keeping the ‘filthy’ people away. The ‘civil lines’ and ‘cantonment areas’ were the new categories of the division of the Indian cities, civil lines housed the administrative offices’ courts and residences of British officers, clearly demarcated from the native town where Indians lived. Similarly, the cantonment areas housed British army personnel with the Indian soldiers living in different quarters even in the cantonment areas. Civil lines and cantonment areas were distinguished from the rest of the city and had large open spaces, planned roads with administrative buildings at the centres while the rest of the city had a high density and lacked civil amenities. 

The dualistic nature of the cities which was there in ancient times and was further perpetuated by the British conception of urban planning had its effect even in independent India, and even today we can see that the plans of contemporary Indian cities being almost dualistic in nature and being insensitive towards the majority population of the cities which anyways lack the resources. The improvement trusts of the colonial era were made into the development authorities in independent India and they continued to plan the land use of the cities. This colonial legacy created a two-way problem with urban planning remaining a sort of eminent domain and technocratic in nature, the centralized and top-down planning which followed is now reflected in modern Indian cities. The second problem of the colonial hangover with urban planning is that it made the ‘master plan’ the supreme document when it comes to urban planning. A master plan is nothing but a spatial instrument for regulating land use which means that it doesn’t necessarily include intersectional sectors like transport or environment by conception, even if these sectors are made part of the plan it is not necessarily a legally binding document and hence making a master plan a mere document on land use. The development authorities still continue to operate as bureaucratic institutions. Even the 74th amendment hasn’t changed much about the legalisations governing urban planning and development authorities hence restricting any democratic planning processes. So, the institutionalisation of urban planning which happened during the colonial rule still continues to haunt the Indian cities and their future. 

Apart from the colonial hangover, there is also a problem of defining the urban in the Indian context, for instance, the census towns which despite being functionally urban are still not developed like urban and have no master plans which raises an important question of the unplanned urban in India. Notably, there is also a problem of the gap between the theory and practice of urban planning in India, what this means is that most of the theory of urban planning is rooted in the western conception and doesn’t take into account the ground realities of ‘urban’ in India, the urban in India is about informality, autoconstruction of cities, retrofitting to name a few but since the theory is around the western idea it doesn’t really capture these particular characteristics of Indian urbanism and hence the planner fails to be imaginative when planning Indian cities. The tendency to emulate the ‘western cities’ by both the state and the planners is also evident from the most recent “Smart City Mission”. Delhi is being redeveloped as per this mission and the pre-independence historic neighbourhoods of East Kidwai Nagar and Naoroji Nagar are being razed down along with thousands of mature trees with the aim of modernising the city which is also a gift of the western conception of the city. 
All these missing pieces of urban planning in India lead to poorly planned cities that aren’t particularly sensitive towards the needs of its citizens. Scholars also argue that the British way of urban planning made the non-representative bureaucratic agencies under the state government responsible for carrying out urban planning hence removing the scope of public participation in urban planning. We see in the recent times campaign like ‘MainBhiDilli’ actively engaging with the upcoming master plan for Delhi in the form of civic activism. But to really address the problems of ‘dysfunctional’ Indian cities one needs to approach urban planning in India by addressing the particular questions of Indian cities and by truly making urban planning a bottom-up approach with public participation.

Rajat Chaudhary is a recent Urban Fellowship graduate from Indian Institute for Human Settlements.

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