Planning India

When growth follows planning it is called development.

When growth precedes planning it is called India.


And true to form, the new government promises growth… and the first thing they do is to abolish the Planning Commission! And yet expect voters to believe in a development agenda. Aha, what delicious irony indeed! And what confusion…

Whatever the perceived shortcomings of the Planning Commission, it provided some direction to India’s growth (the pre-requisite to all development), especially in the agricultural, social and public sectors of the Indian economy immediately after Independence.

And it does not help any government to jettison established institutional mechanisms with such haste, especially with nothing to replace them with.

Perhaps, not many Indians know that the first National Planning Committee was initiated in 1938 by Congress President Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. The British Raj also formally established a planning board that functioned from 1944 to 1946. Industrialists and economists independently formulated at least three development plans in 1944.

The present Planning Commission was created by a Government Resolution in 1950, and tasked with assessing the material, capital and human resources of the country; suggesting ways to augment these resources; formulating 5-year and annual plans for developing different sectors of the economy; and allocating resources as and where required.

However, as far as Indian cities are concerned, it functioned more as a Planning Omission with pitiful allocations of 2-3% for the urban and housing sectors. With such prolonged neglect, how could Indian cities function effectively as the ‘generators of economic momentum’ in a fast globalizing economy? So much for Indian macro-planning.

At the city level, all micro-planning (and especially urban planning) has been trapped in something of a time warp, with very little to show for its efforts. In fact, a friend of mine was introduced to an urban planner in Australia and said ‘I wish we had some in India!’ So imagine her surprise when told that India has a long tradition of modern Urban Planning dating back to the Bombay Town Planning Act of 1915. As we were under British rule at the time, the provisions of this law all hark back to ‘the green and pleasant land’ the law makers had left behind, and wished to recreate in India.

Never mind that Britain had solved its population problems through forced and unforced emigrations to North America and the antipodes, while India’s population was still burgeoning!


As a result, India was left tied to an outdated ‘low urban form’, strict zoning laws which militated against the poor, and development control rules (DCR) redolent of a past where the colonials lived in splendid bungalows, and the ‘natives’ lived in congested squalor.

Remnants of this colonial past are still visible in the cantonment areas of cities like Pune, with crumbling bungalows (with empty stables!), huge tracts of vacant defence land, clubs (and even a racecourse!) occupying prime land in what could be the city’s Central Business District (CBD) if developed with an eye to the future instead of the past…


The situation was well summed up by an eminent urban administrator (Ramanath Jha) when he said that what we need is “… the Urbanization of Indian Planning; and the Indianization of Urban Planning’”

Another waste of prime land was that tied up in Mumbai’s dead and dying textile mills, until the Supreme Court of India intervened to permit their brownfield redevelopment by the mill owners, with due reservations for public amenities and housing. The problem here arose from a little sleight of hand by vested interests.

The Government of Maharashtra had introduced the Development Control Rules (DCR) in 1991, under which a mill owner was permitted to sell or redevelop his land, provided one-third was surrendered to the municipal corporation for public amenities and another third to the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) for low-cost housing. The remaining third was the owner’s.

Ten years later, it surreptitiously amended this clause to make it apply only to vacant land – as distinct from the entire footprint of the mill. As a result, the first mill which would have surrendered 5,641 sq m for open space and 4,616 sq m to MHADA, got away with forfeiting just 474 sq m and 388 sq m respectively. In the case of Modern Mills, the corresponding figures are 8,626 versus 1,163 sq m as open space, and 7,058 sq m versus nothing for housing. Even this open space is often subsumed within the redeveloped complexes (mill to mall) and is not public space, strictly speaking.

mills of mumbai Phoenix mall

This tendency to play fast and loose with planning laws and development control rules when it comes to big land owners in urban areas is deliberate, as it gives a lot of discretion to public officials and is the biggest source of corruption in local government. The ultimate losers, as always, are the unfortunate citizens of these cities, who keep getting pushed to the outer peripheries, as homes in the central areas have become simply unaffordable even for upper middle class working professionals.

So as we enter a new year, what should Indian cities aspire to?

According to UN Habitat, “…the city of the 21st century is one that transcends the form and functionality of previous models, balancing lower energy costs with a smaller ecological footprint, more compact form, and greater heterogeneity and functionality. This city safeguards against new risks and creates conditions for a higher provision of public goods, together with more creative spaces for imagination and social interaction.

The city of the 21st century is one that:

  • Reduces disaster risks and vulnerabilities for all, including the poor, and builds resilience to any adverse forces of nature
  • Stimulates local job creation, promotes social diversity, maintains a sustainable environment and recognizes the importance of public spaces
  • Creates harmony between the five dimensions of prosperity and enhances the prospects for a better future
  • Comes with a change of pace, profile and urban functions and provides the social, political and economic conditions of prosperity…”

More on prosperous cities in my next post.

Here’s wishing everyone a peaceful, restful and fruitful 2015…

(More on the textile mills judgment at )


One thought on “Planning India

  1. Instead of abolishing a constitutionaly built institution the mechanism for effective functioning for expected growth should have been thought.What was successful in the last six decades and what went wrong should be throughly analysed. What are the political or bureaucratic forces behind such success or failure.How the winners in the other countries have achieved success should be taken up for a study.

    Regarding development control rules many offenders with the support of court and local staff are playing games and the violations remain unchecked. Plans for achieving central business district should be prime agenda for smart city or a model city.

    Capacity building of the urban managers, awareness to the builders,and impelementors of building regulations , should be a must to prevent further deterioration.

    Above all a strong political will is required to implement the reforms proposed in a corruption free Ideal state.When will it happen ?.

    Thandapani V.P.
    An urban manager.
    2 nd Jan 2015


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