Planning & Design
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god is in the market: is city planning in india getting hijacked by free-market overtures?

January 13, 2020

In the summer of 2015, the Narendra Modi government announced the 100 Smart Cities Mission. Once the list of cities got announced, there were fervent celebrations by people in multiple cities and pompous chest-thumping by politicians.

In the same year, a new capital (Amravati city) for the state of Andhra Pradesh was announced. If we care to go further back a few years, we shall visit multiple privatization projects (such as the Delhi airport, metros and numerous municipal services in cities). Add to these the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, which changed Delhi’s urban landscape radically in a short span of time. In the large scheme of things, India’s urban planning system is transcending towards radical and unprecedented directions. This brings us to the classic question: should cities be governed by an authoritative state or the free market?  And a more locally rooted question: Is City Planning in India getting hijacked by the free market?

Figure 1 Old marketplace in Rourkela, Odisha: a designated  ‘smart city’ (Source: author)

Since India’s independence, most planning has been from an economic point of view: ideas such as five-year-plans (the Gosplan) and the Planning Commission (Planirovane and Planirovka) drawn from Soviet state socialism. Occasionally, there were traces of spatial planning such as those in Chandigarh,

Figure 2:

Bhubaneswar and many industrial towns in the 1950s. In the post-liberalization era, there was a conscious (and rather constipated) attempt by the state to decentralize powers through the 73rd & 74th CAA. Recent schemes such as the JnNURM, Smart Cities, AMRUT etc have been significant urban turns. In totality, few patterns of change are visible: the emergence of market-driven initiatives; burgeoning urban design ‘interventions’ in cities; increased role of the judiciary in urban planning; and rise and fall of the impatient capital.

Market-driven initiatives

What better example than the Smart Cities Scheme to describe free-market driven initiatives in Indian cities. But hang on, what exactly is a smart city? Internationally, the idea is getting abandoned and dismissed by planners as a mere buzzword that has the potential to kill democracies. The Indian government is equally clueless, as seen in its official definition. No clear definition, no fixed-targets. Yet, the government has approved nearly 2000 billion rupees for this scheme, 80% of which is to be spent on Area Based Developments(local physical upgradations rather than holistic development). Sounds familiar – public risk + private profit. Between the 2015-2019, only 21 % of the allocated funds were utilized
According to a 2018 report by an NGO, Housing and Land Rights Network India, the projects have resulted in increased corporatization (nearly 80 % of the capital outlay is coming from the private sector) and foreign investment in cities, neglecting citizen participation. The results are predictable: the initiative has become a vehicle for forced evictions of slum dwellers, gentrification and increased class-based segregation. In my opinion (and many others), the whole scheme is doomed to fail. Yet, it certainly helped developers, national and international financial bodies such as the World Bank who possibly salivated at the idea of a ‘neoliberal turn’ in planning in Indian cities facilitated by the state.

Burgeoning urban design interventions

Figure 3: A TenderSure project of pedestrianization of MG Road, Bangalore (Source: author)

If Smart Cities, a neoliberal initiative is driving growth, why should civil society stay behind? Large and metropolitan cities in India are now witnessing small-scaled urban design interventions (based on knowledge transfer from the west) which are at best a nice physical up-gradation and at worst, an expression of urban voyeurism often showcased by modernist designs. Take the TenderSure project in a CBD area in Bangalore, which focuses on upgrading pedestrian facilities. Seems like a win-win. Yet, on second thoughts, it also shows the abject failure of state planning mechanisms. An increasing trend of NGOaization of basic municipal planning services should ring a bell in your head if you are a planner.

Changing role of judiciary

Since the 1990s, there has been an increased role of court judgements in planning, especially concerning contestations between slum dwellers’ territorialization and middle-class residents’ changing aspirations towards a western-oriented aesthetic in their cities (read shopping malls, luxury housing and multiplexes). In Delhi alone, more than a million slum dwellers were displaced between 1998 and 2011. Nearly half a million were just before the Commonwealth Games, to achieve a ‘world-class’ image of the city for the world to see. Most of the evictions had a clear pattern: middle-class civil society files a complaint about illegalities of slums, the court passes judgements to clear the slums, and interestingly using the Nuisance Law rather than the Slum Clearance Act, the local authorities engage in eviction drives. 

Various scholars such as David Asher Ghertner and Gautam Bhan have demonstrated how the judiciary’s tone on informal settlements changed dramatically since post-2000s – from being critical of local governments’ inability to provide housing to city dwellers towards anti-poor and biased neoliberal judgements such as this 2006 judgement of the Delhi High Court: “If they cannot afford to live in Delhi, let them not come to Delhi.”

Rise and fall of new capital

Revisiting the case of Amravati, we can now see the downfalls of the rather stupid extravaganza –  led by an “authoritative” state leader, impatient capital that aimed to create an insipid, unrooted architecture; and eventually buried down the gutter equally fast with abrupt political change in the 2019 state elections. Major players such as the World Bank have pulled out of the project, resulting in a bust in the real-estate market. What has resulted is an urban dystopia, lacking both in flavour as well as in culture. Well, aesthetics is not just visual, you know!

Where do we go from here?

Why did I call the phenomena as ‘free-market overtures’?  Because the Indian Planning system is slowly moving away towards free-markets with the inertia of state socialism; since there is still considerable state authority over local decision making. Proofs of this are lack of devolution of powers from state governments to municipalities even after two decades of 74th CAA.

Right now the planning system seems to be in a delusional transition. What I foresee in the near future is increased privatization and NGOaization, irrespective of the political establishment at the centre. 

I will sign off with a word of caution. We are a heterogeneous, complex and diverse society unlike many in the global north. In order to remain so, we need to look for culturally-rooted solutions to our challenges, not simply flirt with capitalism and it’s not so distant cousin, neoliberalism. Above all, we must be ‘smart’ enough to realise that cities are built in centuries through slow churning of ideas and negotiation with uncertain environments; not through impatient financial and political capital.

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