Sunday, February 24, 2013

Urban nonsense in the Swaraj context

While we read many real stories about rural India's centralized decision making in Swaraj, I thought of sharing my observations about the functioning of the Urban Development. One can extrapolate this (with minor modification) in any of the other government departments. This is symptomatic of the government's functioning everywhere.

 As poverty takes a stranglehold in the rural areas due to various factors like reducing landholdings, lack of infrastructure, reducing of water levels etc, there is an urban emigration. The urban landscape is planned in an incremental and haphazard manner with little thought given to infrastructure, mass transportation or housing stock. For a few years, I have been participating as well as watching this circus of urban planning in Mumbai and have been periodically amused, angered and staggered by the brainlessness of the process and the people.

 Some observations (broad strokes)

The entire governance is totally centralized. The Britishers had a master-slave relationship and obviously, they kept all decision making in the hands of a few. Today, in an independent India not only have we maintained the centralization, but with our innate suspicion, added labyrinths and labyrinths of layers of permissions and rules and sub-rules.
So, who are the players in this chaotic Urban Planning process and what role do they play?

The Urban Planning process is initiated and arbitrated by Civil Servants.

The UD Secretary : An IAS officer whose main subject in the exam may have been Mathematics or Sociology or similar will pass one UPSC exam and become an expert in all topics of nation running and building. He would one day be the chief of Railways or of Human Resource or Mining and be expected to run the future of millions of people depending on the same. And he would be transferred to various departments and without any pre training expected to become nation's greatest expert in that subject. So, the Urban Planning of Mumbai will be decided by this EXPERT.

Urban Planners : There are very few trained urban planners in the non-private sector, maybe less than the number of municipal corporations, so urban planning is done by under-trained and under-educated architects or engineers. The urban planner of Pune whom I spoke to told me that he had never seen a major city except Mumbai, not even Delhi. He was coming from a village and did his civil engineering from a small town. In his world view, a paved road network was a great stride of urban development. As you know, Pune dreams of being a World Class city attracting people from all over the globe. Studying and learning from global case studies of cities is unimaginable. Remember, the IAS officer who decides which urban plan to go for, gets their inputs from these.

Politicians : The master plan decision finally goes to the political bosses. The Urban development Ministry in Maharashtra is always with the Chief Minister, for obvious reasons. No CM in recent memory has ever allowed UD to be wrenched away from his grasp. The Minister of state is a complete non-entity, with no knowledge of city (the last two incumbents were from village constituencies). Decisions are taken by politicians of all levels to change the no-development zone or to alter the roads -based on note and vote bank pressures, holistic planning be damned. So, any final plan made is subject to these pressures. DP plans are periodically amended and messed with - the difference between the original plan and the final product is absolutely shocking!

International Experts : Lost for ideas and travelling across the globe, the IAS officer feels envy and takes the shortest route. Catch the international experts. There are lots of these experts peddling their wares across the globe, selling some small success stories somewhere and trying to fit it wherever there is an opportunity. Masters at packaging, but no understanding of the context of the urban areas.

I wonder what would have happened if Gandhiji had come home to India from South Africa and hired international consultants for the civil war against the Britishers? There would have been hundreds of experts suggesting various methods of killing, death and bloodshed. Instead Gandhiji, travelled for 3 years within the length and breadth of the nation and created weapons based on the ethos and soul of the nation like non-violence, truth, renunciation, spirituality and such and therefore found resonance from all sections of indians. His entire strategy was going deep into the ethos of Indians and using best global communication practices of rail, newspaper etc, converted this longing for freedom into the World's greatest and unique movement.

Post independence, India adopted the political system running well in a small European country (Britain, but adjusted in India as a tool to extract maximum out of Indian slaves. Post independence, it then proceeded to load it with more slave-master relationship activities. Indian policy makers, not having created the system did not understand the same, did not know where the nuts and bolts of the system - hence could not amend or improve it (assuming that there is a will to alter it). We are paying a huge price for it as our governance is in a complete mess with Englishmen replaced by these Brown coconuts - brown outside and white inside :-).

Blindly following international experts without understanding the country, its people, its culture, its ethos, its soul and without any mechanism to understand and engage with the people is one of the biggest mistake we shall make. In Vedic times we had a special Veda on Urban Planning called the "Sthapatya Veda" which had some great knowledge about urban grids, drainage, usage of the five elements, the sun, the wind and such beautiful concepts. Mohenjodaro and Harappa were some of the cities which were far ahead in these concepts. What we need is to extract that knowledge and using best global practices create an Indian, unique urban plan. A plan that is people centric, not built structure centric, not aesthetic centric. A master plan that takes the minds and hearts of the people, not an imported, non-contextual plan.

For example, this latest nonsensical approach of not planning parking areas in new plans to discourage cars. It is like telling a newlywed couple to desist from having children as there is a population explosion or creating a nation where children are so badly treated that people would stop having children.

Aspiration levels of Indians cannot be compared with those in Japan or USA. My son's first salary will be used by him to buy a car. Now, if i tell him to desist because there is no parking, my decision will lead to a kick on my backside. His greatest desire is to buy a car and if he has to double park on the street, he will do so. Planners will have to consider these aspirations. Without a proper non-auto mass transit system, if we start punishing people for owning cars, we are being stupid. Democracies cannot be run by sticks, we need to incentivise people by offering better solutions so that lesser private vehicles are used.

The question is : whose Mumbai is it? The people of the city or its "Angrez" decision makers? Is it a surprise that it is in complete mess?