An overview of Urban planning in India

Session Report
Nikita Bhardwaj

Urban Policy & City Planning is an online one-month online immersive certificate training course organised by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute, IMPRI, New Delhi in the month of July 2023. An informative and panel discussion on the topic “An overview of Urban planning in India” was held on July 05, 2023 by Romi Khosla an eminent architect, researcher, writer and director at Romi Khosla Design Studios.

The first session of day 2 commenced with the remarks of the chair, Dr Rumi Aijaz. Dr Aijaz highlighted the relevance of the session’s topic for coming up with better urban plans for the country. He talks about the complexities of the task of urban planning on numerous fronts, from contemporary challenges to effective implementation. With many towns and cities in India lacking a master plan which entails chaotic growth and with a mere 50% implementation of urban plans, he reiterates the importance of the topic in the present context.

Mr Romi Khosla began his lecture by personifying the discipline of Urban Planning in today’s time as a parrot trapped in a cage who is feeling unwell. In literal terms, urban planning is no longer independent and is reduced to a servient to governing ambitions. This is a persistent dilemma in the field of Urban Planning today as urban planners are not trained to handle such hindrances, with them being sub-servants to government administrations who comparatively have a lower degree of expertise in this realm.  He conveyed that urban planners need to question their relevance to society and mentioned the need to bring about a fundamental change by changing themselves instead of finding problems in the world.

Reasons for the Hijacking of the Discipline of Urban Planning

Mr Romi Khosla explained two major reasons which have rendered Urban Planning irrelevant:

  1. Economists have misled urban planners to believe that GDP has something to do with the wealth of the nation.
  2. The idea that urban settlements generate over 70% of GDP in our country dominates their thinking and the way they look at success. Measuring the success of a policy by the economic value it creates is a fallacy for urban planners as they have been trained to deal with humans and society. Urban planners view human beings differently than economists; their concern is preserving their belief in human beings. Conventional macroeconomic systems view humans as means to an end, regarding them as mere actors working towards making the nation’s wealth.
    However, urban planners think that people’s central goal is not to make wealth but to be happy. Thus, while planning a city, urban planners’ central objective is the happiness of the residents and not the economic value it can generate. Economists think about human purpose while urban planners think about the human condition.

Revitalizing the discipline of urban planning

Mr Khosla reinforced the need for profound changes to make the discipline of Urban Planning relevant. Instead of waiting for the administration to pass amendments, urban planners need to change themselves.

  1. Realigning the crucial role of technology in human development. It is crypto technology, a technology which eliminates the need for an intermediary, combined with AI that can allow urban planners to serve the human condition. Crypto technology is crucial in the service of distributive governance to become instrumental in giving us a new distributed mesh of sociopolitical systems to replace the outdated centralized urban planning process.
    The speaker mentioned that urban planners have neglected the role of technology including data collection in planning. It is imperative to resort to micro-level digital collection and do away with outdated methods. It means that urban planners should collect data at the panchayat level and aggregate it for the entire settlement pattern of the country.
  2. Deepening the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of Urban Planning. Urban Planning should present itself as the art of human planning rather than pretending to be a scientific process. The existential change today attributed to climate change and social change due to mass migration needs to be handled at the core by communities themselves because different communities are affected differently due to these changes. This makes it imperative for governments to start working on inter-governmental and inter-community agreements to achieve a new balance between central and decentralized governments.
    Today, even panchayats are globally linked, paving the way for communities to be digitally connected, self-operational and self-defensive to protect their interests in the future. Thus, decentralizing planning platforms at the panchayat level followed by district and state levels is the key to future planning. The speaker envisions professional settlement planners using open sourcing for settlement planning opportunities through digital decentralized platforms.
  1. He is deeply concerned by the serious trust deficit between the elected representatives, bureaucracy and urban planning professionals which makes it impossible for quality work to be produced. Thus, urban planners have to create a mechanism for bureaucracy, government officials and citizens to trust them. The need to assemble a new and updated vocabulary. For instance, abandoning the old way to classify towns into urban, rural, middle, third income or metropolitan, something which is irrelevant today.

To conclude, Mr Khosla mentioned that as a planner, he has little sympathy for policy documents like India’s Urban Awakening and Industrial Corridors because they do not take into account the human condition. He reiterates that we should do mesh planning instead of centralized planning. Lastly, he used a video to depict the pattern of urban planning in India to make the participants understand the thinking process of urban planners.

In his closing remarks, the chair, Dr Rumi Aijaz also stressed the need for the use of technology in planning, something which has been long overlooked. He lauded Dr Khosla’s presentation for the wonderful ideas presented.

Post this, the floor was opened for questions. It received enthusiastic participation and questions revolved around topics like participatory digital place making, block ledgers, neo-liberal models, digital form of governance, middle-class antagonism to the poor, land-use planning, 15 min city model and incorporation of population dynamics into urban planning.

Nikita Bhardwaj is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

See picture gallery from the session on Instagram:

Read more session reports for Urban Policy & City Planning:

Mobility and Urban Transport in India