Published in Times of India, Pune in November 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.
As one grows older, one realizes that life has no ‘undo’ button. Life happens – and our best intentions and greatest plans finally amount to little. The same is true with the life of nations. We can, at best, understand history – not change it. So even as we lament about the excesses of colonial rule, there is no escaping the fact that British rule had an irreversible and far-reaching impact on the way we live and work in our cities today.
In the pre-colonial days, our cities grew organically from the soil and represented old pieties and practices – so we had temple towns, pilgrim centres, handicraft hubs, agricultural market towns, fortresses and royal capitals studding every corner of India. The British, however, were to greatly change this timeless landscape with the addition of 5 new types of urbanization: port cities, railway towns, cantonments, hill stations and mining centres.
As the British consolidated their dominion over India, the growing railway network provided connectivity and allowed them to centralise their two essential functions of maintaining law and order, and collecting taxes. This required a centralised bureaucracy and the ‘steel frame’ is still with us today – rusty, creaking and neither trained nor qualified to tackle the immense challenges of unplanned urbanization and growing informalisation.
The centralization of power and authority, coupled with a deep distrust of the ‘natives’ was formalized in the mother of all municipal laws – the Bombay Municipal Act of 1888. And its archaic provisions still govern our cities and towns, through the various Acts it has spawned on the sub-continent. Even today, despite modifying the Constitution through the 74th Amendment in 1992, little or no true power has percolated down to our municipal bodies – which are the third tier of government. Their powers to raise taxes have eroded through the years, with the GST regime dealing the final blow, and State and Central allocations to municipal bodies remain largely arbitrary and politically coloured.
The third deep impact of British rule has been on our town planning and urban land use. With the British nostalgia for creating ‘a green and pleasant land’ in the distant tropics, the planning laws were too short-sighted for a country as densely populated as India where low-form urbanization would be entirely unsuitable. To now densify Indian cities by raising FSI just isn’t practical because there is a limit to how much the existing infrastructure can cope with (water supply, sewerage, power lines) and retrofitting infrastructure is extremely expensive – and chaotic. The result has been urban sprawl – and in the absence of efficient public transport, expensive and time-consuming commuting.
With these planning norms, we also inherited strict development control rules which require such high standards of construction that the poor have no option but to go informal, simply because they build their houses incrementally, as and when they have the resources. Our town plans also do not provide for informal enterprise, hawking areas, or waste collection and processing within the city limits.
We also continue to be bound by that other British gem – the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Despite attempts to modify it in 2013 and remodify it two years later, its interpretation has been left largely to the discretion of State Governments and is consequently mired in controversies, scams, litigation and land mafias.
Finally, the most ticklish and controversial legacy of the British – Cantonments. And who better to understand the problems this creates for urban governance than the people of the Pune Metropolitan Region, blessed as we are with 2 Municipal Corporations and 3 Cantonment Boards. How can any wizard conjure up a Development Plan for this city without stepping on a thousand toes?
Pune is indeed proud to host so many techno-military establishments, but why can’t these establishments be part of a common urban landscape, availing the services and paying the taxes of a SINGLE municipal body, as other civilian and scientific establishments do? Isn’t it time to ‘trust the natives’ 70 years after Independence? Imagine the CBD that a Singapore planner could develop in that vast swathe of prime urban land from Sachapir Street to the Race Course and from Poona Club to St Mary’s – it is, after all, almost entirely under civilian use, so why can’t it have a civilian makeover? It is said that the cantonments are the lungs of Pune, but there are alternatives. Planned high rise development interspersed with vast open and green eco-friendly public spaces are the modern option in cities across the world, and would sit well with Pune’s hills and dales.
To end, let us give the devil his due: The British formalized urban governance in India, and municipalities were endowed with powers of taxation as far back as 1850. The creation and development of port cities put India on the map for world trade, while industrial technologies and the railways speeded up our modernization. Finally, the legacy of modern education, scientific temper and the English language has put India at the forefront of a globalized world and on a trajectory to the future. All thanks to those firangis…