Posted in Published Article, Urban India

Why we must turn Regional Planning on its head, now

Published in Times of India, Pune on 28 March 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Thanks to the efforts of scholars like Dr Tharoor, we are becoming aware of the ravages of colonial rule in India. The bottom line is that all colonization throughout human history has had a dual commercial motive: firstly, through unjust taxation of a subjugated population, and secondly, through the stripping of a country’s natural and human resources.

As these resources had to be transported back to the mother country, it is only natural that post-colonial cities were essentially gateways for the export of raw materials and import of finished goods – whether as ports on the coast, or railheads inland. In India, the British extracted our resources in the form of cotton, indigo, forest produce, jute, tea, grains and minerals. Hence the rapid development of Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata. Their only interest in the hinterland was in extracting all they could without spending anything on infrastructure or services in rural areas. Thus, poverty became endemic in the Indian countryside, and today’s farmer distress has deep roots in the great famines of the 1930s and 40s.

Now, 70 years after Independence, every Government has tried to address these issues of rural neglect in a piecemeal fashion – sector by sector e.g. rural roads, rural housing, rural sanitation, rural health, but the results have not matched the resources poured in.

This is where Regional Planning comes in.

It is not something new, but unfortunately, Indian Regional Planning has traditionally been left to urban planners and they have never been able to rise beyond the standard British formula of land use, transport and communication routes, water supply and drainage, preservation of areas, and reservations of sites for new towns.

It’s almost as if the big city is endowing its poor rural sisters with that ultimate gift of modernity – more urbanization. Like creating 5-star Industrial Townships like Ranjangaon in the heart of good agricultural territory! In fact, with the worldwide decline in heavy manufacturing, the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of yesteryear have quietly fizzled out, with the only beneficiaries being the business houses who promoted them, who are now the owners of vast swathes of rural and tribal lands, generously ‘acquired’ for them by Government agencies themselves.

As currently understood, a major aspect of the Regional Plan is metropolitan decentralisation and the redistribution of the population, city functions and activities of the Mother City. In other words, it is a classic case of ‘top-down’ planning doomed to failure in a rapidly changing globalised world.

However, as the headline suggests, maybe it is time to turn Regional Planning on its head.

So, let’s begin with the villages. India, because of its density of population has always had market towns at the hub of a circle of villages – going back to Vedic times. These market towns have in most cases been reduced to overgrown villages or small municipalities or census towns. So why not concentrate on their revival first? Let us rebuild the spokes of the wheel of which each market town is a hub through good all-weather roads, telecommunication links, broadband connectivity, adequate water and electricity.

The next layer can be developing the social infrastructure like schools, polytechnics, colleges, hospitals, mother and child care centres, and financial infrastructure like banks and business centres. The only industry to be allowed in these hub towns would be agroindustries and food processing, and modern polluting industries would be strictly kept out.

To enable these hubs to function properly, the full allocation of education, health, irrigation and forestry funds should be delegated to the local authority, as has been done successfully in Kerala. The local economic development and environmental and water management will also be the responsibility of the local body. As the area becomes more productive, there should be financial incentives for the local body like higher allocation from GST collected.

In this way, we will be tertiarizing the rural economy, creating non-agricultural jobs in small towns, using local resources in a sustainable manner, and reducing migration to cities in search of higher education and good health care. So, if we adopt this approach, we end up with multi-nodal development and these nodes or hubs can all be networked through transport and communication links.

As we approach the medium range towns, the Regional Plan must concentrate on upgrading basic municipal services and infrastructure, which will make these towns more liveable and discourage migration to the big city. These medium towns must also provide the tertiary level of services like Universities and Multispeciality Hospitals. Such towns should focus on developing local entrepreneurs by providing affordable industrial galas, shopping malls, and reliable power, water, transport and communication. Such towns can also become cargo hubs for produce from the market towns, with the emphasis being on developing rail and water transport rather than 6-lane highways which play havoc with the environment.

Coming to the Mother City, the emphasis must be on efficient public transport, power, water supply and environmental management with good connectivity to outlying areas, the rest of the country and abroad. With these facilities in place, the productivity of a city is bound to go up and this growth must be encouraged through higher allocations from taxes earned, more autonomy and less interference by State Governments in local matters. This will make local governments more responsive and accountable to their citizens.

Finally, the already existing forest and conservation laws need to be stringently adhered to, so that the rights of forest dwellers and the legacy of future generations are preserved.

In the present bleak scenario of polluted cities, urban sprawl, dwindling water sources, depleted forests and land hoarding, we all need to think outside the box, and plan for our country’s future.


Indian Urban Planning in limbo

Read more: Why we must turn Regional Planning on its head, now


I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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