How not to prepare a development plan

The Mumbai Development Plan 2034 was another black hole that showed yet again how deep the rot runs within BMC. Now, it’s time for citizen groups to make their own plan

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | April 21, 2015


#mumbai development plan   #BMC   #devendra fadnavis  

After stalling and procrastinating for countless times in the last five years the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) finally unveiled in February its development plan, or DP, that it confidently claimed will hold the financial capital in good stead at least till 2034. Following widespread criticism, this DP has been scrapped now.

This is the same civic authority that had the audacity to write to the union ministry of urban development that it just doesn’t have the internal capacity to develop a city development plan (CDP), a necessary requirement to partake the Jawaharlal Nehru urban renewal mission (JnNURM) funds.  An absolutely shocked central government had no other option but stop funds to the city, which at that point of time was literally coming apart at the seams and urgently needed money to refurbish its aging transport infrastructure. As the dice rolled then, it took an extremely embarrassed Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan to air-dash to Delhi and utilise all his personal goodwill to get at least a part of the money released.

The JnNURM funds were primarily tied to two pillars: a CDP and functional, financial and operational autonomy for urban local bodies (ULBs). Financial transparency and accountability was another black hole. The financial processes of BMC, despite being the richest municipal corporation in the country with an over Rs 20,000 crore budget, were so antiquated and opaque that the corporation was routinely guilty of double accounting, a cardinal sin in financial transparency norms.

The city more than pays its dues to the economy and government. Over Rs 35,000 crore a year goes into the central kitty as income tax, the largest chunk from any city. It is also India’s largest city in terms of the sheer number of people, yet almost 60 percent of Mumbaikars live in either slums or informal housing arrangements. The statistics are all there weighing in quite decisively on how important and crucial the city is to India: 10 percent of all jobs in factories, 25 percent of industrial output, 33 percent of income tax collections, 60 percent of customs duty collections, 40 percent of foreign trade, over Rs 4,000 crore in corporate taxes.

The city, by some stretch, is also the creative and entertainment capital of the country. For a city this fundamental to the daily existence of India, it’s only a fair expectation that the BMC would have learnt some lessons and tried to incorporate technology solutions in a decisive and extensive manner to bring in urban planning and zoning to bring about the much needed transparency and accountability.

The development plan, coming as it did after much heartburn and anticipation, was at the very least expected to be a departure from the usual script of very little data, no concrete implementation planning, lots of vision and motherhood statements. At best, it was anticipated by a select few that the DP will actually set the standards for other cities in India, considering the Narendra Modi government’s Smart Cities plan and the frequent visits by top BMC and state government bureaucrats to Asian world-class cities like Singapore and Shanghai. Yet what came out was sorely disappointing.

Let’s get to the specifics now. What exactly was wrong with the DP? A city development vision and the subsequent future planning of a global benchmark city like Singapore or Copenhagen starts with a rock solid foundation typically composed of six intricately and intimately related datasets: population, migration and demography, land, land use patterns, zoning and housing, industrial base, commercial activity, service sector and economic engines, specific geographical conditionalities (coast, inland, landlocked, hinterland), green and open spaces, entertainment hubs, recreation centres and finally public utility networks, systems and infrastructure (transportation, piped gas, water supply, drainage, sanitation and waste management).

The DP for Mumbai, which is supposed to lay down the roadmap till 2034, just didn’t have an adequate bed of datasets. Where it tried to use them, it was either marginal or incomplete, or worse completely dated and obsolete. The DP was littered with several cases that indicated how the mindset of the urban planners hasn’t changed a bit.

Three illustrative cases are sufficient to understand the deep rootedness of the problem. The first is the sheer superficiality (or worse, ignorance) with which the new coastal zone management plan was made. The base for the plan was not the coastal zone regulation notification of 2011, but the old coastal zone management plan (CZMP) that expired in January this year, after two extensions from its original expiry date of 2013. Needless to say, a coastal city like Mumbai needs a robust coastal management plan.

The second case is the manner in which the DP practically dumped the issue of the flooding of the city, an annual occurrence during every monsoon, under a broad category called ‘Climate Change’ risks. If at all one has to look at flooding from the lens of climate change, it has to include all factors like sea level rise, changing patterns of rainfall, increase in surface and atmospheric temperature, and extreme climatic events.

The third case is about water supply. Mumbai depends heavily on its lakes. Their health in turn is completely linked to the how good or bad the monsoon has been in a particular year.  Yet, the DP 2034 had no policy for water recycling and reuse, which in several cities like Bengaluru has been made mandatory for existing and new buildings.

It might seem that Mumbai’s problems are intractable, but the surprising part is that it really isn’t. One can quite rightly ask: where are the datasets going to come from? Well, this question requires a counter-question: where do taxi companies, e-commerce companies, courier companies, architectural firms and real estate consultancy services get their detailed datasets from? Today, jolting as it maybe, a well established research institution can map out every single nook and corner of city using handheld GIS and GPS devices for less than Rs10 lakh.

In fact, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has been using such devices extensively for close to five years to map out slums of Mumbai, and have used datasets to persuasively argue about power structure that are created by asymmetrical layout of civic amenities. Every single dataset that’s required for a city’s future planning, including migration patterns (say the number of people entering and exiting Mumbai) are more or less recorded digitally (rail and bus tickets, Aadhaar cards and ration cards). The data is available in bits and pieces, and all that is required is to mesh them all together.

If taxi and digital commerce companies can do it, so can India’s richest municipal body. The technology for real-time datasets is now freely available, and at price points that are easily affordable. In fact, many of these datasets are available quite openly. BMC can do it but won’t, or do it in such a way, as it did with the DP, so that a certain level of opacity remains. There are obvious ‘advantages’ for the municipal corporation: after all close to Rs 700 crore are spent before every monsoon in ostensibly repairing and refurbishing the roads, and another Rs 500 crore are spent on upgrading water and drainage infrastructure and still there is no comprehensive GIS mapping of the city’s civic amenities or transportation infrastructure and routes. The BMC-bureaucrat-contractor-politician nexus is so deeply entrenched that digital technology poses a clear and present danger to the levels of corruption present in the municipal body. This DP was a clear indication of that.

Within this context there is only one question: will the new chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, set up an independent expert committee completely run by citizen groups to prepare a fresh development plan till 2040? Give them a year, and I am willing to stick my reputation and neck out that they will be able to prepare a world-class plan for Mumbai. The city and its people surely deserve it.

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