Delhi: A feel good master plan isn’t enough

Eliminating bottlenecks, developing specific proposals, making budgetary allocations, and assigning responsibilities are key to success
We must have public, legally binding documents such as master plans to guide urban development. They are one more instrument to ensure accountability from the otherwise opaque planning authorities. (File photo) PREMIUM
We must have public, legally binding documents such as master plans to guide urban development. They are one more instrument to ensure accountability from the otherwise opaque planning authorities. (File photo)
Updated on Aug 10, 2021 06:44 PM IST
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ByRutul Joshi

The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has published the draft Master Plan of Delhi (MPD) for 2041 for comments and suggestions. The draft MPD promises many elements to improve the quality of life for citizens on a sustainable basis: A 24-hour city, circular economy, blue-green networks, transfer of development rights, and transit-oriented development.

The list is as long as a manifesto of a political party. But unlike manifestos, master plans are statutory documents with specific spatial proposals and realistic cost estimates that lead to their implementation. Yet, master plans are not implemented in Indian cities, because many of them are not feasible. Apart from weak institutional capacities and selective enforcement, there is one more reason why plans do not get implemented: Feel-good urban planning.

This is the kind of planning where “feel-good” and fashionable terms are used, without any intention or commitment to do anything about it. If civil society groups put more pressure on the city authority, more terms or chapters will be added, and more promises will be made. This works perfectly well for the vested interests in a planning authority. They can continue to govern the city based on opaque regulations and ad hoc decisions, while ignoring or diluting the master plan. So, the modus operandi is to write what you like in the master plans, but circumvent the key proposals while detailing them out through rules and regulations.

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We must have public, legally binding documents such as master plans to guide urban development in cities. They are one more instrument to ensure accountability from the otherwise opaque planning authorities. The “feel-good” urban planning in the master plans needs to be replaced with realistic and pragmatic urban planning.

There are four important checkpoints to ensure the implementation of a master plan, and the MPD-2041 should be put through this scrutiny: Learning from past failures, planning with specific spatial proposals, planning with a realistic budget, and finally, developing a robust implementation mechanism.

In the last 20 years, Delhi has seen a rapid expansion of its boundaries, development of the metro rail and the building of many flyovers and housing projects. Did MPD-2021 guide this development, or did the city develop despite the master plan? Or worse, did the master plan came in the way of taking some sensible decisions about the city? DDA must start by answering these uncomfortable questions, before finalising this new master plan.

The sealing drive of 2007 should remind everyone about the fallacies of rigid norms, obsolete methods, and weak enforcement capacities. We do not learn from past failures in urban development and old practices with new names continue. MPD-2041 should make a start by acknowledging the implementation bottlenecks of the previous MPD-2021.

The draft MPD-2041 is comprehensive in terms of its coverage but not specific and at times, vague. It seems that depth is compromised on account of breadth. For example, DDA has been talking about “transit-oriented development” (TOD) for the last 20 years. It simply means ensuring that more people work and live next to transit lines with mix-use development and walkable neighbourhoods/work districts.

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Indeed, Delhi, with a good network of public transit zones, needs to implement such ideas in the long-run.

But the current draft of MPD-2041 does not have a single map indicating where these transit zones are planned. The TOD zones are to be identified and notified separately by DDA. Transit influence zones where new housing or workplaces will be proposed should be integral to the new master plan. Apart from a legally mandated land use plan, there are no other maps or specific spatial proposals as part of the current draft. This kind of vagueness is only helpful in remaining non-committal about the future of the city.

Master plans around the country, at least the good ones, give broad cost estimates to implement the key proposals. Based on master plan estimates, the implementing agencies make their budgets. Any plan is implemented in India by breaking down the provisions through annual budgetary allocations. This is a major shortcoming in the draft of MPD-2041. There are no specific cost estimates given and the key proposals are not detailed.

Without the fiscal discipline of cost estimates and budgetary links, the “feel-good” urban planning has reduced the master plan draft to a wish list of sorts. Since the master plan of Delhi becomes a default planning manual for many cities and towns in north India, this is a terrible omission with its implications going beyond Delhi.

Finally, who will implement the MPD-2041? Given the multiplicity of authorities and agencies in Delhi, there is no one answer to this crucial question. It is a shared responsibility between DDA, different municipal corporations and other government agencies.

For the MPD-2021, a monitoring committee under the lieutenant-governor (L-G) used to meet once a year to remind every other agency that we have a master plan. What Delhi needs is an implementation committee — not only monitoring — under L-G (given the current structure) that oversees the progress of the master plan linked with a specific budget contributed by different agencies.

In absence of the clear implementation pathways, the master plan of Delhi may well remain a “feel-good” document. Eliminating implementation bottlenecks, developing specific proposals, making budgetary allocations, and assigning responsibilities are guaranteed ways of implementing a master plan. A good master plan is an implemented one.

Rutul Joshi teaches urban planning at CEPT University, Ahmedabad and keenly interested in reforming urban planning practices in India

The views expressed are personal

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Monday, November 29, 2021