Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fixing Kerala Urban Planning's broken bones!

Whenever there is a discussion or workshop on urban planning issues, we realize that almost all the people in the know of things have a grasp of “what is” to be done! Invariably, if we dig deeper, this clarity vanishes. We notice huge gaps in the thinking, or sheer fallacy of the ideas extolled so elaborately, and huge stories purposefully left untold.
New items and stumbling blocks crop up in the discussions, 'malayali psyche', 'our general attitude', 'political will', our resistance to tolls, our opposition to environmental exploitation, 'our consumer culture' etc. Most of them are very intangible.
Soon, all those who are concerned about the matter just for that event or that day would go on with their lives from there on. Some others leave with a sense of dejection. The planning department must carry on and do what is possible under the given difficult conditions.
Our cities are hungry for change, but frankly, no one knows how that is to happen!

There are various ways the arguments for a better city can be cited. Let us not presume a physical solution to start with. Let the physicality emerge from true and authentic forces of peoples will and desire. By 'True forces', I mean, a cumulative packaging of the desire of the Entire people. A process that is reflective of the democratic society and embedded within the Law of the land.
On closer study, it seems that certain law making needs to be done to support a genuine process of decision making which can be termed effective urban management. The invisible thread that bind us all together is the law of the land.

What are the basic premises required to bring about any cohesive, comprehensive, visionary physical change to the existing city?
  1. Setting the development agenda democratically
  2. Fixing responsibility of making the Urban Area Development Plan.
  3. Creating a mechanism to seek quality technical (physical and financial) solutions/inputs regarding city design
  4. Strategize the method to convert private land to public use with minimal conflict
  5. Enabling a legally embedded, yet, quick grievance redressal system
  6. Co-ordination of implementation

We have serious lacunae in each of these spheres and I could explain why we need the support of better law-making to enable each of these. Our cities are still livable simply because such urban issues have only recently started creating small temporary nuisances, and also because the underlying older pattern of urban design (unintended though!) was very very accommodative to stress
  1. Setting the development agenda democratically:
Without this, nothing holds water in our democratic society. Yet, we have no system to collect the will of the people on such a crucial matter. The current system is that once a Development Plan is prepared, it shall be put up in the public domain for people to comment on for a certain duration, two months. So, the role of the civil society is limited to responding to a certain design option. Mostly such comments would be from persons who are immediately affected by some serious trouble like their land being marked as a public park! (This could be worse thing to happen to a citizen who happened to fall under the green pen of the planner.) Such comments are heard and sometimes responded to too.
However, that is still far cry from being able to set our own development agenda as a citizenry. Electing our local councilor is the nearest we are at the moment to this role and that narrative is clouded by a million other political maneuvers. 

One drastic revision needed here is that, the aspirations of the stakeholders have to be collected prior to the preparation of the design solution. There are many ways and examples of how this can be done. Individuals, associations, institutions, political parties etc should be able to respond to various tailor-made stimuli. This process has to rest within our legal rights. Law making exercise number 1. This exercise should end in the preparation of a detailed development agenda that is at once a conceptual vision document, as well as a detailed design brief for an agency or group of agencies that is to provide the next stage of the exercise. This Vision Document must be published and whetted by the responsible agency.

2. Fixing responsibility of making the Urban Area Development Plan:

Delineation of the extent of an urban area is critical task. Ecological, Demographic and Administrative concerns should be the primary basis on which this is done. As multiple Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) would be covered together, Joint Town Planning Committees would have to be set-up to monitor the same. Kochi City Region has done this and can be used a precedent or template for future use. In case of larger agglomerations, Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) would have to be put in place. This is what is still missing in the case of Kochi City Region. Case for law-making 2. 
However, political energies are focused on revival of Development Authorities, something that is totally unconstitutional in the aftermath of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. Setting up of the processes and institutions required for good governance is the first step forward. In a mad rush to show dramatic short term results, no government should scuttle the overall intend of the decentralization in civic governance.
So, our vision document is to be initiated by this MPC. Let us see who they are and how they would deliver a city of promise.

3. Creating a mechanism to seek quality technical (physical and financial) solutions/inputs regarding city design

The Metropolitan Commisioner (CEO) for the MPC who reports to the LSGD Minister and the Chief Minister directly, would be an IAS officer and would head four teams; Planning, Engineering, Finance and Administration. Planning, is to be headed by a Chief Planner. This is the script already in place and awaiting implementation.
But, then, where would technical help come in from? Quality technical input would be needed. How does this team hire an external consultant? Or would they do all the tasks in-house? Using a building construction simile, will land up with PWD type government buildings as against the possibility of great design solutions from architects?
What we are seeking is quality urban design inputs and for that the system must be able to hire quality professional inputs in a manner befitting the urgency and loftiness of the purpose. The town planning department has a central role in the process. I would strongly advocate that the TPD adopt a collaborative work culture in such cases. Multiple agencies and competencies are required to accomplish a task of such magnitude. It is imperative that terms and mechanisms of engagement with various professional agencies by the Town planning Department be put in place. Case for law making number 3.

The vision to such a strategy should be initiated by the CEO of the MPC. If such inputs are not taken, the Plans prepared would be very much the same old land-use plans which recommend what uses cannot happen in a certain place. A lot of new roads drawn in wide sweeping lines taking fancy titles like ring, radial and concentric and what not. A huge backlog of proposed Town Planning Schemes (DTPS) would be created. Tired Town Planners would be asked to work like horses doing both DTP schemes as well as clearing individual building permits and scrutinizing building set-backs!

Professional input can bring about many changes in the methodology, the end product, the nature of the development Plans, add built-in flexibility, use more personnel to deliver the whole task as a single purpose, use different software for input, feedback, analysis, constant up-gradation, better projectisation and dove-tailing with financial systems. etc. Our cities deserve such a break.
This is the crux of the argument for better cities.

 4. Strategize the method to convert private land to public use with minimal conflict:

Any development Plan in Kerala would run into the issue of taking over private land for public purpose. A lot of this cumbersome and hurtful process is done using the draconian Land Acquisition Act which in effect means, taking land away forcefully using the might of the Law. Even as we accept that LA is inevitable in some context and that, that issue is being addressed by the Central Government through legislative reforms in that particular Act itself, let us not deny that for effective urban land release and assemblage, we have better tools like TDR, Accommodation reservation etc.
To get TDR to function effectively, some supporting conditions are also needed to be put up. Land Pooling Act or Land Reconstitution Act is enabled in some States like Gujarat since 1947. This enables a system which makes the process of land reassembly happen in a transparent and legal manner while permitting active and profitable benefits to the participants in it. How well this system works also depends on how aware and demanding the public is and also how transparent the actual conduct of the process is! But, having this Act in place is crucial, the Land Pooling Act! Law making task number 4.
Just putting the Act in place doesn't ensure speedy assembling of land. There are many disputes and conflicts and they too are to be addressed in a democratic society if issues are to be sorted out reasonably fast.

5. Enabling a legally embedded, yet, quick grievance redressal system

Grievance redressal in urban land issues is done by the Land Tribunal in Gujarat again. Setting up a legal redressal system like the Land Tribunal for fast-tracking of land related disputes would ease the task and pressure on Metropolitan Commissioner's office. Law making task number 5.
One can very well imagine the potential for chaos and agitation in that office premise after any project plan is unveiled in case no genuine legal mechanism specific to the task is in place. People would rush to civil courts and there could be a stay on each and every project. Urban projects can't work in piece-meal packages and would need wholesome approval for all ends to tie up together.

 6. Co-ordination of implementation

Compared to most of the earlier tasks that appear formidable, I would say that all the five earlier hurdles were the easier ones when compared to this one. Everyone knows this simple message, yet, how come none has been able to ensure that urban management be unified in purpose?
We don't start urban management one fine day, that's why!
There are existing systems and entrenched traits that run this cumbersome job. No one wants to feel less important the next day. Yet, co-ordination is a need.
Unified Transport Authority is being discussed as being mandated by the Central Government for Metropolitan regions. Even when that is achieved, we have only unified the transportation aspects within itself! Transportation will then have to be unified with all other systems! No one is sure what those systems are in first place.
A lot of it would ride on what the design goal is for each sub-project and a method/ institutional mechanism for delivery of design goals would have to be put in place. This task for the Metropolitan Commissioner to unravel.

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