Planning the Smaller Indian City
Updated: May 23
Smaller cities in India should, but more often than not do not, follow the same planning processes as larger cities. This is explored in an interesting piece on smaller Indian cities and planning over on The City Fix by Rejeet Mathews and Tintu Sebastian – Must a city of 8 thousand follow the same planning processes as one of 8 million?
Decentralised powers granted by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, central guidelines issued by Ministry of Urban Development and weak Town and Country Planning Acts at the state-level, intermingle to create a legal framework that requires cities of all size to follow similar planning processes in regards to the production of master plans.
The authors argue that smaller cities should not have the same planning requirements/demands as larger cities.
Small towns should not be treated as scaled-down cities, and this blanket approach is an obstacle to effective urban planning. ‘Rightsizing’ can alleviate this by recognizing these important differences in size and complexity in policy, enabling more effective urban planning processes
I’m really happy to see an article on smaller urban centres – there’s not enough attention paid to smaller cities in India. However, I would add that size is relational (not only based on numbers) and smaller cities might have greater (or lesser) local importance than their size suggests. Mangalore, the city I know best, has one of the county’s busiest ports, an international airport, large SEZs and a slew of education and medical institutions. But it’s official size (population just under half a million) means it appears as a ‘small city’ in state and central planners eyes.
The authors discuss the problem of size in relation to Karnataka state and produce a wonderful visualization of the differently-sized cities that fall under the same planning mandate (see below). I’ve been into district planning offices and seen the plans for some of the urban centres featured – the plans for some of the smaller towns were tucked away in a cupboard and the local officials had no role in their creation (outsourcing the job to a private company who had the required town planning training). However, I think the problems of smaller city planning go further than lack of technical training or human resources.
The reliance on outside help can lead to town/city plans produced by those with strong vested interests their contents. This is certainly the case in Mangalore, where locals complained that the latest master plan was written by (and for) powerful real estate developers who were close to (or even were) politicians.
Graphic by Rejeet Mathews and Tintu Sebastian/EMBARQ India
As way of a solution Mathews and Sebastian suggest a tentative framework for planning different sized cites.
Large urban centres: that have more than 8 million people and contribute significantly to the state and national GDP – like Bangalore – should be accorded a special status. They should follow a richer planning process and be required to prepare connected and complementary spatial, economic, and transport plans that better suit the city’s needs, complexities, and aspirations. Medium urban centers: The complexity of planning processes should be proportionate to the city government’s ability to pay for itself without relying on financial bailouts from centralized agencies. Medium-sized cities should follow a lighter planning process that is more responsive to both dynamism and decline, instead of being forced into a planning overdose. Small urban centers: Small cities and towns that do not face the complexities of larger and mid-sized cities should focus on the provision of basic infrastructure and amenities to improve quality of life and foster a good trade and business environment. These would be more achievable within the resources and capacity that these towns already have.
Although I can see the case for differentiated planning processes, the schemata they suggest reveals some underlying assumptions about the current role and future plans of cities.
Aside from the problems of using numerical size as a frame, I think it’s dangerous to tie anything to a “city government’s ability to pay”. This affords preferential treatment to the more successful (often larger) cities. Decentralisation of power has taken place alongside increased inter-urban competition. In this context, the demands for poorer, smaller cities to raise their own resources naturally leads to increased uneven development. I think the central state can play an important role in evening out the unevenness.
India’s smaller cities, as the authors argue, do not need to be over-burdened by planning requirements, but likewise they should not be left to fend for themselves.
Read their full article here