The complexity of Indian urbanism


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THE correlation between urbanization and economic development is a well-established universal phenomenon. It is, therefore, predictable that in India too the dramatic growth of the economy will fuel massive urbanization. Even as municipalities try to cope with the current level of urbanization (less than 30%), urban planners will have to deal with a far greater volume in the future (easily double in the next 30 years if India’s economic development continues at this pace). But the issue of urbanization is not just a matter of volume, but also of its increasing complexity. Existing models of urban planning are yet to come to terms with this multifaceted nature of the country’s urbanization phenomenon.

The increasing complexity of urban problems is also a widespread regional experience. In 2003, the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), Bangkok, undertook research in eight Asian cities to identify the process of socio-economic, physical and institutional change that had taken place since the late 1980s.1 This process was generated largely on account of structural adjustments, the W.T.O. regime and the dominance of the culture and institutions of globalization in development policies at the national level. The ACHR report demonstrates how national and international trade and commerce practices are adversely affecting the lives of urban residents, particularly of disadvantaged groups, and points to the need to develop appropriate urban planning and governance strategies to mitigate these negative effects.


As the global economic network strengthens and the Indian economy becomes more integrated into it, the situations documented in ACHR’s report will become more common here too. There will be an increasing fragmentation of cities into segregated zones of the rich and poor. Cities in India have, of course, always evolved along lines of caste and class, but the new patterns of change identified in the report involve a far greater scale of spatial segregation and a more complex combination of social and economic factors which did not exist before.

For example, the new economic and political policies are uprooting the poor and middle class from the land they occupy in or near city centres. They are frequently offered no compensation or are relocated, formally or informally, to areas on the city’s fringes, far away from their places of work, education and recreation and with inadequate access to civic infrastructure or health services. Such decisions threaten the social, cultural and political fabric of our society and, ultimately, its stability, as the unequal distribution of civic resources leads to popular unrest and violent confrontation. The profession and discipline of urban planning in India has not yet begun to comprehend, let alone develop, appropriate strategies to handle this emerging condition. This failure is rooted in the history of the profession.

Pre-colonial Indian civilization had deep roots and imbues all aspects of our modern society with its specific character. There is historical evidence of vibrant urban civilizations in India with town planning practiced here for millennia. With colonization, however, indigenously evolved practices of urban planning were abandoned and replaced instead by European ones. In effect, the dialectical process of resolving local urban issues within the framework of local material and cultural resources and requirements was replaced by an unquestioning allegiance to foreign models of planning, a tendency evident even today.


The modern practice of urban planning in India was initiated after the War of 1857. The British realized that they had come within a hair’s breadth of losing their empire in urban areas because their organic morphology made them difficult to control. There was a concerted effort thereafter to rebuild Indian towns on more familiar terms that they could ‘understand’. In her study of Lucknow, Veena Talwar Oldenburg compellingly demonstrates this imperialist logic underlying our legacy of modern urban planning and, indeed, by extension, of modernity itself.2

Arindam Dutta makes another crucial point, arguing that the process of making a plan or designing a ‘solution’ is already predetermined by the architect or urban planner before understanding the specifics of the ‘problem’ at hand.3 Not surprisingly, such plans fail to meet the actual needs of society and are frequently resisted, subconsciously or explicitly, by local inhabitants who must bear the brunt of these ill-conceived solutions. In order to establish the authority of its master plans then, the government today has to deploy the police powers of the state to ‘enlighten’ society, compel its acquiescence and ensure that ‘solutions’ are duly implemented.

Dutta’s argument helps explain the process of sealings and demolitions imposed on Delhi in the recent past. The destruction is rationalized by urban planners (who created the problem) and bolstered by the judiciary (who refuse to know better) as a cost that society must bear in order to institutionalize urban planning practice. As Dutta says, ‘It is because the origins of modernity in the colony are... tied up with the ends of imperialism that its outlines operate as a historical teleology in reverse: first the institutions and then the "enlightenment".’


To institutionalize the ‘modern’ process of planning, the Public Works Department published The Handbook on Town Planning in 1876.4 The Handbook contained guidelines for undertaking urban development projects all over the country and it is easy to trace the origins of many current professional philosophies and practices to this book. These guidelines were formulated at a time when the British had begun systematic efforts to ensure civic health and hygiene in their own cities at home, so they merely transferred the models they had developed for those cities to the colonies.

Nevertheless, their desire to incorporate new ideas was evident even then, because the Handbook was updated eight times in the 70 years before independence, with each successive edition including the latest British advances in urban planning practice. In all the decades since independence, however, the Indian PWD, the heir to this legacy, re-published the Handbook only twice and did not attempt any major changes to its contents. Thus the dated references to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and the New Town plans developed in England between the two World Wars are retained as models for use in India.


While it is possible that the irrelevance of the Handbook’s contents has led to its recent neglect, it is clear that its ideas have fundamentally moulded the imagination of the Indian urban planner. In fact, its lingering presence in current practice illustrates two debilitating characteristics of urban planning in India: first, the unthinking acceptance of foreign models to serve local purposes; and second, the inability or unwillingness among professionals to update their knowledge base and intellectually engage with the specific complexity of Indian urbanism both as a sociocultural construct and as a technical entity.

Instead, contemporary local urban planners ape the colonial British in their desire to protect empire by disciplining urban space and punishing its ‘disorderly’ manifestations assumed to be the expressions of a rebellious populace. So deeply embedded is this punitive vision that the notion of a planning model that mediates and facilitates a necessarily chaotic urbanization, and that is sensitive to the needs of vast swathes of disadvantaged inhabitants, becomes tragically inconceivable.

This failure is not a new malaise. As far back as 1924, government records about the construction of New Delhi identified the problem of local developments not following the Master Plan formulated by Edwin Lutyens. As Stephen Legg observes in his study of Delhi’s post-colonial development, ‘the would-be panopticism of the imperial city became impossible to regulate from the very beginning.’5 A 1939 report that Legg cites reproduced the 1914 sanctioned layout of New Delhi – a map of stark and clearly defined functional zones – and contrasted it, equally starkly, with a map of the actual layout of New Delhi – which, by 1938, illustrated a dazzling array of mixed land-uses and what to the official gaze were ‘haphazard developments’.


Even then the problem then was not identified as one of supply and demand or of needing to understand local characteristics of urban living; then, as today, it was understood to be one of the lack of strict regulation. Thus the main recommendations of official reports invariably reinforce the imperative to regulate development such that it conforms to official plans. In subsequent post-independence government policies, stricter enforcement of the law remained the leitmotif of recommendations to solve the persistent problems of ‘illegal’ development. Indeed, this collective fixation with enforcement on the part of both urban planners and government policy-makers – so that the issue becomes one of law and order rather than that of inadequacies in the planning process itself – is arguably the most significant obstacle to contemporary India urban planning.

Legg identifies another significant dimension of the problem of urban planning in India: urban planners deal with the city as an abstract entity rather than as a living organism. Consequently, there is no intellectual or moral commitment to the plans that they make – merely a feeling of victimization when inhabitants do not follow their prescriptive abstractions. Perhaps this professional indifference to the socio-spatial consequences of their policies is also rooted in the Nehruvian development paradigm that sought to combine the existing capitalist system with a Soviet-inspired model of centralized economic planning.

In the Nehruvian paradigm, planning was a ‘scientific’ process, the domain of ‘objective experts’, its goal the furtherance of national interests (which, presumably, would trickle down as local benefits). The aim was to rule ‘from a distance’ by targeting supposedly discrete, self-contained and static objects such as an economy or a population. Post-independence urban planning also fell under the sway of such planning ‘from a distance’.


Regrettably, urban planners seem to be the last to realize that cities are neither abstract nor static entities and that unless they seriously engage with the specific ground realities of Indian urbanism, the profession will not be able to cope with the fact and type of contemporary developments documented in the ACHR report. The force of this tragedy is coming to the fore in the preparations for the Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi in 2010. With a view to ‘impressing the world’, the government has embarked on a series of ill-advised, costly and unsustainable projects such as urbanizing the ecologically fragile flood plains of the Yamuna river and undertaking extravagant image building beautification projects such as the complete makeover of Connaught Place: Nero fiddles while Rome burns!


Clearly, there is an urgent case to be made for changing the way urban planners conceive urban space. This, in turn, requires a comprehensive re-formulation of our disciplinary assumptions and pedagogic practices. At present our academic institutions emphasize the rote transmission of received knowledge and routine methods for minimally informed and vocational ends. Unsurprisingly, there is little or no local theorizing of the urban planning experience in India. By habit and circumstance, local urban planners have accepted images of cities derived from cultural, social and economic contexts different from theirs and recycled them into teaching curricula.6

This situation cannot change unless practitioners undertake focused studies of Indian cities based on innovative hypotheses that challenge received wisdom. Such research would enable urban planners to conceive Indian cities in indigenous terms in order to incorporate the culturally plural, socially evolving and economically constrained characteristics of Indian society. We must critically interrogate the mentality represented by the PWD Handbook in order to decolonize our own concepts of Indian cities.

As we begin to analyze the intellectual and socio-political history of urban planning and chart thoughtful parameters for contemporary practice, we would do well to regard cities as human spaces in which we live and participate rather than as alien and unruly objects which we seek to tame with our objective expertise. Instead of perennially viewing what exists locally in negative terms and using western standards as positive, we must understand that our inherited and supposedly neutral urban planning practice is driven by a logic of aggressive and purposive control of the population.7 Our vision must be one that fosters social welfare rather than one which relies on punitive sanctions in single-minded service of the abstract patterns on paper which we call master plans. Our current historical condition demands that the existing planning paradigm be cast aside; changing the way planners conceive the city is an important beginning in this process.


It is pertinent to note that most of the books and studies cited in this paper are by scholars based at research institutions abroad. As already mentioned, we must restructure our curricula and pedagogy in order to undertake similar research in Indian institutions. Lest I be misunderstood, I do not propose a simplistic – and flawed – distinction between foreign and local research; rather, I encourage context-specific research generated in Indian institutions as a key component of a dynamic indigenous urban planning practice. In other words, my concern is not with the foreign-ness’ or ‘local-ness’ of research per se, but rather with the presence (or absence, in our case) of a critical intellectual sensibility, academic tradition and professional practice that can make an informed and compassionate intervention in the way our urban spaces are structured and lived today.


But where do we begin? In challenging our wholesale adoption of western planning ideologies, I do not mean to advocate an equally problematic embrace of all ideologies Indian. Again, the key is not simply to reject or accept all material from this or that source or historical period, but rather, to inculcate a particular critical intellectual attitude towards all our disciplinary traditions and practices. So, for instance, ancient Indian theological treatises and commentaries are not automatically relevant to our modern context just because they are Indian. Similarly, pre-colonial literature on cities and towns is also of only limited use because it is characterized mostly by biographical writings, which do not provide a critical analysis of a town.8

We must distinguish between biographies and focused studies based on explicitly formulated hypotheses. It is only this latter, critical perspective that allows us to begin to understand the nature of the Indian city, its dynamics of its institutions, the contours of its social-psychological make-up and the ethos of its urban classes. There have been few such attempts to understand the complexity of the urban condition in India with the major exception of the Report of the National Commission on Urbanization (NCU).9 But the NCU Report is a largely forgotten exercise today.


To begin, therefore, one could continue from where the NCU Report left off in 1986. The report took into account the singularity of our urban condition, which derives from the fact that our society has widely plural characteristics – temporally, culturally, and economically. Such a condition does not exist in other societies, old or new, and while we may gain insights through cross-cultural references on certain issues, it does not eliminate the need to do our own homework.

In urban planning terms, in India, not one, but several disparate circumstances need to be reconciled simultaneously: neat suburban developments with homogenous populations and the persistence of the heterogeneous ‘chaotic’ traditional settlements; the city of the ‘haves’ and the city of the ‘have-nots’; Lutyens’ baroque city and the qasba; the automobile and the bicycle and so on. With few models available anywhere to help conceptualize such heterogeneity, so town planners in India will have to become increasingly self-referential. Notwithstanding the problems and pitfalls inherent in capturing this changing perspective, there are promising avenues that can be fruitfully explored.

One such area of enquiry lies in the field of urban conservation. With the establishment of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in 1984, there was a focused interest in the conservation of our built heritage. It soon became clear that the dominant western conservation practice – that sought to maintain museum-like conditions – could not be a viable model for India and that we would have to view our heritage in developmental terms. This was the underlying premise of INTACH’s ‘heritage zone’ concept.

There is reason to believe that this concept has a wider application.10 INTACH’s projects demonstrated that a study of traditional settlements with a view to developing them offers an appropriate strategy for urban planners to plan or renew other parts of the city as well. Such a perspective will inevitably force modern urban planners to abandon the Handbook approach and focus on the particularities of the built-up areas within towns. These pre-colonial parts of the city have so far been neglected by civic authorities, academics, policy-makers and urban planners. However, these traditionally evolved settlements are the repositories of culturally embedded methods and devices of urban planning which, rooted as they are in local material and social culture, offer valuable insights for planning contemporary cities.11


Having worked with INTACH on conservation-oriented development proposals for historic cities such as Varanasi, Ujjain, Old Bhubaneswar and Chanderi, I can state with a certain degree of confidence that apparently intractable urban problems can be resolved.12 Half a century back Patrick Geddes had already convincingly demonstrated that this was possible in a manner that the modern town planner needs to re-examine. Geddes regarded the city as an organic system that was amenable to a carefully structured process of ‘healing and natural growth’. His approach was context-specific and, as such, was both locally effective and satisfactory.13


The urban conservation projects that INTACH undertook were also, by their very nature, context-specific. They required us to look closely at the origins of specific local problems in order adequately to understand their particular characteristics. This process enabled us to develop responses tailor-made for the issue at hand rather than struggling clumsily and autocratically to impose predetermined solutions derived from inappropriate contexts.

This did not mean that there were no overarching objectives guiding our work. We accepted, for example, such broad objectives as the need to improve the quality of life at the local level, achieve sustainable development at the social level and a ‘people-first’ approach to problem-solving in general. Of course, there were other specific issues too, such as accepting the evidence of tradition as the norm, but suffice it to say that this was a different way of conceiving the city in terms of settlement density, social heterogeneity and economic mix than that we had been trained to expect.

These historic cities possessed an urban character not seen in those other parts of the city developed by modern town planners. While they had real problems – such as infrastructural inadequacies and other forms of deprivation – as urban typologies they were both satisfying and appropriate models for re-imagining the Indian city. What emerged in our work was the possibility of creating what Robert Venturi terms a ‘both-and’ environment and the lesson we learnt was that this condition is, in fact, the deep structure of Indian urbanism which has been obscured by modern urban planning practices.14

When confronted with such views urban planners invariably respond by claiming that they necessitate radically new ways of town planning practice which are legally, practically and politically unfeasible. As enthusiasts of unbridled globalization and proponents of the ‘India Shining’ brand of urban development, these urban planners strenuously contest the aesthetics of ‘both-and’ environments. Ironically, however, it is exactly such a radical ‘both-and’ aesthetic that underpins the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), which aims to put into practice the principles enunciated in the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India that mandate a radically different, decentralized planning and development process.

JNNURM targets 63 cities for renewal. If urban planners have the courage to re-evaluate their professional legacy and contemporary obligations and to seize the opportunity presented by JNNURM, they could usher in long-overdue and far-reaching changes in the way urban planning is practiced in India.15 It is only through such changes that the profession will be able to engage meaningfully with the complexity of Indian urbanism.



1. David Satterthwaite, Understanding Asian Cities. Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Bangkok, 2003. The cities studied were Beijing (China); Pune (India); Chiang Mai (Thailand); Phnom Penh (Cambodia); Karachi (Pakistan); Muntinlupa (Manila, Philippines); Hanoi (Vietnam); and Surabaya (Indonesia).

2. Veena Talwar Oldenburg, Making of Colonial Lucknow: 1856-1877. Princeton University Press, Princeton,1984.

3. Arindam Dutta, The Bureaucracy of Beauty: Design in the Age of its Global Reproducibility. Routledge, New York, 2007.

4. B.T. Talim, PWD Handbook, Chapter II, Town Planning (10th edition). Director, Government Printing and Stationary, Bombay, 1976.

5. Stephen Legg, ‘Post-Colonial Develop-mentalities: From the Delhi Improvement Trust to the Delhi Development Authority’, in Saraswati Raju, M. Satish Kumar and Stuart Corbridge (eds.), Post-Colonial Geographies of India. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006.

6. It is often assumed that it is difficult to understand a Third World metropolis. The truth is that this has rarely been attempted. A recent attempt by the World Bank might serve as a useful model: Rakesh Mohan, Understanding the Developing Metropolis: Lessons from the City Study of Bogota and Cali, Colombia, World Bank and Oxford University Press, 1994. The ACHR report cited above is another example.

7. Oldenburg, op. cit. Even the chapter titles of her book make for an insightful commentary on the contemporary imperatives of town planners: ‘The City Must Be Safe’ (where she discusses demolitions and the building of segregated enclaves); ‘The City Must Be Orderly’ (the disciplining role of the police and the municipal committee); ‘The City Must Be Clean’ (sanitation and building bye-laws which changed the morphology of the city and, hence, its social livability); ‘The City Must Pay’ (the concept of penal tax); and ‘The City Must Be Loyal’ (the making of a loyal elite).

8. S.C. Misra, ‘Urban History in India: Possibilities and Perspectives’, in Indu Banga (ed.), The City in Indian History, Urban Demography, Society and Politics. Manohar Publications, Delhi, 1981.

9. The National Commission on Urbanization Report (2 Volumes). Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation, Government of India, New Delhi, 1988.

10. A.G. Krishna Menon, ‘Conservation in India: A Search for Directions’, Architecture + Design, 1989.

11. A.G. Krishna Menon, Cultural Identity and Urban Development. INTACH, New Delhi, 1989.

12. Unpublished reports available upon request at INTACH, 71, Lodi Estate, New Delhi, India.

13. Jacqueline Tyrwhitt (ed.), Patrick Geddes in India. Lund Humphries, London, 1947. For an interesting commentary on the issue of context-specificity, see A.K. Ramanujan, ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (New Series) 23(1), 1989.

14. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966. Indeed, one is tempted to paraphrase Venturi’s oft-quoted comment on the Main Street: ‘Traditional cities are almost always alright!’

15. Several seminars and workshops have been organized by the Institute of Town Planners, India. See D.S. Meshram, ‘Changes Needed in State, Municipal and Town Planning Acts Consistent with the Constitution 74th Amendment Act, 1992: An Overview’, Journal of ITPI 12(3), March 1994, 157.