Not quite masterful

Not quite masterful: Cities are India’s economic engines. They need more flexible plans to grow

Not quite masterful: Cities are India’s economic engines. They need more flexible plans to grow: Cities are India’s economic powerhouses and a magnet for a large rural population seeking a better life. Delhi, which is expected to accommodate almost 30 million people in the next two decades, has just prepared a draft master plan 2041 (MPD41). Master plans in India generally cover 20-year periods and provide a blueprint to coordinate urban development based on population projections. Other big cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata are also periodically guided by master plans or urban development plans.

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But for all the urban planning done in India, results have been dismal. There are three reasons for this. First, around half the population of a typical Indian city is in slums, seeking a livelihood in informal jobs. Urban planning has strangely glossed over this core feature. Second, documents such as master plans that cover two decades are too rigid and don’t allow enough room for play of market forces. The nature of economic activity can transform dramatically in this time. Finally, while master plans are important because they play a coordinating role in urban growth and adaptation, the defining feature of Indian cities is the lack of coordination between institutions that oversee urban development.

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MPD41 promises to set right some of these flaws. The plan aims to address three big challenges common to many Indian cities. Affordable housing is to be ramped up, there’s an attempt to disincentive private transport, since poor air quality is a public health hazard, and the planning process prioritises economic activity. The means to achieve them include land pooling and densification of core areas through enhanced floor space index. On paper, these are sensible. Delhi is the main economic engine in one of the most populous parts of India. But if MPD41 isn’t to be as underwhelming as earlier plans, execution will have to radically improve.