August 28, 2022

Instead of Liveable Cities, Unequal and Unsustainable Urbanisation

Tikender Singh Panwar

“HELL is a city much like London…….”, wrote P B Shelly exactly two centuries back, defining life in the British capital. After 75 years of independence when we are celebrating our freedom and the developmental trajectory that we trudged, our cities are no better than what Shelly defined for his own city a long time back.

Currently, Indian cities are marred with massive alienation of the people in the planning process; liveability in itself is a big question; garbage and sanitation pose serious threats leading to diseases; the social infrastructure is getting beyond the reach of the common people; the housing problem is leading to the proliferation of slums-no big wonder that currently, 40 per cent of the urban population is residing in slums as the formal housing models have failed considerably. Huge inequality and concentration of wealth in a few hands is a stark reality in Indian cities.

The paradigm shift in the political economy of the cities, from large manufacturing hubs to more informal sector and services has brought in large-scale precariousness of the urban labour. The massive migration of the people from the rural to urban and also from urban to urban has no redressal to issues of decent living and proper wages. The governance structure has also changed considerably from the city councils to the bureaucrat-driven special purpose vehicle(SPV) model.

But this does not discount the fact that immediately after independence there were some positive interventions, and given the reality that India had to create new spaces for a large number of refugees from the partition, the response of the Indian government was in the form of small townships built to accommodate them.

The 75 years of the urban journey can be placed in three distinct periods-first one from 1947 to the 1990s, the second one from 1990 to 2014, and the third one from 2014 and still continuing.

The first period is also called the Nehruvian model of building Indian cities. The context in which this development model was built is quite interesting.

Nearly 15 million refugees, immediately after partition, Bengal famine(1943), and post-World War II; such is the reality in which India got independence and had to carve a path of development. A path that could lead to industrial development, self-sufficiency in food grains, ensuring housing for the abysmally poor population and trudging a path of the industrial revolution.

This path was not possible without building cities that could cater to a large population of immigrants and migrants The decadal growth of the urban population in the 1941 -51 period is the highest owing to these reasons-41 per cent. During 1951-61 it remained high at 26 per cent. By 1971, 112 new towns were built. There was a three-fold increase in urban population from 62 million in 1951 to 159 million in 1981 to 217 million in 1991.


The Bombay plan along with the Nehruvian model of city development was the core of the planning processes of development. According to this model, State played an important role in building these cities as there was hardly any private capital that could be engaged in the process. The other moot point is that the planning was from top to bottom. The first two five-year plans guided the formation of the ministry of urban affairs, the town and country planning department and the school of planning and architecture. Planning was a tool in the hands of the State ensuring the Nehruvian principles of development.

Chandigarh and Nangal are two important cities in the North where this vision of city development is marked. Nehru whilst asking Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh warned that the city should be built in such a way that it does not turn out into a ghost city. Because a lot of refugees had come from Pakistan and had no assets or capital. Whether they will be able to buy and live in houses that are beyond their capacity was a major issue. In such a background Corbusier designed Chandigarh, not just with its majestic aesthetic beauty but ensuring that the cost of housing is kept minimal. Hence only indigenous material was allowed in construction and very less steel was used so that the cost does not exceed. Nangal, another town built for the workers constructing the Bhakra dam, is another example of inclusive planning where the houses constructed for construction workers continue to be utilised by the current management. And these houses have a front yard and a backyard with ample space for a family of five.

But post-independence towns were not just industrial towns, a lot of them are a continuity of old towns from the early settlements like Ayodhya, etc., to the Mughal towns like Agra, to the British towns like New Delhi, etc. Hence, post-independence towns are a complex mix of old and new and also a fall out of the industrial planning as envisioned by the leaders ruling after independence.


Though the post-1947 towns were built with a vision of catering to the industrial needs. However, the vision was marred with no proper land reforms and swathes of migrants migrating to the towns for better living. The towns on the other hand were not inclusively designed ensuring people’s participation and new cities and towns started developing at the peripherals and the cities started extending beyond their limits.

The planning process was conducted by parastatals mainly development authorities like the Delhi Development Authority etc., where there was hardly any democratic control. These authorities planned the cities with the outlook of creating a surplus for the industrial capital.

However, this form of the planning process of the Indian cities, limited to a few large ones, still had the element of reviewing the master plans. Things started changing in the 80s and most of the cities which were manufacturing hubs started transforming to providing services as their major economic activity. Cities known for jute and cotton textile industries since the 1960s started dwindling and so did their economies. Significant fall in manufacturing activity for workers took place in most of the industrial cities like Delhi, Bombay, Kanpur etc. Between 1981-91 the number of factory workers in Bombay for instance declined from 606,000 to 447,000, while Ahmedabad lost 50,000 mill jobs. The cotton mill spaces were then transformed into large real estates for the real estate capital to venture into the cities.

 A new kind of dualism between slums and non-slum areas erupted during this period. This transformation towards the more informal sector and most jobs in the unorganised sector along with this the shift in the government’s outlook towards services and treating them as mere utilities meant to generate profits threw a large number of the working people away from the city centres. The peripherals or the peri-urban took the spaces of housing and other activities along with the main city. Since most of these spaces were not under the ambit of planning institutions, these turned into a completely new form of urbanism which was an answer of the poor to the urban planners. Slums proliferated as the centralised planning policies faltered which could not answer the needs of a large section of the working population.

Along with this, gated communities particularly in Gujarat towns got further consolidated and a clear demarcation between Hindu and Muslim communities could be witnessed. This period of the fall of the organised working-class movement in the cities was also a period of rising of Hindu rightist groups. This is quite interesting as a phenomenon. The large organised working class in the cities was also claiming its political spaces through political actions and this was also responsible for maintaining the character of the town, secular and democratic. As the mode of production changed and the cities transformed, this also led to a large-scale shift in the organised trade union movement in the cities, a substantial part of which was dominated by the Left. This transformation into more informalisation and the inability of the organised working class movements to organise a large number of the unorganised sector workers also catapulted the rise of the Right in the cities. Cultural festivals and religious festivals were thus dominated by certain sections paving way for the consolidation of the Right in urban India.

To sum up, according to Anupama Shaw, author, “The Indian city in the post-independence period up to 1991 was  thus a city of considerable contrast with an old elite both propertied and industrial that remained cocooned in the privileges of the Raj days and its associated lifestyle, an emerging middle class comprising those with a firm base in government jobs and the security of public sector housing as well as small business owners and traders, a declining formal working class with jobs in the organised manufacturing sector and increasing numbers of poor eking out a living mostly in various kinds of services in the ubiquitous informal sector.”


The inability of the planning agencies to comprehend the demographic change in the cities pushed the cities to the peripheries with more and more areas being usurped under the urban ambit. From 1991 to 2011, around 221 towns merged. This was half the number a decade ago.

Their economy also changed substantially. Essentially the urban centres considered to be manufacturing hubs started turning into services magnets. More KPOs and BPOs were the order of the day. Bangaluru, Gurgaon etc., are examples of this transformation. However, post the 90s the shift was quite dramatic.

The profile of the cities also changed from mere managers to entrepreneurs. The cities were supposed to attract private capital for investment and hence were supposed to be competitive. Here being competitive meant to ensure reforms according to the changing paradigm of the economy. Land was a major issue; hence land laws were changed to attract investments both from the indigenous big capital and foreign capital. It is a different matter that almost 50 per cent of the investment in the urban sector still continued from the State and only 16 per cent came from the big capital that too was limited to a few cities.

Another major change witnessed was of project-oriented approach and fetching quick results was one of the outcomes. JNNURM, RAY, SCM, and AMRUT more or less with the same basic understanding of top bottom project-oriented approach for urban India.


During the 90s, a major intervention took place from the union government through the 74th constitutional amendment, pertaining to urban India. Some of the essential features of the 74th amendment addressed governance issues in urban India. It was mandated that the elections must be held after every five years. Functions, functionaries and finances must be devolved to the cities ensuring better governance. The power to collect taxes was also given to the local bodies under the act.

The governance model further stretched to people’s empowerment by mandating that there must be wards and the constitution of ward committees through ward sabhas was envisioned. Under the 12th Schedule, 18 functions were supposed to be transferred to the city governments. The foremost being planning for themselves. Hence town planning was the essence of this amendment and this should have been done by the city government.

However, with several reviews after the passing of this amendment, the core findings are that negligible work has been done in this direction. According to a study conducted by Praja, not more than three functions have been universally passed on to the city governments.

City planning nowhere in the country is done by the city government. It is the parastatals under the state governments/union government that do planning for the cities. Except for Kerala where the city plan, though prepared by parastatals is approved by the mayor and the council, nowhere it is the right of the city government. The development authorities are the ones that dominate this important area.

Despite the fact that there is a clear direction for holding elections to city governments after every five years, the state governments or the union government through some pretext plays with the time period. Delhi, Mumbai and Shimla continue to surpass their time and these cities are run by administrators currently and not by the council.

The RBI in its recent report had suggested that to ensure a sustainable model of development in the cities, the only way is by empowering the cities and their representatives. However, there is no clear direction in this regard.



The post-2014 or Modi government taking over is a continuation of the post-90s period. The features of a project-oriented approach, centralised customised planning, nexus of big consultants in developing master plans, and focus on capital-intensive technologies continue to be an essential part of urban planning. Instead of JNNURM new flagship programmes were announced. Some of which are SBM, AMRUT, and the smart city mission(SCM). The SCM was supposed to be the lighthouse of urban development in the country. However, after 2015 when most of the schemes were announced the Indian cities continue to be facing the same old problems.

During this period the Modi government also brought in another vision document for urban growth, NUPF(National Urban Policy Framework). There are 10 sutras, philosophical outlook in these 10 sutras lay emphasis not just on the privatisation of cities but also on bringing in the glory of the past Hindu rulers-ruled cities, bypassing the Mughal period altogether. Since this document was a complete mess, the government itself has not owned it, yet.

The push from the current government was for immediate showcasing of urban redevelopment projects and hence the development was based on such an absurd idea. Reforms were further pushed from the centre for the collection of taxes from the people in the form of user charges. The XVth Finance Commission has made it clear that those cities that do not implement such reforms will not be able to get grants from the centre. They are coercing cities to burden people and not allowing smooth flow of money to the cities.

Most of the plans, particularly the smart city plans are drawn by big consulting firms who are forcing the cities to adopt capital-intensive technologies and then such utilities created during the process will be made chargeable for-profit maximisation of corporates running them. Not just the mobility sector, where the push is for metros etc., even solid waste management, instead of decentralised management, waste to energy plants are being designed from the centre thus ensuring a high tipping fee to the cities, eventually raising it from the people. In a recent meeting of the urban affairs committee, it was pointed out that the user charges on waste collection in Telangana range from Rs 200 to Rs 20,000 according to the size of waste generation.

Likewise, housing has become a serious problem in the cities. The push for the Singapore-style condominium model has led to a situation where the middle class and the poor have been thrown to the peripherals of the towns. Within the cities, the poor can find housing only in unauthorised colonies. The current model, for example, the DDA 2041 master plan has abandoned the idea of providing housing to the poor, it has laid emphasis on the market to provide housing for the poor and the marginalised sections. This has created a situation where large housing complexes have not been occupied because they are beyond the scope of even the middle class to buy and on the other proliferation of slums. In such a situation, demands like rental housing and labour hostels must be creatively raised.

 After 75 years, of entering the age of artificial intelligence, where another challenge would be a major disruption in the economy and the skill challenge that we have, instead of having decent work cities, we are building highly unequal cities. This model of massive disproportion in assets and income will lead to massive unrest.

What we require are cities that are caring, participatory and democratic. In order to achieve it, the planning model must be inversed. Instead of planning from the top, this must start from the bottom quintessentially the people should plan for themselves.