Mumbai’s new draft development plan has evoked massive public outrage. The plan, which may serve as the urban planning blueprint for the city for the next 20 years, has been criticised as patently myopic, misdirected, inaccurate and in essence disastrous. But none of this uproar has upset the plan’s author, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. The corporation has dismissed all criticism of the draft as based either on a misreading or a misunderstanding. It fails to realise that a cross-section of Mumbai’s residents have raised objections not simply to this proposal or that – but to the conception, the framework and the process that has fashioned this plan. What is being challenged here is not what the development plan means for Mumbai – but what the planners mean by “development” and “planning”.

As we shall see, how one uses the words “development” and “planning” determines the approach they adopt. Let us look at how the MCGM uses these words and how others do.

Development for what?

Let us begin with “development”. The MCGM has been faithful to the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act of 1966, which defines development as “the carrying out of buildings, engineering, mining or other operations in, or over, or under, land or the making of any material change, in any building or land or in the use of any building or land”. Partial or complete demolition of a structure, land reclamation, redevelopment or lay-out and sub-division of land are also included in this definition.

According to this definition, demolishing homes of slum dwellers is development, building a car park in its place is development, constructing luxury complexes is development, creating a landfill is development, digging a hole is development and filling it up again is yet more development. There is not a trace in this interpretation of the ends or aims for which transformation ought to be undertaken. In this perspective, development is not for or of anything; it is something someone does to real estate – it is real estate development. For obvious reasons, the MCGM does not care to think of another definition. This one suits them just fine.

In contrast, Mahbub ul Haq of the United Nations Development Programme proposed a different way of thinking, where development is the creation of an “enabling environment” for people “to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives”. The purpose of development, this thinking goes, is “to enlarge people’s choices” by providing greater access to knowledge, nutrition and health services, secure livelihoods, security, leisure, and political participation, all of which income or growth figures do not adequately capture.

Amartya Sen too described development as the creation of social opportunities. In his book ‘Development as Freedom’, he argued that development ought to be seen as a process that removes various “unfreedoms” (or social and economic constraints) that leave people with little choice or opportunity to exercise their “reasoned agency”. This elimination of “substantial unfreedoms” – by becoming literate and numerate, being able to actively participate in political affairs and so on – is constitutive of development.

There are others too who differ widely from the narrow view taken by the MCGM, which equates development simply with economic and physical growth.

Article 1 of the Declaration on the Right to Development adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1986 proclaimed the right to development as an “inalienable right” that entitles people to “participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development”. Its Article 2 recognises the “human person” as the “central subject of development” who should be an “active participant and beneficiary of the right to development”.

Furthermore, in two rulings, one in 1985 and the other in 1996, the Supreme Court had provided an interpretation of the Right to Life identical to basic human rights, which includes access to food, water, decent environment, education, medical care and shelter.

Even the report of the Urban Development Plan Formulation and Implementation Guidelines – an important guidebook for urban planners in India – understands development as human development. The “primary objective of planned development effort”, says the report, is to ensure the “adequacy [of] and accessibility” to health, educational, socio-cultural and recreational facilities. These are the basic requirement for urban life, and urban managers and administrators are “required to make special efforts to devise innovative strategies in order to ensure their wider coverage and equitable distribution for the society as a whole and the vulnerable sections of the urban society in specific”.

So, to summarise, let us go over what development is.

It is the achievement of “substantive freedoms” and the distribution of opportunities within society. It requires the creation of an enabling environment that provides all people the possibility of expanding their capabilities as rational and creative beings. This “enabling environment” is constituted by access to institutions of learning, health and well-being, adequate shelter, leisure and culture; by opportunities of empowering work, democratic management and control of own affairs. It implies participation in collectively shaping their present and future, and the ability to draw equitably from the fruits of growth and change.

Once accepted, and committed to, three consequences follow from this view of development. The first requires a comprehensive understanding of the conditions, needs and priorities of the inhabitants of the city. The second demands a clear formulation of assessable objectives for the achievement of human development goals. The third involves the identification of the most appropriate means for the fulfilment of the stated objectives.

All three can only be arrived at through a collaborative process and hence presuppose a vibrant and functioning urban democracy. All three also happen to be the basic ingredients of the second of the two concepts we are considering, namely “planning”.

Planning for whom?

Planning, conceived broadly, is the use of coherent means for the achievement of a given set of objectives after understanding the constraints, resources at hand and predictable consequences of intervention. But is there a difference between planning used in the broad sense, and town or city planning as practiced by urban planners? Unfortunately, urban planning has suffered historically due to the difficult problem of conceptually separating “physical” from “social” planning, and the relation between physical and other kinds of planning. It has also suffered from a serious fallacy: the notion that planning is a purely “technical” or “scientific” activity, requiring trained and qualified experts, and that planning is not in the least sense “political”.

The MCGM regurgitates the confusion and the fallacy when it states that Mumbai’s development plan is “largely a spatial plan” with a narrow “sphere of operation”, and that all that it can do is to provide “a spatial framework” for “development of land and built space that can fulfil the aspirations of all sections of the society”.

There have been many political traditions in the history of urban planning. It includes the authoritarian-monumental tendency exemplified by Baron Hausmann in Paris, Daniel Burnham’s Chicago, Albert Speer’s Berlin, Edwin Lutyens’s New Delhi and Moscow under Stalin. It includes the bureaucratic-capitalist tendency exemplified by Corbusier’s Chandigarh and Robert Moses’s New York. It also includes the libertarian-socialist tradition as subscribed to by planners such as Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and Colin Ward. In addition to these, there is a more mainstream approach that has been the result of welfare state policies. Over a century of reforms, this approach has shaped the instruments of modern urban planning – zoning and land use, the concept of public goods, environmental regulations, density and amenity norms, etc.

As these instances show, urban planning has always been political, and notwithstanding the technocratic pretensions of MCGM planners, even the current plan is based on a powerful political ideology.

This ideology views all state protections and regulatory measures as market distorting, and hence proceeds to dismantle the tools of urban planning and their welfare orientation. The “new planning paradigm” that the MCGM boasts of is a recalibrated process aimed at creating investment opportunities and facilitating private enterprise. As a result of this doctrine, the planner, traditionally an adversary of the developer, has now become his promoter. The state, meanwhile, has turned into a zealous agent of capital. Its focus is no longer the achievement of social goals and redistribution of wealth; it is dedicated to fostering private wealth generation and physical growth.

Guided by ‘the market’

What about the three basic ingredients of planning we mentioned above? How comprehensively has the plan understood the conditions, needs and priorities of city dwellers? What are the assessable objectives that it sets up, and how effective are the means to achieve them?

Let us first look at the assessable objectives of the plan. The MCGM offers the vision of a “competitive, inclusive and sustainable” city. However, the planners fail to provide parameters for these aspirations, making them impossible to evaluate. For example, it could be suggested that in order to be sustainable, the city must cut down carbon emissions and restrict private automobile use; these objectives would then become assessable if targets were set up. No such objectives or targets are identified in the plan.

In fact, planners now refuse to identify clear objectives and substitutes goals with nebulous vision and mission statements. And since there are no goals, there can hardly be any means to get to them. Hence, the MCGM condemns the “outdated” view that “planners can decide what the desirable future should be” as a “myth” that resulted in “deterministic and prescriptive” plans. The plan, says MCGM, must instead be “a broad framework within which market could operate to respond to evolving needs of the citizens”.

Though it is indisputable that planners must not decide for people, it does not occur to the MCGM that people can, and must decide for themselves, and that often people seek to reject and alter market outcomes. The market, according to this “new paradigm”, is the omniscient guide and determinant of the city’s future. It is no longer one of the instruments for the allocation of goods and services; it is the organising principle of urban life. It is an end in itself.

Finally, how comprehensively have the planners understood the needs, conditions and priorities of the city? For the first time in its history, the MCGM organised consultations with various groups over a month to discuss the surveys it undertook for the plan’s preparation. Though conceded under intense public pressure, this was a welcome step. Unfortunately, very little of the input received has informed the draft plan. Still, even a “stakeholder consultation” is not the best way to understand the complexities of a city. Only detailed, democratic processes can reveal the activities of people, the quality and condition of their environments and social services, their opportunities for engaging in empowering work, their associations and other essential aspects of everyday life – all of which are better indicators of their future wants and needs.

The MCGM concedes in its report that the draft plan is not really a “plan” in the traditional sense of the term. Actually, it is also not for “development” as commonly described. What it provides is a loose regulatory framework for the real estate industry. Whether the city will ask for a real plan, or whether it will settle for just “a broad framework” is now the most crucial question.

Hussain Indorewala teaches at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture in Mumbai.