Ear to the ground

Urban planning: Why Gujarat’s cities are losing their fight against a changing climate

The state’s model of urban development favours centralisation, which means local residents do not have much say in the planning of their own city.

Urban planning has seen a lot of changes in Gujarat.

Take Rajkot. In 1973, when this town in Saurashtra became a municipality, its municipal corporation was responsible for urban planning. That changed in 1976 when Gujarat passed the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act. Following this, Urban Development Authorities were set up in Gujarat’s biggest towns, and urban planning responsibilities were divided between these new bodies and the municipalities. While municipalities would handle town plans, the Urban Development Authorities would draw up development plans.

The difference is one of scale. Development plans work on larger areas – such as planning the city’s expansion – and look 20 years to 30 years into the future. They map the broad contours of a city such as zones and road networks. Zones include categorisations like residential, industrial and green spaces. On the other hand, town plans flesh out the development plan in detail, and work on a shorter timeframe.

To understand how Rajkot is preparing for a changing climate, which has resulted in more intense heat waves and changing rainfall patterns in Gujarat, as reported in the first part of this series, it is important to look at the functioning of the Rajkot Urban Development Authority or RUDA.

How does the development authority work?

A close look at the authority’s work throws up three puzzling trends.

On water, the Rajkot Urban Development Authority has passed responsibility to the Rajkot Municipal Corporation. The authority has drawn up a Comprehensive Development Plan 2031 for Rajkot but the section of that document that refers to the demand for water in the city 15 years down the line does not mention any estimates, nor does it put up any numbers that could be used to arrive at an estimate. All it says is: “The demand of water supply in the year 2031 according to [Rajkot Municipal Corporation] will be huge.”

The document continues: “The Corporation is vigilant on this issue and therefore, it has included this issue in the master plan for long term water supply and sewerage project of Rajkot city. It is hoped that this project when implemented will satisfy the future requirement of the city with respect to water supply and sewerage.”

Instead, Rajkot Urban Development Authority mostly focuses on zoning. But move around the city’s periphery and you see it is already urbanising fast. On its outskirts, highrise buildings are coming up next to villages. According to a planning official in the development authority, the body just draws development plans for the most urbanised areas and then hands over the area to the municipal corporation.

While doing this, the development authority does not leave much land for green zones, which help cool cities.

A town planner who has worked in both the Rajkot Municipal Corporation and the Rajkot Urban Development Authority, who did not want to be identified, explained why this was the case. He said planners can take 30%-40% of a landowner’s land for a public purpose according to the authority’s rules. “Half of that will go into roads,” he said. “Some more will go into civic infrastructure. The rest goes into parks and gardens. You will not get as much green zone as desired.”

 (Photo credit: M Rajshekhar).
(Photo credit: M Rajshekhar).

The big puzzle

The Rajkot Urban Development Authority’s focus on zoning – to the exclusion of everything else – is key to understanding how the authority works. It is partly explained by how Rajkot gets land for urban expansion.

In Andhra Pradesh for instance, the government resorted to land-pooling to build its new capital of Amaravati, aggregating land from landowners seeking to develop the city as an integrated whole. In Dholera, at the site of what is being marketed as India’s first smart city, Gujarat used eminent domain – the power of the state to appropriate private property for public use – to acquire land. But the Rajkot Urban Development Authority follows a different model. Land ownership stays with private individuals here. Apart from the 30% to 40% the development authority takes away for public purpose, the only restriction placed on how landowners use that land is zoning.

This has led to two outcomes.

One, people build what they want on their land and the development authority takes those structures as a given and zones accordingly. “We take what exists on the ground and build a scheme out of it,” said the development authority official. “The shape on the ground is what we are legalising.”

Second, this creates significant pressure on the development authority to allot land for profitable ventures like residential complexes.

Another Rajkot Urban Development Authority official, who also did not want to be identified, said there is a lot of pressure to not zone land as green. “When we do zoning, land owners come and lobby for changes,” the official said.

Some landowners are very influential. “Rajkot has 10 to 15 major groups who are very active in politics, the builder space and education,” said Kaushik Mehta, the editor of Phulchhab, a Rajkot-headquartered Gujarati language newspaper.

Added Nilesh Virani, president of the Rajkot Zilla Parishad and board member of the Rajkot Urban Development Authority: “Not only do these people get zoning changed, they also decide which areas RUDA should develop first. Rajkot is growing to the West. That is because politicians own land there .”

A person in his office added that the biggest builders in Rajkot are connected to state politicians.

It is not surprising that land owners lobby. Urbanisation exponentially multiplies the value of land. As Virani reckoned, “Five years ago, land 15 km away from Rajkot – to the West – was Rs 25 lakh per hectare. Now, it is Rs 75 crore per hectare.”

Such arbitrary zoning changes make the city vulnerable to climate change. So, why does the urban development authority agree?

A question of local governance

The answer could lie in the Rajkot Urban Development Authority board. Of its 10 members, eight are bureaucrats.

According to Virani, the bureaucrats work according to the directions of the state government. “If a politician is the chairman, the interference will be visible,” he said. “And so, they only make bureaucrats the chairmen.”

This is a problem. As Saswat Bandopadhyay, faculty member in the department of planning at Ahmedabad’s CEPT University, said: “India’s democratic architecture for a town means it should be run by the urban municipal corporation which reports to locally elected councillors.”

What Gujarat has instead are the urban development authorities which, run by bureaucrats, report to the urban planning department and the chief minister’s office.

Scroll.in sent questions to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and Vikrant Pandey, chairman of Rajkot Urban Development Authority. They did not respond. This article will be updated if they do.

In recent years, the scope for local planning has shrunk even further, said a senior engineer in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation. Increasingly, he said, “Development plans are made in Gandhinagar and sent down to us.”

The bigger picture here is about local governance.

Ahmedabad-based lawyer Anand Yagnik said that the Urban Development Authorities are unconstitutional bodies. “They have taken over powers which should have been with district- and metropolitan committees, apart from the municipal corporation,” he said.

This has a direct link to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Yagnik added: “The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments are supposed to democratise planning. These are meant to break the bureaucracy’s control over planning and transfer power to the elected. Decentralisation is supposed to result in accountability.”

Little here is unique to Gujarat. Local governance is in shambles across India. Almost two years ago, in Punjab, KR Lakhanpal, a former chief secretary of Punjab, told this correspondent: “All governments are guilty of not giving local bodies their due.”

He said that there is competition between the Centre, state and local governance bodies in India, and gradually, political parties are weakening local bodies. “The essence of a constitutional democracy is limited power,” said Lakhanpal. “The state is prone to excess and misuse of power specially for self aggrandising and attacking the Opposition.”

Yagnik agreed. “Decentralisation and devolution is the unfinished business of constitutional democracy in India,” he said.

When decentralisation and devolution are missing, the outcome is a system where local residents do not have much say in the planning of their own city.

“Are there any regulations here on where the town should expand?” asked Bandopadhyay. “Such a case is underway in Surat right now when a bunch of farmers, angry about SUDA [Surat Urban Development Authority] requisitioning their land, went to court.”

The new urban centre

All this is a far cry from how Gujarat has developed its cities in the past.

The Indus Valley Civilisation settlement at Dholavira in Kutch, for instance, dating to between 3000 BCE-1800 BCE, is a well-planned citadel ringed by water tanks. Even in more recent times, urban planning was quite consultative. As urban historian Esther David, who has written a book on Ahmedabad, told this reporter. “This is not how Ahmedabad was planned. Before AUDA [Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority] came into being, the municipal corporation worked through something called the citizens committee. Headed by the chief engineer, it had members who tried to ensure the city’s people were comfortable circulating in it.”

With urban planning now the responsibility of Urban Development Authorities, not municipal corporations, the brunt of the fallout has landed on the municipalities. They have to provide roads, water and sewers in the areas urban development authorities add to the city but lack the financial resources to do so.

Ruins of the well-planned Indus Valley Civilisation settlement at Dholavira, Kutch.  (Photo credit: M Rajshekhar).
Ruins of the well-planned Indus Valley Civilisation settlement at Dholavira, Kutch. (Photo credit: M Rajshekhar).

What kind of cities come up in such a set-up?

Bandopadhyay pointed out that cities under Urban Development Authorities have basic infrastructure – roads, water and drainage – but there is no thought given to public health, for instance. “When sewerage and sanitation is not adequate, you will have malarial and other vectors breeding,” he said. “You will see heat waves.”

He added that at the same time, the hydrology of these towns is completely distorted. Local water bodies are hemmed in. “If a region comes under the ‘no go’ area, influential people get it changed,” said Bandopadhyay. “If there is a water body, then no more than 10 metres is left on either side.” This increases the risk of flooding. At the same time, given the lack of attention given to water supply while expanding the city, these cities will have to depend on water brought in from outside.

There’s also the lack of green spaces.

In Rajkot, as green spaces get pushed steadily to the periphery, the city is gradually warming up. A town planner with the Rajkot Municipal Corporation said: “Our summer temperatures are now around 46 degrees Celsius to 47 degrees Celsius. They are up by 1 degree [Celsius].”

A senior official in the Chief Minister’s Office defended the low allocation to green spaces. “Land use planning will always suffer from this,” the official said. “This is about equal opportunity to everyone. What paap [sin] has someone done for his land to be marked as a park?” The official’s contention was that landowners should get the “natural advantage” of their location – that is, be able to monetise it.

But Rajasekar, the environmental consultant, challenged this view. Each ward should have a green space, he said. Such a space should not be more than a kilometre’s walk from any point in the ward, he added.

High-rise residential buildings on the outskirts of Rajkot. (Photo credit: M Rajshekhar).
High-rise residential buildings on the outskirts of Rajkot. (Photo credit: M Rajshekhar).

The bigger question

All this adds up to a confused picture. Gujarat seems to be taking small steps forward towards urban sustainability while simultaneously taking large leaps backwards. For instance, the Gujarat government’s climate change department is rolling out a programme for LED lighting, which are more energy efficient than other forms of lighting, and rainwater harvesting is compulsory, according to Shwetal Shah, technical advisor with the department. But these measures coexist with wider deficiencies in planning – like making arrangements for water supply or demarcating enough land for green zones.

Bandopadhyay agreed. “These are retrofitted solutions,” he said. “Based on the symptom, you have responded. What you have in Gujarat is an outcome where the resilience and development plans do not talk to each other.”

This is seen repeatedly across Gujarat. For instance, Ahmedabad has a Heat Action Plan but has also lost a lot of tree cover in the last 20 years. By 2030, vegetation will cover just 3% of the city’s area.

Or take the Gujarat government itself. It has a department for climate change but its work on combating air and water pollution is parlous. While air pollution boosts the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the air and accelerates climate change, water pollution reduces potable water stocks, subsequently undermining the state’s work to drought-proof itself.

Put it all together and you get a sense of the state’s ability to respond to climate variability.

It is not clear if even local bodies can solve this problem on their own, said GK Bhat, the founder of Taru, an environmental consultancy based in Ahmedabad. “The thing with climate change is that actions have to be taken across many departments,” he said. “It is not just something the MOEF [Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change] has to do. It is also about the Ministry of Urban Development, the Ministry of Earth Sciences, and many more. If there is a flood, who is responsible? It is work that multiple departments have to do. The district administration has a role, so does irrigation, IMD [India Meteorological Department] at the state and district level, and the Central Water Commission [for water flow] and so on.”

In the absence of integrated thinking, the result is predictable. Across India, people are being left to deal with climate change on their own. They do this in different ways.

In Tamil Nadu, fishermen cope by fishing in Sri Lankan waters, while migration is one response of the people in Bihar and Odisha to increasingly unviable livelihoods in their home states. In Gujarat, cooling appliances – which release hot air into the atmosphere warming up cities further – are another coping mechanism.

This is the concluding part of a two-part series. The first part can be read here.

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