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Urban Planning for West Bengal

Urban Strategy for West Bengal

-Debashis Sen


Prime Minister of India, in his address at a National Conference on 3rd Dec 2009 suggested that government officers, city officials, planners and other stakeholders may study key issues concerting urban development and provide imaginative solutions. This was in the background of India’s increasing urbanisation that many believe would soon lead to an urban crisis unless conscious efforts are taken to avert it.

I do not wish to get into numbers. These are well known to all. I’ll merely recall that all of us present here today are witnesses to a rare event in the history of civilisation in the world: for, in the last year or two, the earth just became urban with more than 50% of its population becoming urban. Although West Bengal / India’s urban population is roughly around 28%, there is a school of thought that says that an alternative interpretation is possible, considering the population of development authorities. In any case, that urbanisation is rising at an accelerating rate is beyond doubt. There is no surprise here: on the contrary I am surprised why villagers would want to stay where they are where job, health, education and entertainment facilities are so much inferior to the cities.

Where will this tide of migrating population go? There are three ways how they can be accommodated. One, is through densification of existing towns and cities. Two, is through expansion of urbanisation to the per-urban areas adjoining cities. And three, is through creation of new towns.

The third option is to me an exciting option. Not only because it throws up creative space: getting a blank canvas to paint is always the ultimate delight – but also the fact that designing decentralised miniature cities is a very good way of dispersing the additional urban population. A series of networked spaces can save our mega cities from crumbling under their own weights.

With our present day concerns on green issues, carbon trading,  inclusiveness and sustainability  - I often ask myself: if Kolkata were to be re-designed today, how would we have done it? ..Much much later, Salt Lake was designed: are we satisfied about the way it was designed? Why is Kalyani, another planned city, still not economically vibrant but Durgapur is? Is there still time to intervene in New Town, Rajarhat? Incidentally, New Town has been recognised to be a Satellite Town under JnNRUM : I was present in this meeting at Delhi recently. I have also proposed and that a unique pilot project on near Zero Energy Satellite Township may be implemented here in collaboration with the Department of Power and the Brooklyn National Laboratory, USA. An energy audit will be conducted within December this year as a part of this project.

In fact, the Government of West Bengal has just commissioned a study instituted regarding “Strategy for Green Urban Spaces” with assistance from DFID. In its inception meeting held recently, I indicated that the way building rules these days encourage energy efficient designs, could we think of green town plan rules that’d be much more specific and detailed – eg 8 lane periphery road for 1 million plus cities - than what we already have under the T&CP Act ? How can we plan for the Ranigunj resettlement project?.. What would be the considerations for converting a tea garden near Jaigaon into New Jaigaon? ..Do specialised towns perform better? In fact the McKinsey report has conclusively shown that specialised towns – for example steel township of Durgapur– have done better economically. Can Burdwan be posed as a Health city? Will a Financial Hub in New Town speed up its growth?

Charles Correa has recently commented that new ribbon cities now need to be developed that would be friendly to mass rapid transport systems, and that cities should be built around metro rails and not vice versa. Matrix zones like in Salt Lake are unfriendly for rapid urban transport systems. ...Michel de Certeau puts it beautifully: “there’s always a clash between the impersonal cartographic gaze of administrators who envision the city as architecture, and the outward gaze of the pedestrian”. Damayanti Datta says that the clash is nowhere more apparent than in the idea of walkability; and that though a key question asked by anyone in a new neighbourhood is “where can I walk to from here?’ , walking is almost entirely neglected by urban planners in India. I, on my part, can talk about the effort now being made by us to break the decades old division of Salt Lake into Residential and non-Residential zones.

In my view, the urban strategies have not involved the key stakeholders in a strategic manner. The Civil Society should be engaged as a partner in all planning exercises so that the plans made are in tune with the needs of a rapidly evolving urban scenario. Recently, a stakeholders’ consultation was held by the State government on framing a policy for street vendors. It was argued that there is a street economy in all cities of the world and therefore footpaths always have vendors. There must be recognition of this fact and provision made after balancing conflicting demands. One suggestion was that informal vending zones must be provided for 2.5% of a town’s population. While the Government of India has been advocating for a total slum free approach through JnNRUM and RAY (Rajiv Awas Yojana) that is expected to be launched nationally in early October, the fact remains that slums are not static but dynamic, acting as a stepping stone for the rural urban migration and that there must be a conscious policy of providing affordable housing for the poor. And in doing so, I repeat, there must be active and meaningful consultation with the key stakeholders and like an EIA, there may be a PIA (Planning Impact Assessment) with a public hearing for bigger projects, in partnership with the civil society.

It is not enough that urban service is available to a city dweller but that there should be a minimum guaranteed service level: the Govt of India has recently published certain Service Level Benchmarks (eg 135 lpcd and 24x7 water for all, segregated solid waste management etc). Based on this, plans should be made that culminate into a shelf of bankable projects, where the private sector may also participate in partnership with the public sector. In a report called “Urban Infrastructure though PPP (Punlic Private Partnership)” that I submitted to Govt of India this week, I have, highlighted this issue but have  also recommended that the interests of the poor must be kept in view by providing output based subsidies.

I will conclude by saying that planning for the urban zone must transform itself from conventional approaches of Land Use Zoning to the broader issues of economy, governance and projectisation.