Diana Jue-Rajasingh

The Atlantic: India’s Trickiest Urban Planning Obstacle? Gandhi’s Legacy

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on August 17, 2012

My college roommate and fellow urban planning nerd, Esther, just posted this article from The Atlantic to my Facebook wall. The article discusses India’s general bias toward rural areas as opposed to urban areas and its effect on cities. Much of this bias is rooted in the view of one of India’s founding fathers, Mohandas Gandhi. In a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, he wrote, “I am convinced that if India is to attain true freedom, and through India the world also, then sooner or later the fact must be recognized that people will have to live in villages, not towns; in huts, not in palaces. Crores [tens of millions] of people will never be able to live in peace with each other in towns and palaces.” I’ve personally heard and seen this bias throughout my years of research in India. There are so many nongovernmental organizations and government schemes to support rural development.

Unfortunately, this also means that there is a lack of technical expertise in and political support for India’s rapidly sprawling cities. The height regulations and zoning restrictions are outdated and prevent the density that urban areas and public transit systems require. Unlike in China, where scarcity of livable land, booming population, and strong central government have resulted in master planned cities, India’s cities are far behind. I know of Chinese students in urban planning who were instantly recruited into well-respected, high-paying planning jobs, but I know of zero urban planning programs in India (except for the one offered by the Institute of Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, which is just getting started and began as a joint project with MIT professors). From what I’ve seen, there seems to be little technical expertise within India’s city planning agencies. I think that this is partly due to the structure of the Indian Administrative Service, which reshuffles officers so frequently that it’s hard for them to gain real knowledge in a post.

But the article points out that even if there is technical expertise — even if there are “experts” who come in and give a planning agency a thoughtful and thorough plan — there is little chance of implementation because of the rural bias that is engrained in culture, politics, and organizational culture. The director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements believes that the greatest hope for change lies within urban youth who will enter politics and government, thus shifting attitudes at the top toward cities. What brings about positive change in urban planning is at the crux of my Fulbright research, so I’ll keep this idea in mind (and will probably swing by IIHS for a visit, a chat, and possibly more).

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