A spatial approach to local planning
By T.R. Raghunandan, 02 Nov 2018

This blog is part of a series on policy decisions, the causes and consquences of the Kerala floods. The first blog can be found here and the previous blog here

To say that there must be a spatial approach to local planning, would sound like the ultimate cliché. Is there any other approach? One might well ask. However, the fact that spatial considerations are dismissed during local planning, is clear in the kinds of violations that come to light when there is a natural disaster. The floods in Bangalore a couple of years back resulted in plenty of damage to houses along the drainage canals – the Rajakaluves. So did the floods in Uttarakhand, where houses perilously closed to the banks of the Ganga were washed away. However, in both cases, these buildings ought not to have been there in the first place; they were encroachments and unauthorised constructions.

In Kerala, the creeping occupation of paddy lands through slow conversion into coconut gardens, and then house sites, is against the law that prevents the construction of buildings in such low lying areas. However, these considerations are ignored, till damage is suffered in a flood.

It is paradoxical that in Kerala, which takes a participatory approach to the process of budgeting, there is not as much participation in the process of spatial planning. Campaign mode participatory planning approaches in the state have focused on how budgets for local governments should be spent, with little regard for where the facilities on which they are spent are to be located. This has resulted in a dichotomy, with spatial planning remaining a technocratic process, whilst budgeting has been invested with participatory processes.

Kerala passed a new Town and Country Planning Act in 2016, which provides for Perspective plan preparation at the State, District and Metropolitan areas, Master Plans for Municipalities and Panchayats and Detailed Town Planning Schemes within each local government. The master plan is the key document, and it is supposed to include a situational analysis of the present state of development, a long term development concept and strategy for about 20 years. It also includes land use proposals, development control regulations and infrastructure development plans, which covers the hierarchy of commercial areas, dispersal of commercial activities and industries, population assignment, space requirement for various activities and designating land use for various activities such as reserving land for ecologically sensitive areas. In furtherance of these, regulations for land use are also to be put down, including details like FAR, height and number of storeys and other density related matters.

That sounds wonderful, but it hasn’t worked in the past. Equal to the effort put in to make master plans, is the effort made to ignore them. Master plans are seen as narrow, regulatory instruments that impose unwarranted and inflexible restrictions on land use. Therefore, even the Municipalities that are supposed to follow them, disregard them in favour of short term, day to day approaches towards building licence sanction. There is tension between the Town Planning Department that makes master plans and the Municipalities, which choose to ignore them. Finally, the absence or violation of master planning is only noticed when large scale problems arise as in the recent floods.

Seen from that angle, the natural answer would be that Kerala needs to enforce the compliance to its master plans. However, that in itself would be hampered because many of the Municipalities do not have currently valid or updated Master Plans.

But even as we go down the conventional approach of strict compliance to master plans, internationally, there has been a growing disillusionment with conventional master planning! This is a paradox, because internationally, in the developed world, the trend is to make master planning flexible and participatory, whereas we might still be going down the path of adopting top-down, technical and expert-driven approaches to master planning and land-use zoning, which are at odds with community priorities, leading to poor ownership of master plans and implementation failure.

The Kerala report puts it succinctly when it says;

“The disconnect between people and master plans have led to two trends. Where Master Plans are strongly enforced, those who cannot afford to comply have been pushed out to areas where they can evade detection, such as slums. Where Governments have lacked the capacity to enforce master plans, it has led to a free for all where even the fundamental norms of master planning are ignored. Either way, unrealistic planning regulations have directly contributed to the exacerbation of poverty and spatial marginalization, forcing the poor to violate laws in order to survive”.

The report also points out that another reason for the discrediting of conventional master planning has been the fragmentation of the responsibility for its preparation and implementation in various departments and local government levels. In particular, this has delinked the directive aspects of spatial planning from day to day regulation and land-use management. Furthermore, when spatial plans were not linked to how budgets are prepared and funds allocated, the ensuing lack of coordination has resulted in spatial plans being simply ignored in the scheme of things. This leads to a paradox; departments concerned with urban infrastructure often ignore master plans in the face of the need to solve emergent problems, overlooking the fact that if Master Plans were indeed complied with, these problems might not have emerged in the first place.

So, if that is the case; if we are at one level opposed to master planning as it is unrealistic, but at the same time fear that the absence of some regulation will lead to a free for all with disastrous environmental consequences, is there a golden mean somewhere?

More about that in my next blog.

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