Urban designers must first answer the question, whose city is it anyway: Mathew Idiculla

Mathew addresses the core concerns of urban planning in Bengaluru, including lack of legal monitoring, public participation, and a few other issues.

Mathew Idiculla is an independent legal and policy consultant based in Bengaluru. He is a visiting faculty at the School of Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University. His main area of interest is the intersection of public law, politics, and public policy and his research and practice are focused on issues concerning cities, local governance, and federalism. At Azim Premji University, he teaches courses on Urban Governance in India and Urban Development: Law and Policy.

In part one of Mathew’s interview with Citizen Matters, he addresses the core concerns of urban planning in the city, in terms of lack of legal monitoring, public participation and a few other issues. 

CM: To design or revamp any urban space on paper, what should be the ideal process?

Mathew Idiculla: All urban development is supposed to formally go by a master plan, which lays down all projects. In terms of formal requirements on how each project is to be done, there are broad guidelines, but there are no clearly laid down processes in the legal or planning framework.

In the Municipal’s Corporation Act, there are some provisions on how streets have to be developed, but these are mostly rules on regulations of streets. The master plan itself has some regulations on how urban development projects are carried out. But if you look at the formal framework and its operation, the route is not clear because multiple agencies can work on projects approved by the state, like Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), Public Works Department (PWD) and many other agencies.

The regulations cover project costs and deadlines, but the specific processes are not mentioned in a detailed manner even in the master plan. Multiple public authorities are vested with the right to call for a tender and implement a project. Ideally, it shouldn’t be so ad hoc, but that’s how it is. 

Ideally, there should be a clear framework. In the Municipal law, which is the BBMP Act and the Planning law, which is the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, there should be a clear framework on what is the process and who should do it. Currently, it is ambiguous. The state has wide powers to carry out the projects as per what they want. 

Read more: Interpreting Bengaluru’s urban development

CM: Besides the parameters mentioned with regard to all projects, what are the other specifications that must be mentioned? 

Mathew Idiculla: The regulations and guidelines, like that of the Indian Road Congress, are mostly about what should be the street design and other technical details, not what the process of development or redevelopment should be.

If this process is clearly laid out, it can make sure that different stakeholders have a voice in the system and that decisions are taken in a participative manner. The process should consider the needs, requirements and competing interests of all stakeholders. In Gandhi Bazaar, for example, the project sought to introduce certain ideas about how the street should look. But that’s not what the stakeholders, both businesses that operate on the street and the customers who come there, wanted.

There was a clear difference between what the planners and the designers had in mind versus the historical purpose the space served and what it continues to be. Of course, consultations were held, but there was no clear decision-making process.

I remember the plans constantly changing from complete pedestrianisation to partial pedestrianisation. Yet, the conflict of interest remains. The problem is the lack of a clearly defined process to make this kind of project happen.

Each project seems to have a different process. I’m not saying one formal process will solve all problems. But the point is multiple agencies have the power to indulge in specific projects. If you have enough money and follow a tendering process, it’s taken as a standard construction project, with a detailed project report (DPR) prepared and executed as an engineering project.

They have tried involving the public in a few of these projects, but there is a lack of direction on specific processes that have to be included. 

Mathew has engaged with the field of urban law and governance, for over a decade in varied ways— academic research, legal consultancy, policy engagement and public advocacy. He has been part of multiple international research projects and worked as a consultant with the Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR), Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI), and WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing). He was a legal consultant to the Expert Committee on BBMP Restructuring, Government of Karnataka and led the drafting of the Greater Bengaluru Governance Bill, 2018. He has also been associated with various civil society initiatives in Bengaluru, is the founder of a discussion forum on urban issues and writes frequently on various law and policy issues in the op-ed pages of India’s national dailies. 

CM: To what extent should there be public participation in the planning of these projects? 

Mathew Idiculla: The architectural background of the public is immaterial; it is not a factor that has to be considered at all. As users and stakeholders, they should have a voice in how the space should be used. That’s at a broad level. Let’s again look at Gandhi Bazaar. It’s a historic place with establishments, which have operated there for a long time.

These establishments are operating in a particular way, for both shop owners and street vendors. If access to their space and livelihoods is going to be affected by the project, they should be primarily involved in having their views expressed. From a legal point of view, questions of ‘right of way’ have to be considered. When one has occupied their commercial or residential place for a long time, any redevelopment project cannot not involve them. This would legally affect people’s rights.

Obviously, there are multiple interests involved. Pedestrianisation as an idea is good, but how you achieve it is also important. The question is whether planners and designers want to impose their ideas of what a good city should be, or should it be informed and engaged in a more organic way.

If the street is facing problems, then a change in design can be considered. But if the place is functioning fine in its essence, maybe it’s best to only take up the basic redevelopment to improve infrastructure. But if you change the character of the whole place, then concerns will be raised.

I’m not implying the other extreme of considering only what the stakeholders want, because there are always competing interests amongst them as well. There will always be few people who will differ from the main project aim. We need to recognise the opinions of these competing interests and should not fixate on one ideal view.

One fundamental issue is that the process to decide among competing interests is not clear. Even if it is laid out, I’m not claiming that it will be completely foolproof. But there needs to be some structure to make joint decisions among competing interests. It is currently done in an ad hoc way. Church street too was redeveloped through a parallel process. The ways of developing and redeveloping within the city are not streamlined. 

CM: Projects are delayed because of competing interests, but there’s also delay in the decision making by planners and builders. Your views.

Mathew Idiculla: I honestly don’t know why there is a delay. Often, you just don’t have the financial resources to carry on with the project, resulting in the delay of sanctioning grants. The government has to decide, based on the demands from various places, on which to approve. In my opinion, this problem cannot be solved, as this is how Indian politics is structured. 

Revamping process on in Gandhi Bazaar
Gandhi Bazaar Street has been under revamp for more than a year now. Pic: Harshitha Padmavinod

CM: How do you reach a middle ground between what planners and designers want and the demands of the public? 

Mathew Idiculla: The key question is–whose city is it anyway? Who is the city for? Who should decide on what happens in the city? There’s a European painting named The Ideal City, which is a very interesting piece of art, but there are no people in it.

In imagining spaces and cities, planners and architects feel like they are equal to God. It’s not applicable to all, obviously, but there is an idea of expert knowledge and what an ideal city should be, and when you are given the power to design it, you feel you can control lives.

Even if planned with the best of intentions, without any ulterior motive, to create sustainable cities, once you are trained on answering the “ought to be” questions, it’s natural to want perfect designs. But many of them fail to consider diverse opinions and are not sensitive to stakeholders’ demands.

In a democratic country, you can’t always have 100% consensus. What can be done is to hold multiple talks at different levels before announcing any project, so that there is some amount of consensus from the stakeholders before getting to work. If you get started on the project before the talks, it will stall the work further since neither can the work be stopped for long, nor can it be changed since it’s already in motion. 

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