The state of urban planning in Mumbai: A discussion

A webinar hosted by Citizen Matters discussed the state of urban planning in Mumbai by analysing different areas like environment and infrastructure.

On January 27th, Citizen Matters hosted a webinar on the state of urban planning in Mumbai to address discrepancies in the city’s socio-economic, infrastructure and environmental planning.

Moderated by Meenakshi Ramesh, Trustee of Citizen Matters, the panel consisted of people from backgrounds of architecture, urban planning, anthropology and education. The panelists were Rejeet Mathews, program director for urban development at WRI India, Aslam Saiyad, a photographer and documentarian deeply interested in issues related to riparian communities in Mumbai, Akhtar Chauhan, former director of Rizvi College of Infrastructure, Berjis Driver, an urban planner and associate member of the Institute of Town Planners India, and Prachi Merchant, an urban planner for Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) projects.

Is it possible to plan for the kind of cities we live in?

View of Malad, Mumbai, from a high vantage point.
A dynamic city like Mumbai needs suitable development plans that cater to all communities | Photo: Radha Puranik

“Urban planning in Mumbai has not caught up to the complexities our cities face. Problem with planning legislation is largely based on land use, but the integration of projects is where the issue lies. There is a mismatch. We are currently dependent on legislation that is 50-60 years old and our cities have progressed much beyond that. The legislation is also based on colonial times. For example, London not only does a spatial plan but a transport, environment and economic strategy. There is no such integration here. There is also absence of citizen involvement.” said Rejeet Mathews.

Contemporary urban planning endangers indigenous communities in the city, along with other communities who live in informal settlements. “The indigenous people of Mumbai are not part of any planning process. The forest dwellers who were dependent on the resources of the forest came under the ambit of the Forest Act and are now part of the urban space. Their traditional practices were outlawed,” said Aslam Saiyad.

On Mumbai’s preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health emergencies, Akhtar Chauhan responded, “The concern for health should begin in the health policy and social policy. Most of our planning problems start with the governance structure that has not been modified with experience. There is neglect of the poor. We should have pursued the goal of healthcare for all. This would mean there would be more public hospitals and clinics and space for developing this infrastructure. Someone will have to be made accountable for proper conduct and integration. But we’ve not adopted this.” 

“Where does gender fit in when we’re talking about urban planning?” asked Meenakshi.

Prachi Merchant, who is a member of the advisory committee on gender for MCGM, has worked towards integrating gender inclusivity in town planning. “The gender perspective must be worked into a development plan. There were 5-6 gender related amenities which were introduced for the first time. The workforce participation of women in Mumbai was quite low at 16% and we had to plan to increase that.” she said

Read more: How citizens helped make Dadar Parsi Colony streets disabled friendly

Are we thinking about our environment?

“When we speak of Mumbai’s environment there has been a disconnect between planning and the ecosystem. Providing norms on a per capita basis is a mistake. These norms track back to the 60s and 70s and are not relevant to India today.” said Berjis Driver.

His expertise in environmental planning was important in understanding the relationship between Mumbai’s infrastructure and its environment. “There are facts and evidence that have come to light, such as the CSTEP study, that has estimated more rainfall in the coming years, increased maximum temperature and decreased minimum temperature. This is an important opportunity for urban planners to look at how infrastructure interacts with the environment.” he said.

He added that building norms for a city like Mumbai cannot have any room for relaxation. Basic benchmarks for green infrastructure should be implemented across, with rigorous control. 

Planning Mumbai according to its vast population

“We cannot impose town planning models of foreign countries on Indian cities. They do not cater to our population.” – Akhtar Chauhan

Affordable housing in Mumbai has been a topic of debate for a long time. Since 55% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, this conversation asked panelists what the conditions were for informal settlements and what the city could do to help them evolve. “There is no wage progression or very slow wage progression in informal work. In the absence of this, the informal workers cannot move into formal housing or improve their lives. So they either move to the periphery or continue to live in informal housing. There is a huge oversupply of housing in Mumbai, not in the affordable housing segment, but in the high income housing segment.” said Rejeet Mathews.

She added that informal housing across the city is situated in areas most prone to the effects of climate change. Slum rehabilitation schemes house people in small, cramped spaces that are not necessarily safe.

On indigenous livelihoods, Aslam said, “There is no empathy among decision makers who don’t understand the ecology of people who have lived in Mumbai for many years, in the forests and coastal areas. Their lifestyle is very different from ours. If we do not understand their lives and their culture and tradition it is not possible to plan a city they are happy with.” 

What are the possible solutions?

“The scale of the problem is vast and has been compounded by the political choices and governance structure. The lack of transparency is an issue. The reason is not the lack of work by the planners, but the reduction in scope of planning. We don’t have a consensus on the kind of society we want to evolve into. We will have to evolve a social understanding and agreement on key issues.” said Akhtar Chauhan. He added that a complete alteration in the city’s social environment – which includes both planners and citizens – is necessary. What is required is an engagement with Mumbai’s macro level issues, more urban planners to facilitate projects, and greater financial support. 

The discussion concluded with final words from Prachi, “We need more decentralization in planning. Some of our wards are as dense as other cities. Planners keep talking about the need for comprehensiveness but it is not possible until institutionally we are comprehensive.”

You can watch the webinar here:

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