Streamline planning processes for transparent and efficient urban development: Mathew Idiculla

Mathew Idiculla, an independent legal and policy consultant, discusses the absence of an urban planning process in Bengaluru.

Mathew Idiculla, an independent legal and policy consultant based in Bengaluru and a visiting faculty at the School of Policy and Governance Azim Premji University, discussed the significance of public participation in urban planning and the views of urban planning experts in part 1 of this interview.

In part two, he discusses the absence of an urban planning process and cites a few case studies to illustrate his point.

CM: In 2015, you were a part of the BBMP restructuring committee. How was your experience being in the system?

Mathew Idiculla: I accidentally became a part of the system. The BBMP restructuring committee was formed, and they were asking for inputs. My colleague and I from Azim Premji University wrote a short note and submitted it to the committee on how the restructuring could be carried out.

They found our inputs valuable and asked us to contribute to helping them frame legal and other institutional structures around how things should be. We got involved in 2014 and the report came out in 2015.

I again got involved in the formulation of the draft law for Bengaluru’s governance in 2018. We drafted and submitted it, but nothing much has progressed since. Soon, the government fell, and the new government did not consider this.

The same Congress government is now back, and they have reconstituted the same committee and are again talking about the report. I still don’t know where it’s going with the committee and the report. I’m hoping they will make decisions which are not purely short-term oriented. I understand the complexities of implementation of reforms, but can we at least have some clarity on the future of Bengaluru’s governance framework? Not taking a decision is also a decision.

Mathew Idiculla
Mathew Idiculla is an independent legal and policy consultant based in Bangalore and a visiting faculty at the School of Policy and Governance, Azim Premji University. Pic: Mathew Idiculla

CM: Why is there a lack of this process in urban design? 

Mathew Idiculla: Broadly, the issue is the way our urban governance system is structured. Different agencies are already given power to oversee various aspects of urban development.

Municipal corporations have the power to work on road projects, and development authorities are given the power to not only develop residential layouts but also acquire land. There is, of course, the state government which has the power to take up any of the projects. With multiple agencies in power, we don’t have a clear framework for organised work. 

Mathew is broadly interested in the intersection of public law, politics, and public policy. 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.

CM: In cases like VV Puram, Gandhi Bazaar, businesses have been halted for a long time. Is there any legality involved with avoiding situations like this?

Mathew Idiculla: This has happened multiple times. Similar concerns were raised during the TenderSure project in St. Marks Road, the Church Street revamp, and other projects. Within the contract itself, incentivising completing project deadlines could be helpful. In legal terms, not a lot is penned down. Some contracts stipulate that the contractor has to pay fines, additional charges laid, and arrears cancelled if the deadline is not met. These are performance-based contracts, and the guidelines are very clear, ensuring accountability and imposing fines for each day of delay.

Another concern involves the quality of the project upon its completion. There are contracts where even after one exits the project post completion, if the roads get damaged or maintenance is required, it should be paid for and implemented by the company that received the contract to build the road, holding them accountable.

Another concern is the impact on the livelihoods of those people who run businesses in these areas. In my view, the responsibility should not be put on the implementing agencies, rather, the government should have more responsibility in this regard.

Under tortious liability, there is a concept called “constitutional tort”, which is not a popular concept in India . When a government or its servant commits a tort, it is a civil wrong committed by the state. In such cases, the state can be held responsible and any person who suffers damages can sue the government for damages incurred and for government inaction.

Tort is a global concept, but in India it is not fully developed. It is never laid down, but is a common law, which makes it difficult for the public to get a verdict in these cases. Given that these principles exist, the state should try to prevent it and address these issues.

Ideally, the state should recognise the need to compensate someone who suffers damages from the state’s actions and inactions, and that is not efficiently done in our system yet. 

Read more: Citizen engagement helped ease the COVID crisis. Can it also reform our Bengaluru?

CM: In cases where people use the same spaces for both their businesses and residences, shouldn’t there be stricter regulations in place, considering that it affects all aspects of their life?

Mathew Idiculla: There is a need for adaptable regulations, rather than stringent ones. In the last 10 years, there has been a slight shift in understanding that there are mixed-use spaces, and they can’t be dealt with in monofunctional ways.

The problem with the original planning framework is that it views spaces as performing mono functions, either residential, commercial, industrial or recreational. This concept of planning, which was predominant in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily originated from Western countries. We adopted this framework, with clearly demarcated zoning and defined functions, without checking its adaptability to our spaces.

But the big hindrance for us to allow this kind of strict framework is that we have vibrant spaces, many of them are a mix of many functions. Many of these spaces have multiple characteristics, with various urban forms and serve multiple purposes. It’s a common sight to see a commercial space on the ground and first floor and the residential space on the second and third floor of a building here. But that is not how urban planning and designing is viewed in textbooks. Problems arise when you try to impose textbook concepts.

However, we have development control regulations, which are stringent and narrow. The reality of our urban spaces has to be recognised and regulations have to be adapted as per the urban space. What we currently face is a disjuncture between what the regulations require you to be versus what it is in practice. When this is implemented, everything becomes illegal.

The law is creating illegality and informality. That is why regulations are not taken seriously, and people are constantly violating them. The regulations and the plan are so divorced from each other, that the enforcement becomes episodic, where it is implemented only when serious concerns are raised as opposed to the consistent implementation of any law.  

Gandhi Bazaar
The constant delay in revamping streets not only affects businesses, but also residential areas, due to shared mixed spaces in Bengaluru. Pic: Harshitha Padmavinod

CM: Is the 74th Amendment implemented in any way? What roles do local councillors and ward members play in urban planning?  

Mathew Idiculla: The 74th Amendment is a landmark legislation that empowered local governments in urban planning. As per this amendment, municipal corporations and municipalities are vested with a bunch of functions. In the 12th schedule, 18 functions were listed.

The top three functions listed for municipal corporations are all planning functions. The first function is urban planning, including town planning, the second is zoning and land use function, and the third is planning for economic and social development.

Within our constitutional framework, after the 74th Amendment, our local municipalities have important functions in urban planning. However, in reality, that’s not how it is carried out. They are executing plans through building approvals but have no real involvement in the planning process.

Planning powers are carried out by the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), not the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), though the development authorities are not meant to plan initially, but now in every major city, these authorities are the ones who are planning. Additionally, it is a bureaucratic agency, not an elected committee.

Even though the 74th Amendment gave provision for BBMP to plan, it’s not executed right. It also talks about creating a Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC), which is to prepare plans for the larger region.

My issue with the debate with this is that our civil society activists have only spoken about the need for MPCs to be created and made in charge of planning. But under the 74th Amendment, planning has to be done by both municipal corporations and municipalities for local areas and the overall plan for larger regions has to be done by MPC and the district planning committee. These two agencies should be involved in planning, but the unfortunate reality is that neither of them are involved.

Those who criticise the idea that BDA should not be planning, may not be aware that it’s not just the MPC, but also the BBMP that has been granted planning powers under the 74th Amendment. Of course, all problems won’t be fixed with changing who plans.

Currently, we don’t have BBMP to plan, we don’t have MPCs, and we don’t have processes which enable multiple stakeholders to plan. It’s just everybody’s game. Establishing clear processes for participation in urban planning will enhance transparency, accessibility and, on to some extent, accountability. 

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