At work, I’m currently trying to understand the history of spatial planning in India. It hit me as I was reading just how fast and how much the ideologies motivating the Indian government have changed in the last few years. Nowadays, the widely accepted goal of urban planning is to provide the right incentives to make the private sector solve urban problems. But in 1957, when the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was created to implement the city’s newly written Master Plan, the first city plan in the country, it went about it in true socialist style — by acquiring massive amounts of land, developing that land with infrastructure, and then leasing it to private developers and cooperative societies for building housing and commercial space according to the zonal dictates of the plan. Some 150 odd development authorities were set up in cities all over the country, all following the example set by Delhi.
Development authorities in India are now widely known to be some of the most corrupt institutions in the country. The large-scale transfers of money required to acquire land and build housing left plenty of room for siphoning off state funds. Development authorities in the major cities are big, bloated bureaucracies– the DDA has at least 40,000 employees– in which bribes are absolutely necessary to do anything. I recently heard a story that when the head of the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority tried to instate a rule that all employees had to collect their salaries in person, he faced stiff resistance from the families of people who were long dead who still collected their salaries!
Not only were they corrupt, but the development authorities were also ineffective at controlling urban growth. In Delhi, land acquisition was a slow process, and legal land from the DDA was scarce and expensive. In addition, standards for housing were set very high, making it hard for poorer residents to build houses that conformed to building regulations. As a result, the number of illegal buildings proliferated — buildings that violated building laws or were built on land not authorized for construction. Entire neighborhoods came up without planning permission, both neighborhoods of the rich in which residents paid for their own electricity and water supply infrastructure as well as the hut clusters of poor. These so-called “unauthorized colonies” number more than 1,500 and house more than 20% of the city’s population.
Failure on such a massive scale is bewildering (as an aside: how far does a plan have to deviate from reality before people start questioning the very basis on which the plans were made?), and it likely explains the fervor with which people here have embraced the idea of market solutions to what are basically problems of governance. Having only spent time in India after liberalization, I can only imagine the disappointment that citizens felt as they watched institutions that embodied the socialist hopes of a young and independent India fail repeatedly and so thoroughly.