August 11, 2014 marked a historic day for urban planning and governance in India with Mumbai leading the way. For the first time since Independence, a municipal corporation, namely the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), initiated public consultations at the ward level during the process of preparing the city’s development plan.
A Development Plan (DP), simply put, is a spatial map on which land is earmarked for specific purposes in accordance with a particular imagined future. In Mumbai, the process and formulation of the DP every 20 years is mandated under the Maharashtra Regional & Town Planning Act. What the MCGM has done is pioneering because it expands the planning process by opening up the new DP (valid from 2014-34) to public participation in the preparation stage itself rather than after the final draft has been prepared, as specified in the Act. This is to be commended because it starts from the premise of what is good planning rather than restricting itself to what is specified by our outdated Town Planning Acts.
Since there were no clear precedents for how to conceive of such a public participation process, it was a process of ‘learning by doing’ with the MCGM and a number of civil society groups playing a key role in responding to and pressuring the other. The MCGM started with opening up the existing land use maps to the public for verification in 2012. Thereafter the Standing Committee Chairperson took the initiative to call a public meeting to discuss the maps. Over the next few months various groups started organizing under the banner Hamara Shehar Vikas Niyojan Abhiyan Mumbai. This city-wide campaign aimed to bring together research institutions, NGOs, CBOs and citizen-activists with the agenda of sustaining the process of participation in urban planning. In October 2013 the campaign released the People's Vision for Mumbai at Azad Maidan; with the help of the Standing Committee Chairperson a contingent from the campaign met the Municipal Commissioner to demand for inclusion of this vision in the DP. In November, the Municipal Commissioner called for a meeting with a select set of invitees to initiate dialogue on the Preparatory Studies. At its conclusion, invitees, including campaign members, called for more open and deeper public participation. The MCGM agreed to organize a series of 14 thematic consultations in partnership with various city organizations through December 2013 and January 2014.
Thematic discussions enabled deeper understanding on important themes such as housing. The campaign played a significant role in building understanding on themes that were not traditionally approached within the planning discourse, such as issues of informal sector workers and indigenous people’s settlements. Thematic meetings also strived to be more accessible by holding presentations in Marathi/Hindi, unlike the presentation in English at the November meeting. In a bid toward transparency, all meetings were recorded by the MCGM.
But in a city as diverse and unequal as Mumbai public participation is best achieved at the local level. The recently concluded public consultations at the ward level (Aug 11- 21) were an outcome of follow-up and homework done by MCGM and campaign groups, and represent a step further in institutionalizing mechanisms for public participation in urban planning. The ward level consultations had a common format – two videos were screened, one on existing land use and various growth scenarios in the city and one on existing status of the ward thus giving city-level context and ward-level detail. Suggestions were then invited from the public either through speaking out or by noting down which areas require specific services in an amenity assessment form.
Despite having a common format, in practice ward consultations have played out very differently. Some have resulted in a flood of useful suggestions with many people being given a chance to speak while in others submitting the assessment form was emphasized. This variation is largely due to the different initiative and commitment to genuine participation shown by key officials - the Assistant Commissioner of the ward and the DP Officials present. Striking differences in issues raised have been observed, with class being a clear marker. While poorer wards focus on basic needs including schools and health facilities, richer wards are distinguished by the amount of time spent discussing parking and roads. Notably, open space provision is a concern that cuts across all wards. As for who is participating in these ward-level consultations, while this depends on the profile of the ward it seems to predominantly be older men. This reflects our male-dominated society. Working people also find it hard to participate in consultations that are held in the middle of the day (11-2pm).
Reviewing the past two years, the space created for participation seems to have enabled a space for expanding organizing around civic issues and for social learning that cuts across class, neighborhood, public and private. This is important in our increasingly fragmented and polarized city. Two factors have been critical for this. First, the process had credibility because MCGM was willing to engage in public participation and be responsive to concerns raised and this made participation worthwhile for people. This political innovation is particularly noteworthy given that public institutions are characterized by opaque and non-participatory cultures. Second, participants especially poorer ones received support from the campaign that helped in coordination and understanding complex and contested issues.
Clearly people participated in the DP process seeing it as means to the goal of access to land, services and amenities they consider vital; therefore, focusing on the process of participation in planning is definitely important. However, it is in incorporation of the suggestions being put forth that the real test of participation lies. For this to be successful, the collaboration between MCGM and city groups needs to expand to cover other public agencies and committees that are involved in planning for the city.
The MCGM is receiving written suggestions on the DP till September 15th. Suggestions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Lalitha Kamath is an Associate Professor with the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social sciences.
Marina Joseph is a Research and Advocacy Associate at Youth for Unity and Voluntary action (YUVA) and is a member of the Hamara Shehar Vikas Niyojan Abhiyan Mumbai.