Can any master plan at all work for Bengaluru?

Thousands of objections have been filed to the Bangalore Development Authority's (BDA) Revised Master Plan
2031 for the city. Commentators and city planning specialists (mostly self-appointed, and yours truly is no exception) hunted down fancy words like "urban sprawl," "mixed development," "transit-oriented development," "containment strategies," "differential strategies" and so on. Typically, discussions that centre on these esoteric concepts as the magic wands for Bengaluru make eminent sense in an academic paper. On the ground, however, they miss that one essential thing: the ground itself!

So, the question to ask is not which concept is good, but whether any concept will work at all. Therein lies the crux. With our current governance structure, abysmal skillsets and an attitude that borders on sheer arrogance, the best-made plan will fail spectacularly. The reasons are not difficult to fathom. Consider the following:

1. The master plan, essentially a mandated land-use policy and rules, succeeds only if every parastatal agency (BWSSB, BESCOM, BMRCL, etc.,) do their job as envisaged by the plan, as succinctly highlighted in the document itself.

2. There is no mandate for the master plan with these agencies. Their respective acts of legislature don't even acknowledge the existence of a master plan that they have to consider, let alone abide by.

3. Instead of a draft plan being shown to citizens after full buy-in from these agencies, the agencies themselves are being asked to comment on the plan along with the rest of us lowly citizenry.

4. The implementer of the zoning laws and building laws, the BBMP, has not even seen a copy of the draft plan. The BBMP Council is already crying blue murder. It is, of course, interesting to note that the commissioner of BBMP desists from commenting on the efficacy of his fellow officer, the BDA commissioner.

5. The one body which could harness its political power as a body of elected representatives, constitutionally mandated to plan for this city, the Metropolitan Planning
Committee, has absconded and its members are in dire dereliction of their duty. It is a commentary on our governance structure that the MPC is headed by the chief minister, as opposed to someone from the city, say, the mayor. This leads to the piquant situation of the head of the MPC, the chief minister, submitting for approval its requirements to the head of the Karnataka government, the chief minister!

6. The document has even gone to the extent of suggesting that the MPC need not monitor the implementation of the master plan. Instead, a coordinating body of bureaucrats, without a single elected member, shall cosily scratch each other's backs and obscure the inefficiencies of the officialdom by merrily playing the mutually beneficial game of passing the buck.

7. Interestingly, the document devotes quite a few pages to the reasons why the previous RMP 2015 failed to deliver - mostly governance and coordination issues. And then, it proceeds to carry on the fruitless exercise without any real corrective governance or legislative changes.

8. Even as a pure land-use document, the RMP fails. Instead of the exercise being a ground-up and strongly democratic exercise of communities and localities deciding their environment, it waters down to a lazy desk exercise of decision-making by width of roads. Considering apples and oranges as the same, it does not consider the difference in structure and behaviour of a Chikpet from, say, Jayanagar.

9. The document has an absolutely convoluted idea of what 'mixed use' is supposed to be. Every community would like and wants commercial space in its vicinity. But that is very different from a set of rules which allows some kind of commercial activity in every street. Master plans need to be local area-specific. But that is hard work. It is much easier to do a desk exercise and write macro rules, which have no chance of being implemented on the ground.

10. Of what real use is a land-use plan that shows swathes of land as residential, when on the ground they are filled with illegal commercial establishments, and with no mechanism, direction or will for the rule of law to prevail? All this does is to show a bloated area as residential and a suppressed figure as commercial space.

11. And finally, it is amazing to note that the RMP pays only lip service to the Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority's (BMRDA) structural plan, which is supposed to be the mother document under which the BDA master plan operates. There is no synergy even on projected population figures. Worse, the direction of the BMRDA plan to create magnets around Bengaluru in the satellite towns instead of congesting the city is not the crux of the draft RMP.

The supposedly "big idea" of the RMP is to limit growth within city and concentrate new growth in the periphery - beyond the still awaited peripheral ring road, and not to be confused with satellite towns. But when can the infrastructure to these places be put in place, when the inner city itself is reeling under an infrastructure deficit? The answer to that by even the most optimistic of us is depressing.

The master plan for us lowly citizens is a hope of better things to come. For the BDA, it is just a tick mark on 'things to do', its efficacy is not the criterion. For the consultants, it is a business contract and they follow the line of least resistance to realise their fees. And for our elected representatives, it is just not even on their radar. They stay uninvolved, so that they can claim deniability and pass on the blame of a failed plan to the officialdom.

Perhaps, I am being overly pessimistic, but our history of mismanagement does not give much confidence. There is always a ray of hope, with the HC having clearly stated that the master plan will not be passed
into law until the court agrees. The effort is now to force the parastatals to agree or refute the plan publicly and in court.

A long time ago, I can still remember, when this city used to make me smile. Now, we are reduced to wishing upon a falling star.

(The writer is member, Citizens' Action Forum)

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