Truly dynamic cities are zones of the future. They are constantly being planned, rethought, redeveloped to account for future needs, aspirations and exigencies. In different ways, and for vast stretches of their existence, Delhi and Mumbai have heeded this imperative to upgrade. Delhi lays claim to greatness stretching back centuries, its location in the northern plains recommending it serially as a political capital. It has for ever been a city of power-brokers, but in the shadow of its pomp and show have thrived assorted industries and creative clusters, dependent on the rulers to provide enabling conditions for growth. Mumbai takes pride in a more organic growth, with a unique participatory collaboration between the governing classes and the city's private citizens making it worthy of its place, in modern times, among the world's leading financial capitals. That in both cities, today, there is so much confusion not only on how to imagine their future selves, but also on how to define and meet the needs of the more immediate present, is emblematic of the crisis that assails India's urban planning.
Urban planning is mired in petty turf battles, on account of lack of vision or will or ambition or due to competitive rent-seeking — and all too depressingly often, because of all of the above. Consider Mumbai's current failure to attend to its infrastructure needs. As detailed in this newspaper, proposed marquee infrastructure projects are caught in tussles between ministers belonging to the Congress and its ally, the NCP. The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation falls under the NCP-controlled Public Works Department, while the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority answers to the Congress chief minister. Stuck in this feud, for instance, is the western freeway, part of whose envisioned whole is the Bandra-Worli sea link. With the two coalition partners unable to come to agreement on whether it should be road-based or comprised of sea links, this vital project remains at the drawing board. A city famous for taking chances on itself is now unable to move on purposefully.
In Delhi, the review of the Master Plan 2021 is caught in bitter wrangling between the local and Union governments — both run by the same party — on increasing the floor area ratio. Arguably, there are bound to be contesting visions on whether, and how, a city should expand horizontally or vertically. But the current limbo betrays an unconscionable lack of direction. It is time the Centre stepped in to foster organic and responsive decision-making to signal a return to thinking big.