Noble Mansion

What’s the plan?

Town planners decide to change the path of a road after fierce opposition, leaving larger questions unanswered 

Rahul Bhatia

This is the fourth story in a series about a wide road, 126 kilometres long, that will wind through NAINA, a planned city in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Part one of the series can be found here, part two, here, and part three, here.

"Their language has changed"

Milind Patil allowed himself a small smile of relief.

On the edge of the state highway that wound to the distant hills of Matheran, he sat on his bike with his legs apart and his short arms folded tightly. His fields were down a dirt track beside us. Mushrooms sprouted in clumps along the lane, among broken Blue Imperial bottles and discarded wrappers.

Two months ago, he had been close to tears as he described the infernal road headed his way. On the new ‘interim development plan’ that town planners had published for the region, a ‘multi-modal corridor’, a freeway for automobiles, trains and bullock carts — so wide that it was unfathomable to him — passed over family fields, family trees, and a deep communal well that preceded his grandparents.

He could not say when it would arrive. The road’s existence on the plan was enough. He pointed to a nearby apartment complex under construction and asked me why the road, which bent this way and that, did not affect that building.

He answered himself, and his answer was an allegation I had heard before, and would come by again: the plot belonged to someone. These someones were littered across the region’s geography, the land they held marked in invisible symbols that only planners could see.

In Patil’s case, the someone was a large Gujarati industrial group, although its name was nowhere to be found on the hoardings outside. There were answers to this too: someones never purchase land in their own name.

Later, I placed the plan on a satellite map and could understand his dissatisfaction — the planned road ran along the building, skirting it, but not touching.

That was then. Now, on the road, he smiled because the road’s path was about to change, leaving his land alone. In early July, the chief planner of the Navi Mumbai Airport Influence Notified Area — a mouthful that shortened to NAINA, a proper city name — met with landowners from Patil’s village, Nere. They gathered at a college Patil worked at in Panvel, a nearby town, to talk about the sacrifice and rewards of turning a pack of unconnected villages into a smart city. Nearly a year had passed since the plan was published, to the dismay of people who lived within its boundaries. In their first public hearing with the planners, which took place in November 2014, the villagers all but rioted.

At the college meeting they let V Venugopal, the chief planner, have it. “We complained a lot. He was sitting quietly.” Patil smiled. Few held back about the injustices of the development plan, including a requirement that villagers pool at least 25 acres in order to be eligible for a higher floor space ratio. “How can we put together 25 acres? Today brothers don’t listen to each other. Neighbours will ask each other? Who will agree to this?”

Yielding to their demand, Venugopal had presented himself before the crowd on neutral territory, far from the village and miles from his fluorescent-lit office. This appeased Patil. During the meeting, Venugopal told them that the corridor would be moved elsewhere. There was nothing more that Patil wanted to hear. He wasn’t alone in this. NAINA’s planners keep a spiral-bound book of complaints with themselves. Most of it consists of opposition to the corridor.

Resistance to the urban plan had been expected, but its force had not. Planners were caught off-guard. They began to reach out to villages more gently, and tried to woo them. This was why Venugopal was here. “Now they’re talking to us properly,” Patil said. “They’ve changed a lot from the first time. Now Venugopal’s language has changed. Now he’s telling us how we should all come together, how much we will all benefit. They’re doing all that.”

He thought about where it had all gone wrong. “They made a mistake,” he said, referring to NAINA’s planners. “They didn’t talk to people earlier. Had they met people first, it would have been different.” What he had wanted — what they all had wanted — was the respect that came with being consulted.

The town planner's implementation can be haphazard, and hazardous. Before the monsoons, CIDCO raised the level of land near Dapoli (close to Panvel) in a hurry. The rains came down through a large stable on higher ground elsewhere. The water's flow was obstructed by the raised land. The result: large pools of stagnant water near densely populated villages.

The planners

As July became August, the planners who bore the brunt of this anger were bushed. It was decided: the plan was being altered. The chief minister’s ‘war room’ for infrastructure projects in Maharashtra included NAINA, and officials at both ends were in regular communication, requesting and sending data and information. At the planners’ offices in Central Business District, Belapur — a node of Navi Mumbai –  every knock on their door signaled someone who wanted something. Builders, farmers, liaison agents, and landowners paced the corridor outside, their concerns about the plan hidden behind polite smiles. The planners worked on, their weariness lit in fluorescent light. There were five associate planners, ten deputy planners, and four draughtsmen tasked to keep changing the plan as new orders tumbled down the chain of command. Their days were consumed by the new plan. A young recruit said that when working hours were up, he couldn’t keep his eyes open.

A senior planner who did not want to be formally interviewed explained the changes. They were reducing the amount of land required to qualify for rights to build taller buildings. It was a concession to concerned small land owners like Patil, who were protesting the minimum requirement of 25 acres, or ten hectares. The requirement was being changed to 7.5 hectares. “We can’t reduce this further,” the planner said, nodding and looking at me as if I had asked for a better deal. A grid was made behind some correspondence. “Each box has an area of 40 to 50 hectares. We need to create roads between the plots in each box. If the plots are smaller, there are logistical issues. How many roads can we build?”

The big one, the corridor, was nowhere to be found for a large part of the map. As Patil had said. The road had been moved on the reworked plan. In this office, on one of these machines, a planner had restored colour to some faces, and drained others of theirs by carrying the road from west of the village to the east. The planner said they were now following the original metropolitan plan for the region, which included Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, and NAINA.

If that was the plan, why had they changed it? The alteration, the planner said, “was done to benefit them.” A look of disapproval passed over the planner’s face — they had an opportunity, and they ignored it. “But they do not want it. Any road that is far away you would like to bring inside so that your land price shoots up, no? We did it for the benefit of them. So now we have to do the original plan.”

This meant that the road moved elsewhere for a part of the plan. For the rest of the plan, it stayed where it was. The planners had responded to one set of protests from the north, but not to another set of protests about the same thing, from the south. When I asked what the planning relevance of placing the corridor in the west was — where villagers protested it — the response dripped with annoyance. “That’s gone now. There’s no point in talking about that.”

The other changes on the map, accommodation for a house here or a building there, were downplayed. There was no political pressure, the planner said. “It’s based purely on people.” I put forward the frequent allegation that local and national politicians and administrators had purchased land in the area.

“Maybe they have,” the planner said. “But I don’t know about it. There is a committee. It’s not an individual person sitting here and changing it. We answer to the Urban Department. We answer to the principal secretary, under whom the town planning department is functioning. We will be submitting this to the government, and the government will refer to the director of town planning. He will see the plan. He will give his comments.” Responsibility lay elsewhere. The planners here proposed, and then implemented feedback from higher up.

Whether we talked about planning decisions, communication, or what people were owed, the planner’s demeanour grew imperious. The planner insisted their terms were generous, even though people questioned why NAINA required them to give up half their land to reap the benefits of the new city. And what were those benefits? Roads, water lines, sewage lines, and other infrastructure.

“In a conventional development plan, no authority offers what we are offering,” the planner said. “There may be some money. But it is peanuts, like what the National Highway Authority of India gives them. We are offering an alternate solution.” It was the official view, a judgement that translated a fiercely emotive issue to a transactional one: we are here, land prices will rise, you will benefit from that rise. In effect, NAINA’s presence was a gift.

From the ground, with the view flipped, the developments were ominous. You went about your life. One day you were told that a new planning authority was in charge — a semi-governmental organization that took its orders from government. To partake of the planned city’s benefits, you would have to give up half your land. This was land you had grown up on, and tended, and defended. The first move required you to sacrifice yourself, and then pray that the water, electricity, drains, and roads that had been promised arrived soon. This was a worrisome requirement for anyone, but particularly for those who knew of CIDCO’s history in the region. A NAINA handbook suggests that “since [an] effective legal framework is not available, an innovative model based on voluntary participation incentivised through appropriate Development Control Regulations is necessary.” In effect, the regulations encouraged participation by imposing a high cost and onerous restrictions on those who did not opt in.

I asked about the prevalent belief that NAINA’s officials refused to communicate. The planner had heard this before, and it was clearly an irritation. “We had announced the plan in major newspapers. If they have not seen it, it is their issue. Now at least they know. We can’t go to individual houses and communicate. We have informed the gram panchayats that [NAINA] has come, and this is its role. If they have any doubts, it is their job to come and discuss it with us. We are always open. We are not like a government department. Our additional chief planner is always available for the public. Our MDs are available for the public. You can’t expect that we will go to the village and tell them. That is too much.”

V Venugopal, the additional chief planner of NAINA, reasoned with angry villagers at a hearing on 27 November 2014. Villagers claimed that they were not informed about NAINA.

The greater good, but for whom?

Rohit Janardan Katkar, who is 23, and with a head full of surprising thoughts, had plenty to say about NAINA across a table at a local restaurant. The large window beside us opened to new bridges, above which rose signs for Honda and Hyundai car showrooms. Peppy Hindi film music tinkled softly, and a waiter walked around with an electrified racquet that erupted in loud pops when it touched mosquitoes above my head.

The plan had faced pushback because of mistrust, Katkar said. In a way, this was the planning body’s own doing. “Nobody knew about the plan when it was announced. People still don’t know what’s in it. If you think giving notice to the gram panchayat is enough… who takes a gram panchayat seriously? People work from morning to night. Will they go on a Sunday, when it’s closed? They go one or two times in five years, when they have work there.” The gram panchayats, or village councils, were susceptible to politicking; caste and party divisions — not religion — often defined who received accurate information.

Katkar lived in Koproli, a village where a cluster of shacks stood on one side of the Panvel-Matheran road, and an apartment complex with 28 buildings loomed on the other side. A swimming pool and tennis court lay behind the buildings. The place was surrounded by fields, giving it the sense of either extreme foresight or a doomed venture. “The villages need a plan,” he said. “But if government had thought about these things in advance, NAINA wouldn’t have been necessary. They wouldn’t have needed people’s land.”

Pedro Ortiz, who developed the Madrid regional plan, pointed out problems with the NAINA project.

“I have some concerns about NAINA,” Pedro Ortiz, an urban consultant at the World Bank and a former deputy mayor of Madrid, told me during a Skype interview. Ortiz had created a metropolitan plan for Madrid, defining its areas of growth. In May and then June, Ortiz was invited by a Mumbai organization to offer his thoughts on the city’s development plan, as well as NAINA.

“Mumbai needs to grow quickly. It needs to produce 50,000 dwellings every year, and the peninsula is quite filled up. So it has to grow as a metropolis, and it has to grow fast. When you grow a new town, you can go as fast as you are able to manage it, because you have a single agency that buys the land, produces the projects, invests in infrastructure, sells the land.” In NAINA’s case, the land had been reserved for a particular kind of use, but it still belonged to the original landowners. “This takes longer.” He foresaw a dire future as a result of present urban policy. “You have 50,000 people moving from the rural to the city everyday, and if you don’t have land for them, the result is going to be slums. Really, I am concerned that the NAINA approach will take longer, and you will see the growth of slums in uncontrolled land areas without infrastructure.”

Ortiz studied the initial phase of NAINA’s urban plan and realised that its design would result in a city that resembled the packed cluster of Tokyo. “One of the concerns is the design of NAINA. Metropolises have to grow in a very specific way. Especially ones with over 9 million and 18 million inhabitants,” he said. A city begun from scratch needed a strong rail line. Around it would grow commercial areas. This would be surrounded by residential areas whose density dissolved as they reached the periphery. “Then you introduce the waterways as parks, and you protect the waterways and you create a network of parks. You protect green areas in a continuum because biodiversity requires that.” And those parks are useful because they avoid the emergence of urban units in such a way that it doesn’t become a continuum” — Ortiz clearly liked the word — “of a 110 km [stretch] like Tokyo is.”

That, in his mind, was the ideal way to do it. But NAINA was headed down an entirely different road. “I have not seen any railroad development, I have not seen any station with centrality, I have not seen the green infrastructure of rivers and parks within the network of NAINA’s urban continuum. What does it mean? I don’t see the structure of development of a metropolis. I see a continuum which is not good.”

Himanshu Burte, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, met me at his office in the school of Habitat Studies one morning. Soon after the death of Charles Correa, Burte had written an elegy to the architect on The Wire. “[Correa] was always grappling with one tension in his work,” Burte wrote, “…between a harmonising (imposed) order and the freedom and conviviality of chance that human dwelling and presence brings with it.” This resonated with me. It felt like the central theme of NAINA, and the conflict that would lie at the heart of India’s push toward instant cities.

Burte had an hour to talk before he moderated his students for two hours on the subject of experts and smart cities. He made it understood that he hadn’t studied NAINA closely, “but at a broader level, it seems to be part of the way things happen. It comes from the same kind of tradition of planning from the outside. The state is outside any place — that’s how the state presents itself; it is not involved in anything.” Burte meant that the government and its arms had no skin in the game, and that its true goal was the larger good. “This enables a particular approach to planning which doesn’t start with democracy. It starts with expertise. There is no acknowledgement of your humanity.” He likened it to a doctor reducing a patient to a system of pipes, and acknowledged the simplification: “I do not look at the messiness of life.”

Himanshu Burte, assistant professor at TISS's School of Habitat Studies, gets a class thinking about the kind of experts smart cities need.

On the ground, the messiness of life was a personal subject, for this was where the first tug of administrative attention was felt. Who was this city for? What would it bring? What would it do for them for the future? At the meeting with Venugopal in July, a young man from Nere said, the subject of jobs had been brought up. “People told them, if there are vacancies, recruit people from the villages,” Vishal Patil, the young man, said. From the head of the room, a planner replied, “What use do you have for work? You are sitting on a gold mine. Don’t work hard.” Replaying the scene, Patil was incensed. “If you talk like that, how will we earn our daily bread? What is this? Use people from here, no? Use the engineers here, no? CIDCO’s attitude has not changed. It was like this earlier too. This happened at a meeting last month. Ten-twelve of us had gone to see what was going on. First they used to say ‘we have a manpower shortage’, and we used to think we will get jobs. Now they tell us that our land is gold. Is this some kind of language to use?”

What lives beyond the dreams of sudden riches is the fear that it could well be fleeting, leaving the once-wealthy with the burden of good memories in bad times. “I just hope that in ten years, there’s not much disparity here,” Katkar said. “Take a hundred people here. Out of them 30-40 people have work. Their income is growing quickly. The rest of them, who have money right now because they sold land, lose their money eventually. It came quickly. Why can’t it go quickly? I hope that doesn’t happen. But I think it will happen.” Behind it, the unspoken worry. Sure, there was a plan for the land, but what was the plan for them?