December 15, 2023


Should Indian cities move away from Master Plans for urban planning?

It’s now an annual occurrence that airtime and column inches are devoted to discussions on how an Indian city flooded due to heavy rains. The latest is Chennai. India is likely to have a majority urban population in the coming decades. For many, that could mean opportunities galore. For others, it’s an urban planning nightmare.

One of the common tenets of Indian urban planning is a Master Plan. It’s a detailed guide to the future development of a city. It includes everything from water systems to housing to civic amenities. But given how our cities are measuring up to handle weather events and increasing population, have Master Plans overstayed their welcome?


Urban design is the base upon which a city is planned and built. Usually, this is a start-from-scratch approach. Urban design can influence economic outcomes, the socio-economic composition of a locality, and the physical scale, space, and ambience. Ultimately, it has to be a pleasant, safe, and accessible place for people to live.

We need to go all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation to find the earliest roots of urban planning. The two prominent examples are Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, which were meticulously designed. Fast forward to now, the state of the Indian urban landscape is largely a result of the British colonial era. That’s when the idea of planned cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata came to fruition.

These were cities that were created from the ground up. It usually had a large fort occupied by the British. The strongly fortified and controlled area around it was called the “civil lines”. This is where homes, shops, churches and their commercial headquarters were built. Outside of that were “native towns” where Indians lived. In cities where the British presence was extensive, large cantonments and civil lines were set up alongside pre-existing cities. Examples of this are New Delhi and Bangalore.

When the bubonic plague struck Bombay in 1896, commerce stopped. The British decided they needed to regulate the entire city and established the Bombay Improvement Trust in 1898. This Trust was tasked with laying new streets, building houses, etc. Others like Delhi, Kanpur, and Bangalore soon got their own Trusts.

After independence, the Indian government launched several urban development programs like the Five Year Plans. The goal was to provide basic amenities and infrastructure in Indian cities. Post-1992, India’s local government system was transformed. With the 74th Amendment, elected municipalities could prepare and implement plans for economic development, social justice, etc. It also facilitated the creation of the Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) for cities with a population of over 1 million.

However, it’s usually the state government-controlled Development Authorities that work on urban planning. The Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) are examples. They prepare the Master Plans that regulate land use and development for a city every 15-20 years.

Do these Master Plans have any use for modern India, or are they necessary since they give citizens and authorities a base on which to build?

VIEW: Stick to the Plan

Concerning Master Plans, it all comes down to execution and implementation. But before that, you need some sort of a plan, and that’s what a Master Plan offers. They offer the various stakeholders information and a detailed account of the development process. Any Master Plan is quite comprehensive. Apart from the obvious residential, industrial, and commercial aspects, it consists of maps, reports, and frameworks for growth in different areas.

With rapid urbanisation and increased population in urban centres, a Master Plan can give residents an idea of where the city is headed and what it will look like down the road. Indian cities are often a demographic melting pot. A Master Plan can allow for their systematic and planned growth. Since urban planning is a massive undertaking, these plans help break it into manageable chunks.

A survey by think-tank Janaagraha showed that at least 39% of India’s state capital cities didn’t have active plans for spatial development. Only 9% had plans for important urban needs, including heritage conservation and sustainability. Instead of scrapping Master Plans, local governance needs to be better managed. High levels of politicisation have meant big city municipalities have been ineffective in responding to people’s needs.

COUNTERVIEW: Ditch the Plan

The Master Plan approach is archaic. It’s a relic of the British colonial era that doesn’t meet modern urban needs. The world has moved on to more dynamic planning processes and plans. In fact, the British system that many Indian cities follow has been overhauled in the UK. Master Plans aren’t going to cut it when estimates show over 800 million people will live in Indian cities by 2050.

According to State legislation, a Master Plan is basically a spatial document or instrument to regulate land use and buildings. They aren’t mandated to have sectors like transport or the environment. Even if they’re included, like in modern Master Plans, they aren’t legally binding. What these Master Plans are then useful for is merely dividing the city into various functional zones like residential and commercial. Again, this won’t cut it for modern or future Indian urban spaces.

It’s no wonder what’s on paper and what comes to fruition are often contradictory. The “planning” process, if you will, has several shortcomings that often result in exceptions in the planning regulations and the introduction of regularisation schemes that facilitate planning violations. Also, what use is a Master Plan if we don’t have enough qualified urban planners at the administrative level? Given how politicised the development processes are, Master Plans won’t help solve India’s urban planning problem.

Reference Links:

  • Exploring Indian Urbanism: The Growth of Indian Cities – Urban Design Lab
  • 39 per cent capital cities in India have no active master plan: Report – The Economic Times
  • Who plans Indian cities? Development Authorities who still follow colonial masterplans – The Print
  • Urbanisation in India: We must reimagine how our cities are planned – Down to Earth
  • India’s Urban Future: It’s Time to Pay Attention – Center for the Advanced Study of India
  • High time to move away from the master plan approach for Indian cities – Down to Earth

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) Indian cities should stick to Master Plans for urban planning.

b) Indian cities shouldn’t stick to Master Plans for urban planning.


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