The Phatak Interview

The Art of Muddling Through and Beyond

September, 2016



Vidyadhar Phatak headed the Planning Division at the Mumbai Metropolitan Region development Authority and has been at the centre of several planning and development initiatives in Mumbai for more than four decades now. He was involved with the preparation of past two plans for the Metropolitan Region of Mumbai; with the famous site and services schemes that housed more than 85000 families; with the discussions around redevelopment of the industrial lands and slums; and more recently, with preparation of the Master Plan for Mumbai City. With a nuanced understanding of cities and their politics, and a mammoth experience in planning and development, he has been invited to advise several state and city governments across India. Prasad Shetty, speaks to Vidyadhar Phatak on the trajectories of urbanisation in Mumbai and the challenges of planning it.




PS: You have started calling yourself an urbanist. This is a shift from what most conventional planners in India  do. They often find the word ‘urbanist’ ambiguous and pride themselves using the title ‘planner’. You were a student of David Harvey, and you seemed to have also shifted away from the type of thinking about cities that is prevalent in his writings. You are surely seeing changes in the role of a planner. When did these shifts start in your practice?


VK: The term ‘urbanist’ for me was a matter of convenience. I had never worked as a conventional planner – like doing Development Plans, granting development permissions, etc. I did many other unusual things – low income housing projects, municipal finance, regional plans, etc. But people thought that I was an expert in conventional planning and after retirement I was invited me to work like planner. The Punjab Government managed to get three development plans done by me for the cities of Patiala, Bathinda and Jallandur. Then I thought that I should describe myself differently. The inspiration for the term ‘urbanist’ came from Alain Bertaud. He used the term ‘urbanist’ in his visiting card. Then  I also started printing cards that said ‘urbanist’.


But thinking differently about planning has been evolving. I started working with the office of the Bombay Metropolitan Regional Planning Board in 1967 after completing my degree in architecture. Shirish Patel, Charles Correa and Pravina Mehta had already written about New Bombay in 1965. Shirish and Charles used to visit that office as they were part of the study groups for regional planning. There some of the new ways of thinking on planning had begun. One of the main questions was about managing Metropolitan Areas. In those days, the accepted paradigm was Ebenezer Howard’s idea of small new towns around large cities. But Shirish and Charles argued that though the small and new towns may be able to absorb some industries, they cannot support office growth. If Mumbai’s future was in office sector, then a fairly large city needs to be established and not small towns. Therefore, a full-fledged city like Navi Mumbai was required. Proposing a city of 2 million populations and then designing it was a bold step then.


Then CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation) was created and I moved there in 1970. Shirish and Charles were there as well. The creation of CIDCO is an unusual story. As per the Regional Planning Act, regional plans had to be prepared first where new towns were to be defined and after sanctioning of such a plan, a New-Town Development Authority was to be established. In the case of New Bombay, CIDCO, its planning agency, was created before the sanctioning of the regional plan and that too as a government owned company under the Companies Act. Charles had a good network with politicians and bureaucrats. As the story goes, which I came to know recently, it is said that V. Srinivasan, a high ranking bureaucrat, also the one who was responsible for creation of SICOM (State Industrial and Investment Corporation of Maharashtra) was in conversation with Charles Correa in a swimming pool and asked him jokingly about ‘his’ New Bombay. Charles got very angry and countered him saying, that it was not ‘his’ New Bombay and everyone should be worried about it. Later one day, when Srinivasan was accompanying the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra,  on a train journey from Mumbai to Nagpur, he convinced the Chief Minister to establish a company to set up New Bombay. So CIDCO was established in the style of and as a subsidiary of SICOM.  So, by the time the first daft regional plan was out in early 1970s, CIDCO was also getting established. This idea that a government owned company being a new town development authority was not there in the Act. The Act was later amended to permit such things. This had many implications. For example, the land acquisition process is easy when there is a plan as it establishes the ‘public purpose’ necessary for land acquisition. In the case of New Bombay, notification was required to be done clarifying the public purpose of land acquisition as there was no plan doing that. The Maharashtra Government acquired land and gave it to CIDCO for development. CIDCO was treated as the government’s agent. Till I heard this story I belived that the Regional Plan had formally proposed Navi Mumbai and and on approving this proposal government had moved to acquire land and establsh CIDCO. However I now realise that Plans by themselves do not cause actions. Actiones require ‘champions’. In the case of Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), as MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) was an authority and part of the government,  handed over to MMRDA. The state government could easily make claims on the earnings of these agencies as the main source of their income is through land provided by the government. But this has never happened so far and the governments have been generous towards these agencies. Moreover, institutional memory across governments is very short and everyone must have already forgotten about this now.


While I was in CIDCO, I went to the Johns Hopkins University for further studies. It was there where I took a seminar with David Harvey. Though, I don’t call myself  a student of Harvey, I read his book ‘Social Justice and the City’. I used to also read other books of similar type and was  influenced for some time with that style of thinking. The first long essay I wrote was on Soviet planning. Of course I didn’t praise it even then. It wasn’t praiseworthy in any case. I was introduced to “Urban Economics” at the Johns Hopkins and that intrest has continued till today. This began to reflect in my arguements and writings – the origin of a ‘different way’. Once MHADA (Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority) wanted to recruit some architects and the Vice Chairperson of MHADA asked me to suggest an architect who could interview the candidates. When I said that I was an architect myself, he was shocked. He said that he always felt that I was an economist.

I joined the MMRDA in 1976 and even there, I did not practice conventional planning.  There were broadly two parallels in MMRDA – the projects and the plan. As one of its first projects, the MMRDA coordinated the sites and services scheme under the BUDP (Bombay Urban Development Project) supported by the World Bank. This was not a conventional project and we needed unconventional thinking. In one of the meetings at Mantralaya, a Deputy Secretary from the Urban Development Department said, “Don’t listen to Phatak, he is not a planner”. This was because I was suggesting changes to the open space regulations. We were doing a low income,  full cost -recovery housing scheme. We had to look at things afresh. We couldn’t be tied up to old norms. Some 85000 houses were allotted in 9 years – one of the largest initiatives of its kind. We had started the project in 1979, but the World Bank took a long time for its approval. It wanted the State Government to reform the Rent Control Act and the government was resisting this. Finally the project was approved in 1985 and was implemented until 1994. Recently, I visited many of these site and services schemes. They are doing quite well. They have become thriving communities. However, the CIDCO planners never liked it. They found it too permissive for people to do what they wanted. Unfortunately, this experience was never replicated by either CIDCO or MHADA.


The other parallel at the MMRDA was the ‘plan’. The first regional plan was approved in 1973 and it had to be revised in 1993, which ultimately got published in 1995. We had started working on it it 1989. Our involvement in the site and service scheme had given us a substantial understanding of the ground realities. There were also independent studies on environment and transportation that informed us about the region. The 1995 regional plan was quite different from the 1973 plan and some of the strong recommendations of the old plan were undone. This was because the evidence was forcing us to rethink the previous plan’s orientations. For example, the 1973 plan had proposed dispersal of industries in the region and constraints on them within Mumbai. When we started looking closely, we found that because of macro-economic changes, industries were already getting decentralised and not much manufacturing growth was taking place within Mumbai city. So there was no need of the constraints. In fact, we felt that if any industry wanted to come, it should be allowed as it would contribute towards new job creation. So the big change that we made was to re-allow the industries within the city with certain environmental safeguards. This policy decision was made based on evidence and not on popular axioms like ‘industries should not be permitted in large cities’. Also, the 1973 plan wanted to promote office growth in Navi Mumbai. Conversely it had restrained office growth in South Mumbai and asked for relocation of offices from South Mumbai to Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) called ‘internal restructuring’. So when for example ICICI was given land in BKC, it was on the condition that they should shut their office in South Mumbai – as if those premises left by the ICICI  were going to remain empty! All this was questioned in the 1995 plan. The evidence was showing that not everyone wanted to go to South Mumbai. The overall macro growth was not there until early 1990s. The complexion of BKC only changed in the mid 1990s and it grew as a financial district. This was a result of the macro-economic change – private banks were allowed to flourish and there was a spurt in financial services. We responded to this. Without changing the spatial plan, the land disposal policy was changed. We allowed new financial service to come and did not wait for old offices to get relocated from South Mumbai. We had to look at the changes in the economy and respond to it. We did not want to limit our focus only on local issues like decongestion, moving people, etc.


Through these experiences of the city, I have been arguing for ‘evidence-based planning’. This evidence is not for deciding goals. Goals come from societal values and these values come from the society and not from planners. Sometimes, planners feel that they could be  social reformers, they could be but  then not as ‘planners’. Though the values come from somewhere else, the means one designs to achieve those values must come from evidence. For example, there is a strong belief that higher FSI (Floor Space Index) produces higher density. There is no evidence for that. The household size and unit sizes are important for determination of density and these are influenced by household incomes, access to finance  and prices. In the old DP (Development Plan) of Mumbai, where FSI of 1 and 1.33 were proposed for suburbs and city areas respectively, a density of about 250 houses per hectare was envisaged. But the actual density is much lower as people started demanding larger houses. And even if there were the HDH (High Density Housing) zones, people combined small houses to make larger one. Here again, the popular axiom of ‘higher FSI producing higher densities’ does not work. Unfortunately, our data systems are not geared for getting evidences, because most thinking is also on axiomatic basis. For example, if you ask the BMC (Brihan-Mumbai Municipal Corporation) for the number of houses built last year, there will be no answer. This happens because no Municipal Commissioner has ever asked this question. But such data is very important for formulation of Municipal Budgets. Before allocating funds on infrastructure, one needs to know how many houses are added, which wards are growing faster, where are the smaller houses coming up, etc. But traditionally these questions were never asked. The data systems remain weak and we continue doing whatever was done in the past.


PS: I have heard you several times describing planning as ‘an art of muddling through’. Were you referencing to the actions taken in the absence of evidence?


VK: Yes, we muddle through everything in the absence of data. Once a  Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai had an interesting story to tell. He and a health officer from the Municipal Corporation once visited a maternity home. This facility was built on a land which had a land-use reservation of a ‘maternity home’. The owner of the land had developed the facility and was handing it over to the Municipal Corporation. After seeing the facility, the health officer expressed worry – he said that no one from the area would visit it. The facility was developed in a rich neighbourhood, where people would prefer private clinics rather than municipal maternity homes. Here the axiom that ‘planning should provide facilities as per the standards and norms’ is operative. This axiom reduces the city into a simple mathematic problem, where one can calculate the requirement and provide facilities. But people live in the cities quiet differently.


PS: Where do the axioms come from?


VP: They comes from several places: our education, our prejudices, our history, our values etc. For example, Gandhiji said that India lives in its villages. Following this, some axioms got developed on cities – that urbanisation is bad; but if urbanisation was inevitable, then we should make sure that there are no large cities; if large cities are inevitable, then we should make sure that they are arranged into smaller self-contained communities and neighbourhoods; we should ensure that city centres are not congested; industries should not be allowed within cities; activities should not be mixed; etc. These axioms have been followed religiously. If you read any of the master plan across India, these axioms are reflected in some form or the other. I had gone to Chennai some years ago for a conference. That time Mumbai’s population was about 10 million and Chennai’s was about 3 million. People in Chennai were using the same superlatives on population that were used in Mumbai. It had nothing to do with actual population, but rather with the mindset.


PS: J.B. D’Souza had once asked: whether cities like Mumbai can be planned at all? If you look at the case of new master plans for Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur, Goa, Bangalore, etc; all of them seem to be struggling to go through. Cities have changed and people have started asking more questions. Moreover, very little of the earlier plans have been implemented and these plans have also undergone several changes in their life. The previous Development Plan of Mumbai has had hundreds of amendments since it was published. So the question is – are such master-plans relevant anymore?


VP: The terms ‘comprehensive, integrated and holistic’ have been central to planning and master-plans so far. All plans seek to achieve integration across different sectors such as housing, environment, water-supply, industries, etc. and also across different geographical scales like wards, districts, cities, etc. The most recent United Nations report on cities also talks about such integration. I am not sure of this integration any more. And this is not because of the frustration of being unable to make such integrated plans, but such plans seem to be an impossibility.


The issue is really about conceiving cities. In the 1960s, Christopher Alexander wrote an article titled, ‘City is not a Tree’.  He was a mathematician turned architect and used the metaphor of a tree to discuss the structure of the city. In a tree one end of the branch is connected to another end only through a hierarchical branching system. So if one end had to communicate with other, then it had to go through the hierarchy. For example if a small ant at the tip of one branch wanted to travel to the tip of another branch, it can only do so by travelling all the way back where the main trunk splits into branches and then follow the desired branch to reach its tip. For Alexander, this was not the way the city worked. He conceptualised the idea of a ‘lattice’ to understand cities. According to him in a city people bypass hierarchies and establish new networks to achieve their targets. The lattice structure is able to explain this better. However, for planners, looking at the city like a tree is very convenient. This gives them clarity to understand cities and a structure to intervene. City is broken down into districts, districts into neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods into houses, etc. And every such element has its own infrastructure. There will be schools, dispensaries, cinema theatres, etc. at neighbourhood level; colleges and hospitals at district level; and universities and referral medical facilities at city level. So if a person from one neighbourhood decides to go for a movie in another neighbourhood, then there is a problem, as such a citizen will create pressure on the other neighbourhood’s infrastructure and on transportation. But this is not the way cities work. A city is a good city if it provides maximum choices to its citizens. If one thinks of a city as a lattice, then such choices are possible and should be provided for.


Even the governments are organised as trees. In Maharashtra, we have different departments for different sectors – there are two departments for urban development, one for housing, one each for environment, industries, education, etc. And each of these departments have their independent end-agencies like MMRDA, which is at the end of the Urban Development Department. Similarly, MHADA is at the end of the Housing Department, etc. These agencies are answerable to their own departments and ministries and not to each other. For example, MMRDA was expected to be a coordinating agency at regional level. But it cannot function as a coordinator as it is at the end of the Urban Development Department and other agencies dealing with water-supply, housing, etc. are not bound to listen to it. This has made MMRDA into a project development and implementation agency. Unfortunately, MMRDA does not appear to be very unhappy about this as well. Moreover, within MMRDA itself, the various departments find it difficult to talk to each other. Recently, I heard that the Housing Department in Maharashtra has announced the housing policy. I don’t know if MMRDA was consulted on that. It must have not been and no one from MMRDA must have felt the need to say anything about it. Also, our planning education is structured departmentally. The schools offer so many specialisations – urban design, regional planning, urban planning, environmental planning, conservation, transport planning, etc. Each of these departments have isolated themselves into specific niches and find it difficult to talk to each other. When our cities, disciplines, professions and institutions are not attuned to integration, how can we expect to produce an integrated plan?


PS: Then should plans be made anymore? And if they are made, then what should be the objective and form?


VP: I have been thinking and talking about this question recently. It has been very clear that cities work in ways that are beyond the imagination of planners and planners often muddle through the process. But I think that it is important to move beyond this ‘muddling through’ and find a serious place for planning. I am more inclined to think about planning as an act of ‘managing imbalances’. Traditionally, planning is expected to bring about a balanced development. We often hear the argument that first infrastructure has to be laid and then development should be allowed. This does not happen. What really happens is a competitive behaviour – not only amongst individuals, but also amongst organisations. In Vasai Virar (north of Mumbai), the regional plan never envisaged the scale of development that really happened. But people went ahead and built the city. Over the years, infrastructure was mobilised. Now the transport infrastructure might improve and promote more intensification. This is a cyclical thing – the plan follows life and life then follows the plan and this following each other continues. A balanced condition is not possible and not even desirable – it would result into a static condition. So planning should be about managing the competing behaviour, which creates imbalances. Imbalances cannot be allowed to be very wide. That will create problems. But nevertheless, they should be allowed so that growth can catch up. Coexistence of multiple imbalances will keep the city in state of constant flux. This flux will ensure that the city constantly changes and keeps itself alive.


PS: This is a very nice conceptualisation where city assumes an organic form and where life and planning constantly follow each other. But does it mean that then there is no place for large scale plans with long horizons of 20 to 30 years.


VP:  Certain elements need long term planning. The arterial roads and railway networks need to be frozen in space. In New York, the first master-plan was prepared in 1811. Only Wall Street was developed then. That time, the popular concepts of density, congestion, etc. were not known. So the only thing they did was to put a big road grid. Once the road grid was in place, then network infrastructure becomes easy. Initially, land was not even acquired. Whenever, people came for development permission, the government insisted on land being left for the road grid and subsequently roads were built. On the other hand, whenever we thought of restricting development, we made green zones. But developments happened exactly in these zones. But since we had imagined that these areas should not be developed we did not even plan road networks. And now it has become very difficult to put in road networks and other infrastructure.


PS: So what you are saying is that plan should only specify hard infrastructure like roads, etc. and not necessarily amenities, zoning, and reservations like hospitals, schools, etc.


VP: Yes, all that will come as the development takes place. Someone had written in the 1970s that “if planning is everything, then perhaps planning is nothing. Planners have miserably failed in predicting and therefore their plans are usually in form of adjusting to the reality that occurs”. One should not put a tag on land; just keep getting it as development occurs. One can always put the tags later. Whether you want a garden or a school there can be decided later.


PS: Land seems to be extremely critical for planning and in India and we have a complicated pattern of land holding, tenure and occupancy. Why doesn’t planning touch the land question actively? Other than the Town Planning schemes that are being promoted in Gujarat recently, we do not have other ideas to deal with the land questions.


VP: This is because of Delhi’s influence on planning. Delhi’s master-plan became the role model for all plans in India and there land was acquired. In 1965, there was a National Land Policy Committee set up by the Government of India to look into the issues related to land with respect to planning. The committee had nicely articulated the objectives of the policy, but then it said that these objectives can only be achieved if we have large scale public ownership of land. Once one starts with this premise, then things become simple and you don’t have to answer the kind of questions that you are asking. Navi Mumbai also had the same orientation – first acquire all lands and then build the city.


This attitude of first annexing all property and then redistributing it comes from the British. Britain had a housing law in 1905. There was no planning law then. They controlled building activities mainly on the grounds of public health. Therefore building controls was devised. People started questioning this and argued that their development rights were getting curbed due to such controls and the government should pay for this. Then there was the famous Uthwatt Committee that was appointed to look into the matter and suggest ways to deal with this issue. The Committee formulated that no individual has any development rights. These rights will be determined by the state and if anyone gets lesser than the other, then that is not the matter for compensation. Development Right was treated as a gracious gift of the state. This attitude reflects in our legislations also. The owner does not have development rights on her land unless specified by the state. And even today, there is no compensation for ‘injurious affection’ (adverse effect on land value due to activities of the state) on land. Unless land is physically taken over, the owner is not entitled for compensation. Our government failed in nationalising land through Urban Land Ceiling Act, but nationalised development rights! There is no development right that is freely available. Governments have now started charging for development rights. In Britain the Conservatives questioned this stating that first, the government took away the rights without compensation and later charged people to give it back.


PS: But what about land-cartels, oligopolies and land-sharks that are operative in urban areas. It appears that the plan and development can only occur after the land-sharks have operated.


VP: The question is about making land markets fair and competitive. But for that the base condition should have equality in the first place. Though, the Urban Land Ceiling Act aimed at getting a better base condition, it only helped  developers to get land of private owners.. Even in the case of the site and service schemes, we did not get much of the land from Urban Land Ceiling Act and had to depend on government lands. All markets suffer the problems of land cartels, oligopolies and land-sharks. Ways of correcting this will have to be found mainly by increasing the supply of serviced land and encouraging fair market practices.  But this is a difficult task.


PS: How do you speculate the future of Mumbai? No large business is able to come to the city and other cities seem to be taking away Mumbai’s business, commercial real-estate prices have dipped, call centres came and went, and moreover, new migrants also do not seem to coming into the city. How do you see this evolving?


VP: Mumbai is trying to sell low quality of life at a very high price. In this process it will price itself out. Other cities are appearing to be better competitors. On the other hand, we have a belief that we can sort things out by giving more FSI. For example, we gave more FSI for developing IT industries. Obviously, it has not been successful. FSI does not promote business and create jobs. In terms of economy, Mumbai will have to become competitive. Spatial planning cannot do much to improve the economic condition, but it should ensure that the plan does not become a hurdle for economic development. People thought that Mumbai’s economy will only grow and will keep on creating jobs. Though the finance sector is bringing some money, it is not creating high volumes of jobs. In Mumbai, we have also attempted to stop people from coming in. Mumbai should clean up its FSI problems, which will surely have an impact on the prices. This year’s Municipal Budget states that the Municipal Corporation will get about Rupees 6000 crores through various charges and fees that will be levied on real-estate development. Around 20 to 30 thousand houses are expected to be built. This number is my assumption based on my studies and the Municipal Corporation does not have any figures on this. In this case, each house will be expensive by Rupees 15 to 20 lakhs on account of the charges and fees. In such a situation, how can Mumbai compete? For this additional cost, one can buy an apartment in any other smaller city. Once when very high prices were obtained for lands in BKC, I had said that this was “good for MMRDA, but bad for the city”.