Two days of continuous rainfall collapsed Sarsamma's house in one of Bangalore's northern slums. A single mother with no funds at hand, Sarsamma (not her real name) is responsible for three school-going children, as well as a married daughter who's been abandoned by her husband. Her daughter also has an 8 month-old infant. In desperation, Sarsamma was forced to seek work living away from home, but she needed to earn enough to get a new house too. For now, dried coconut fronds masquerade as walls for her home. Sarsamma is only one of over 1.9 million people - about a third of the urban population - who live in substandard housing, without even basic amenities. This city, which has held so much of the nation's promise of progress during the last few years, cannot provide basic housing to so many of its residents.

Even worse, looking ahead there seems to be no plan to correct this failure; the master plan for Bangalore's development, even over the next ten years, is unlikely to put Sarsamma and millions like her in decent shelter. The public review period for Bangalore's ten-yearly Revised Comprehensive Development Plan 2015 (referred here as CDP) ended recently, on September 12. Drafted by a French consortium for the Bangalore Development Authority, the Plan has evoked strong opinions from many concerned and interested citizens. Some worry that the public feedback process is inadequate. Other concerns are related to the low level of citizen engagement envisioned, the content of the Plan itself, and the legitimacy of the drafting body - the BDA - to take up this task. Even to the most casual observer, the CDP seems singularly out of sync with the basic tenets of strategic urban planning.

Uncertain authority for planning

By its very definition, urban planning must necessarily be an organic process and involve the communities it affects. In other words it must be completely decentralised. The 74th amendment to the Indian Constitution, which came into force in the early 1990s, aimed to do exactly that, by vesting constitutional powers in local bodies in the spirit of development planning through local governance. Even the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act of 1961 (of which the CDP is, ironically, a result) mandates a "local authority" to carry out all the planning activities within its jurisdiction. On paper at least, it is quite clear that citizen participation is the key to developing a plan for the city; certainly the law mandates this.

However, the reality is very different. According to an Indo-French protocol, Bangalore was locked into choosing a French consultant for the planning process. In this connection, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in February 2003 with the BDA and SCE Crocean (India) Pvt. Ltd. - a consortium comprising the City Government of Paris (APUR) - the Greater Paris Development and Planning Authorities (IAURIF), the Sorbonne University and the Group 8*; in the presence of the French Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of Karnataka.

"The BDA has taken the 'local' out of the equation. They are not answerable to any local elected representatives, and thus are [acting] completely contrary to the 74th Amendment," says Leo Saldhanha of the Environment Support Group. "Moreover, where is the Metropolitan Planning Committee? Where is the District Planning Committee?" he asks, referring to the Articles (243ZD and 243ZE) of the 74th Amendment that explicitly provide for the establishment of these committees, ideally chartered with consolidating plans prepared by the panchayats and municipalities. Grassroot-level plans from such committees were to be developed taking into consideration sharing of resources, infrastructure and environmental issues representing the communities using them.

"The development planning process needs to be bottom-up. Not the BDA's top-down way it is today," says Vinay Baindur of CIVIC, Bangalore, who has long been advocating decentralised local governance. A deep-rooted sentiment that often surfaces is that consultation with citizens after the planning is completed is hardly useful. "These conversations should happen right in the beginning. Not when little can be changed. Substantial issues do not get discussed in the end, and anyway consulting with a handful of people is not only unconstitutional, it is illegal," avers Baindur.

Where's the 'public'?

So is the BDA consulting the stakeholders at all? What happened during the public comment period? The BDA put about a 100 maps on display at a central location, Yavanika, during the review period. About 3000 citizens visited the exhibits, 95% of the complaints they lodged were about potential encroachments on their own plots of land. While this feedback was important, it was not an example of participative urban planning. Moreover, even the half-hearted effort from the BDA to communicate the CDP to citizens was incomplete; of the five volumes of the plan that were drafted, only four were made available to the public. And despite a promise to share the plans with the public freely, the BDA has declined to put the documents on its website. There simply was no proactive effort to obtain citizens' input.

One of the city's better-known NGOs, Janaagraha, then stepped in and conducted a series of CDP workshops at Yavanika. According to co-founder Swati Ramanathan, a few hundred people from various walks of life attended the eight workshops. By some accounts, however, these workshops were "too structured" and "over-organized." "A group of professionals sitting and answering a questionnaire is not exactly a very open discussion on urban planning issues that affect society," said a participant who preferred to stay un-named. "These workshops should be legitimate and conducted at every ward, with ward-level citizen representatives. Where was the widespread consultation by the BDA? A 100 people is not representative of Bangalore," says Baindur.

"A group of professionals sitting and answering a questionnaire is not exactly a very open discussion on urban planning issues that affect society."

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Ramanathan, however, remains optimistic and enthusiastic about the whole process. When Janaagraha submitted its feedback to the Urban Development Department at the BDA, Principal Secretary Shameem Banu purportedly said, "This is making me think. How are we going to include all this good feedback?"

Architects, representatives of the urban poor, gram panchayats, environment and heritage groups were all part of the workshops, and Ramanathan believes that this is the beginning of empowering the people to affect regional planning. "Not only does it give each of them a voice, but it also alerts them to each other's issues". "For example," says Cheryl Rebello, who was part of the coordination team at Janaagraha, "builders who were part of the workshops heard the problems of the urban poor and offered solutions like low-cost housing." While the Janaagraha effort to step in where the BDA fell woefully short is extremely commendable, there is the question of the constitutional legality of the whole process. After all, who authorised Janaagraha to take up the task of collecting public inputs?

Ramanathan admits, "This process has no legal legitimacy. It is completely an act of faith. We pushed them (BDA), we have their word that they will heed the feedback. We'd like them to work with the individual anchors. How do we create a system for ongoing engagement and inclusion of other bodies?" Her hope that if a process of citizen participation is begun, then it could grow to be more inclusive eventually may by justifiable. But that does not let the city off the hook. The government is required by the Constitution to institute the requisite committees to involve ward-level bodies legitimately in the planning process, and Janaagraha, however well-intended, is no substitute for that.

Planning in a vacuum

Aside from matters of local governance and adequate citizen participation, the CDP also suffers one unimaginable flaw. Flouting every rule of strategic planning, the Plan seems to have been created in a vacuum by people working without data or inputs from important service providers - of resources like power, water, waste management, transport, etc. "No, BESCOM (the power supplier) has not seen the CDP. The other agencies are not married into the plan," says Ramanathan, who has studied the Plan in detail. "Far from endorsing the CDP, do I even agree with it? No," she states categorically. Even a cursory probe reveals that the CDP has no financial projections, power requirements, or waste management plans built into it. Why, transport was not even part of the CDP initially - a vital miss. If the major arms of these para-statals are not even in the conversation, how robust is the Plan?

Equally important is the grievous lack of data. Economic, social, cultural, business, resource data. Saldanha says, "Just maps do not give the quality of land." They do not tell you anything about resource management or resource depletion. He adds, "We need to plan for the worst case scenario, ... But no scenario planning has gone into the CDP."

CDP 2015 also has not bothered to look back at the last CDP, created ten years ago. There are no in-depth analyses of how the city has actually developed, no reasons offered for encroachments on the green belt by residential properties south-west of the outer ring road and in industrial areas around Hosur Road, Banerghatta Road, Yelahanka, Whitefield, etc. There isn't even any accountability for deviations from the previous CDP. The BDA and the planning team have simply adopted the current ground situation as the baseline, made their inferences from it, and planned ahead. This is another reason why Saldanha and others baulk at endorsing the CDP or its planning process by being a part of it. "That the green belt is to limit growth has been given up without debate. Who decided that? The French consortium? The BDA? Why? Just because the land value is so high?" queries Saldanha whose ESG, along with CIVIC and a few Residents Welfare Associations want the government to go back to the drawing board and want the Metropolitan and District Planning Committees instituted first.

Indeed, nearly all citizens involved agree that inclusion in the true sense of the word - with planning from the bottom up, followed by iterative and interactive changes - is the only way the development of the city will be effective. Additionally, all the stakeholders need to be identified and invited to the table and provided with growth projections and socio-economic data and, most importantly, be held accountable to an implementation plan over a certain period. This will also lead to a realistic gauge of and plan for resources required over the implementation period. The planning period itself should be shortened which would afford for the dynamic nature of communities and their development.

The irony is that the one thing all citizens agree on - their right to be part of the development and implementation of the Plan - is the one thing the BDA has ignored the most! Ramanathan agrees, but maintains, "With a collective urban vision and the right governance reforms to execute, we can turn this around to be the most successful city in the country. Greater Bangalore can become a vibrant metropolis, with quality infrastructure and service delivery for the benefit of all residents, with robust mechanisms for partnership between citizens and government."

But until reforms and the necessary legal mechanisms for urban planning are in place, limited triumphs and 'acts of faith' are all she can hope for.