The Context of Metropolitan Planning

Keya Dasgupta June 15, 2012

Giorgio Grappi

Keya Dasgupta


Kolkata is witnessing significant and rapid transformations in its organization of space, especially in its periphery; transformations which began over three or more decades ago. These developments have come about through both formal/organized and informal/unorganized interventions. The state, the developmental authorities, both local and global, constitutes the former, whereas private ventures of a different nature and scale constitute the latter. Such simultaneous efforts in the reorganisation of space have given rise to characteristics shaped by legality, illegality, formal, informal, governmental, private, public-private partnerships, acquisitions, transactions, etc. The coexistence of such diverse actors and actions is being reflected in significant changes within a short span of time. These are changes brought about in occupancy, in objectives, in forms, through the emergence of a ‘new’ form of governance characterised by new categories and new actors, with resultant displacements of the existing. It would be interesting to enquire whether such developments reflect a planning agenda, or have evolved in spite of any well-defined, well-integrated plan.

A common factor in these varied layers of transformation – physical, social and economic - has been a shift in focus from the centre to the fringe areas of the city and the broader metropolitan area  in the northeast, east, southeast, south and southwest (though not with equal intensity). Interestingly, the demographic trends, especially in the last four decades, also substantiate this fact.  Since 1971, population growth was reported to have slowed down in the city of Calcutta. This slowdown was concentrated in its core wards, with a few wards even experiencing negative growth. By contrast, the rate of population growth in fringe areas, which were administratively included in the city in 1981, far surpassed that of the central city. Although this is an area yet to be interrogated in detail, one could possibly surmise that there has been a slowing down of migration into a city that had earlier witnessed significant migration flows; and that secondly, a large section of the population in the core city has been moving out, often making way for newer uses. But these are very tentative assumptions. May be we could term this, in the words of Edward Soja, as the ‘third geography of restructuring… a combination of decentralization and recentralization, the peripheralization of the centre and the centralization of the periphery, the city simultaneously being turned inside out and outside in’.


Urban Sprawl in the Eastern Fringes

Since its inception, the growth of Calcutta has primarily been dictated by its physical set-up   between River Hooghly on the west and the low lying swamps and wetlands on the east. The east has always functioned as the natural drainage and sewage disposal area. The vast East Calcutta Wetlands is a multiple use wetland covering 12,500 hectares. In November 2002 it was declared a Ramsar site, making it a wetland of international importance, and thus to be protected. The need to control the eastwards expansion of settlements has been voiced by city administrators and planners from the colonial era to the post-independence period. The entire eco-system is now under critical threat. According to the findings of a report by Kunal Chattopadhyay, as referred to by Kalyan Rudra, between 1980 and 2000, urban sprawl has engrossed about 1500 hectares of wetlands.


Urban sprawl in the environmentally vulnerable eastern fringes has continued unhindered ever since the establishment of a planned township at Salt Lake and the subsequent construction (in phases) of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, a broad road connecting the township to the southern extreme of the city that was meant to relieve the traffic load of the city proper. The planning of new townships such as the East Calcutta Township, the Baishnabghata-Patuli Township by the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) Metropolitan Development Authority are representative examples of state effort. With developments in the eastern fringes sponsored by both state and private agencies, the neighbouring areas also became sought after locations for further expansion.


The planning of a new town at Rajarhat in a dominantly agricultural land with water-bodies was significantly different on many counts - in magnitude, in method, and in the creation of a new form of governance, a model not followed earlier in township development in the state. This was through the setting up of a special purpose vehicle (SPV), the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (WBHIDCO) in the early 1990s to facilitate the project, with land assembly commencing in 1996. It is significant to note that alongside the development of the project, fringe villages were being developed as ‘service villages’, thus paving the way for their future inclusion into the urban area. This was done through the constitution of a civic body, the Bhangar-Rajarhat Area Development Authority (BRADA), which had administrative control over Rajarhat and adjoining areas, with the primary objective of infrastructural development. In Rajarhat HIDCO took up full responsibility for acquiring land and the fixing of land prices, while for the neighbouring villages this was left to market forces. BRADA has recently been scrapped after the new government came to power in the state.


Planning for Calcutta

The city of Calcutta has not followed a ‘planned’ course, in the proper sense of the term, in its process of development. Changes in its land use and built form have taken place, effected by the implementation of the ‘plan’, or alternatively, as a normal consequence of the urbanising process. The responsibility for developing the city physically has periodically changed hands, beginning with the British colonial powers.  Since then a large number of agencies have appeared on the scene, ‘making and executing independent physical development decisions without necessarily integrating them with the overall concept and functions of the city’. As the state government officially declared, they ‘remained in the wings, retaining the power to intervene but seldom exercising the integrating function in the city’s developmental activities.’


Decentralised Urbanisation? Planning for New Towns

Probably the earliest reference that we find regarding the planning of future growth centres outside the metropolitan area is in The Perspective Plan 1966-1986 of the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organisation’s Basic Development Plan (BDP), the first comprehensive planning endeavour for post-independence Calcutta. The BDP referred to two strategic centres for renewal and growth in the Calcutta Metropolitan District - the Metropolitan Centre comprising Calcutta and Howrah and the Kalyani-Bansberia Centre twenty-five miles further north. The latter didn’t take off as envisaged. A move was also made by the Government of West Bengal in the late1970s ‘towards a decentralized urban development policy’ through the development of small and medium towns and growth centres, to reduce the ‘unhealthy dependence on the metropolis’. Such efforts mainly concentrated on ‘improving the conditions’ of already existing small and medium towns.  


Planning objectives of contemporary Kolkata were clearly spelt out in the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority’s Vision 2025: A Perspective Plan of Calcutta Metropolitan Area. The following are representative extracts from the document, which might be useful to consider in the context of the present article:


Development efforts during the last three centuries have restored confidence, where the city looks forward to a dynamic and bright future, where ‘massive programmes’ have to be undertaken to support this new growth. Such programmes would include providing shelter, civic services, health and education facilities, and ‘expand the economic base and employment structure.


It is quite apparent that this new growth should largely be channelised outside the metropolitan centre.


In deliberating on the spatial structure for the metro region of Kolkata, Vision 2025 proposed a number of ‘Future Growth Centres’. The rationale given was that the ‘over-spill’ population in 2025 would need more built-up space, taking into consideration the ‘absorption capacity’ of existing settlements in the metropolitan area. Rajarhat-Gopalpur, though located just outside the metropolitan area, was selected as one of eight such envisaged growth centres, well-integrated in the future traffic and transport network. Through many similar ventures in other metropolitan areas in the Indian subcontinent, planned urbanization has been taking place in the periphery of large cities. Navi Mumbai is representative of this process.


The New Town of Rajarhat dovetailed with the Government of India’s declaration to establish 100 new towns by 2021. According to HIDCO’s project report on New Town, Calcutta, the two main ‘development objectives’ were to generate new areas for absorbing future metropolitan growth and to establish a New Business District to complement as well as supplement the metropolitan level functions of the Central Business District of Calcutta.


The City Development Plan, which was prepared for the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), echoes similar views as Vision 2025


Notwithstanding the problems and constraints, Kolkata envisions to become a world class city and attain competitive edge in this era of globalization. […] Obviously, this would call for substantial improvement in the basic infrastructural facilities such that domestic and international investors are encouraged to come and invest in the city and stay to realize the economic growth potential.


The primary objectives of these two planning documents reflect a marked shift from the preceding period in terms of spatial planning and the emergence of a new agenda in the management of cities, where through development projects, the role of external funding agencies, the private sector, and public-private partnerships have been given prominence as well as priority.


The new economic policy of liberalization and globalization had brought in change in the approach to economic development and the responsive role of the local self-government in the development process. […] Development of the service sector has to be emphasised. Towards meeting these targets, internationally proven consultants may be utilised including for funding arrangements.


The role of the state is also very significant in this new scenario; it no longer simply acts as afacilitators, but also as a sponsor. The setting up of the New Town, Rajarhat is an interesting model of this new form of governance.