The steady breakdown of professional credibility and need for critical reforms

Despite 1,19,000 qualified architects in India, why does the government entrust the design of our new cities to foreign consultants? Change must come about, writes Ranjit Sabikhi.

by Ranjit Sabikhi Published on : Jun 27, 2020

It is time for all professionals concerned with urban development to come together to play a more active role in the process of urban development – whether they are architects, town planners, urban designers, landscape architects, structural consultants, services engineers, traffic planners, economists, or sociologists. The ongoing pandemic has clearly highlighted the technical inadequacies of the existing framework and the need for urgent reform - a reform that would seek to release the current stranglehold that bureaucrats and politicians have on the system of planning, and replace it with a process where professionals are actively involved in taking decisions relating to urban development. This calls for a change in the manner in which our new cities are currently designed, developed, and built.

In a recent article in the Hindustan Times, the CEO of Niti Aayog, Amitabh Kant stressed on the importance of making local Indian brands truly global. He lauded the fact that a number of Indian ventures and brands relating to telephones, automobiles, mining, and consumer goods have become global. He emphasised on the need to create economies of scale, and focus on land and labour reforms, the importance of urbanisation, and the need to build new cities to provide employment to large numbers of village migrants. He stated that urbanisation will create self-sufficiency in job creation and domestic demand. Urban innovation, decentralisation, and municipal finance will serve as tools to implement the Prime Minister’s Aatma Nirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) vision. Despite the grand vision, the reality is different and the future of our cities based on the government’s actions to date is severely flawed. Our new Indian cities are poorly planned, with primitive services infrastructure and poor quality of construction, and they do not in any way compare with new cities on a global level. The flawed Transit Oriented Development Policy and the dilution of regulations now proposed will only make matters much worse.

Aurobindo Market Complex designed and built by DDA in 1993 | Land as public amenity | Ranjit Sabikhi | STIRworld
Aurobindo Market Complex designed and built by DDA in 1993 Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Amitabh Kant was previously the CEO of Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation (DMICDC) incorporated in 2008, which involved the development of seven smart new industrial cities en route. The design and development of the master plan for each of these cities was entrusted to foreign consultancy firms. No Indian consultancy firms were considered. Despite the passage of more than 12 years, there has been little progress in terms of actual development of these seven cities. Countries such as China and South Korea have built entire new cities within a period of 20 to 30 years. In some of these projects, foreign collaborators were involved, but they were effectively used to transfer technological skills, and enhance local building systems. By comparison the quality of skills in the Indian construction industry is dismal, and has shown minimal improvement over the last 30 years.

One wonders whether our bureaucrats and politicians are aware of the fact that we have approximately 1.3 lakh qualified urban development professionals in our country whose existence is not acknowledged. It is worth noting that there are 119,000 qualified architects registered with the Council of Architecture. There are a total of approximately 7,500 qualified town planners, 1200 landscape architects, and 400 qualified urban designers. Despite the availability of this large pool of qualified professionals, why do government agencies choose to entrust the design of our new cities and major projects to foreign consultants? Are our Indian professionals not good enough?

Janakpuri District Centre designed by The Design Group for DDA in 1984 | Land as public amenity | Ranjit Sabikhi | STIRworld
Janakpuri District Centre designed by The Design Group for DDA in 1984 Image Credit: Shivam Pandey

In earlier years, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) commissioned a large number of architects to design and implement major projects and paid professional fees in accordance with the Scale of Charges laid down by the Indian Institute of Architects. We were commissioned by DDA to design the Janakpuri District Centre, which was completed in 1992, and by HUDCO for the design of the August Kranti Bhawan at Bhikaji Cama Place in 1995. In January 2009, when we were asked by NBCC to prepare a concept design proposal for the development of housing on an 86-acre site at East Kidwai Nagar, the situation had changed. The engineers who now controlled NBCC insisted that we prepare the concept on a minimum lump sum fee, and assured us that our appointment as architects for the project would be confirmed in due course. They had no idea of the scale of development involved or of the Master Plan implications, and pushed us to do a fairly detailed concept design exercise. By the time the concept was completed, the Chairman of NBCC had changed, and the new CMD insisted on inviting bids from several architects. The Indian architect who submitted the lowest bid was awarded the project, who in turn handed it over to a foreign consultancy firm - Chapman Taylor. The project as implemented is a series of repetitive multi-storey blocks - a development that blatantly flouts the Delhi Master Plan regulations by failing to provide the diverse social and infrastructural amenities prescribed.

India Habitat Centre designed by Joseph Allen Stein for HUDCO in 1995 | Land as public amenity | Ranjit Sabikhi | STIRworld
India Habitat Centre designed by Joseph Allen Stein for HUDCO in 1995 Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

During the 80s and up to the mid-90s, organisations like the CPWD (Central Public Works Department), TCPO (Town and Country Planning Organisation) and DDA had a good team of in-house architects and town planners who designed and implemented several projects. DDA designed and built a large number of group housing projects in several parts of the city. They also designed and built some well-designed large scale projects like the Aurobindo Market complex at Hauz Khas, and the DDA Office complex behind the INA Market. HUDCO also appointed private architects on reasonable professional terms for substantial projects like the August Kranti Bhawan, India Habitat Centre, the Ansal Shopping Plaza and the adjoining Housing Complex in 1995.  

From 1995 onwards, things slowly changed and government organisations like the CPWD, NBCC and DDA began a process of inviting bids for professional services, ignoring the guidelines for professional services prescribed by the Council of Architecture. Architects and planners did not protest, and in fact, fell in line with the new setup, and in the process lost their professional credibility. The professionals are responsible for having allowed this situation to come about, and for the steady devaluation of their services. The government agencies have over the years continued to downgrade the cost of professional services, and now treat all professionals on par with petty service contractors, inviting them to submit their lowest bids for the design of projects, and in some cases also to deposit earnest money.

This was also the beginning of a process where many professionals started looking for devious alternative means for making up for the loss of professional fees. Over the last 25 years, the system has slowly extended its fingers into all sections of the bureaucracy responsible for urban development, and for the last few years it is now directly controlled by the bureaucrats and politicians themselves. There are a number of reasons for this complete change in attitude and approach; the main one being the steady monetisation of land. Land has become a commodity to be exploited for maximum return, and in the process a large number of people in our cities, who belong to the lower income groups, who need more space, are forced to live in hovels, in miserable conditions. They do not form part of any plans, and they are pushed to occupy left-over space, or space in urban villages, or unauthorised colonies in crowded and unhealthy conditions. Most of these are the people who have recently been walking home to their villages to be with their families.

 East Kidwai Nagar Redevelopment - proposal by Ranjit Sabikhi Architects. Three dimensional view of proposed development directly linked to surroundings that include NDSE housing and NDSE market, INA market, and Dilli Haat | Land as public amenity | Ranjit Sabikhi | STIRworld
East Kidwai Nagar Redevelopment - proposal by Ranjit Sabikhi Architects. Three dimensional view of proposed development directly linked to surroundings that include NDSE housing and NDSE market, INA market, and Dilli Haat Image Credit: Courtesy of Ranjit Sabikhi Architects

The current pandemic and the need to maintain a distance between people has clearly indicated that a new approach to planning has to come about. Change is necessary with the provision of adequate space for all sections of the society. The best way to provide for affordable housing on a reasonable basis is to give each individual a small plot of land of minimum 80 square yard area (recommended for slum housing in the Master Plan for Delhi 1962) with the necessary service connections on which the dwelling unit may be built by the owners themselves on a basis of gradual accretion and growth as their financial conditions improve. There must be flexibility in the system to allow this to happen. This must be coupled with a process of cross subsidisation by which a charge on the medium and higher income group development provides funds for the gradual improvement and development of the LIG areas complete with all necessary support facilities like schools, health centres, meeting places, parks and open spaces. The planning concept must now be based on the provision of substantial areas of land, which would allow for improvement and growth over time without creating conditions of intense concentration and crowding. The emphasis would need to shift from the monetisation of land to the value addition of amenities. In order for this to happen, the current system of planning will need to be completely changed. Organisations like DDA, who are responsible for the acquisition and development of land, will need to be split, separating all issues relating to the purchase and development of land from the process of planning and development.

 East Kidwai Nagar Redevelopment – proposed masterplan by Ranjit Sabikhi Architects. This proposal incorporates the same number and size of apartments as the NBCC development as built and also includes amenities as per DMP 2021 | Land as public amenity | Ranjit Sabikhi | STIRworld
East Kidwai Nagar Redevelopment – proposed masterplan by Ranjit Sabikhi Architects. This proposal incorporates the same number and size of apartments as the NBCC development as built and also includes amenities as per DMP 2021 Image Credit: Courtesy of Ranjit Sabikhi Architects

Urban innovation, decentralisation, and adequate municipal finance will all come about if there is a proper process of cross subsidisation of the cost of development of all parts of cities. It will not happen if the large population is used for their services, but are not allowed to participate and improve their lives on an equal basis. Teams consisting of a number of qualified Indian professionals conversant with Indian realities, and the way of life, need to be made responsible for planning and implementation of urban development at all levels. It is essential that development from the village level to the local mandi towns, as well as the growing cities, all be properly planned with the active involvement of qualified professionals at all stages on an on-going basis. The present system of preparing one-time plans, followed by the issue of endless change-of-use notifications is outdated, and should be scrapped. All available digital tools should be effectively used to bring in place a system of planning, which is constantly monitored in response to changing needs. All professional institutes need to come together to help chart out a comprehensive system for the planning of future urban development.

If we really want change to come about, our approach to development will need to change. By all means create economies of scale, focus on land and labour reforms, push agriculture and encourage innovation, but with the active support and involvement of all sections that constitute our diverse population. The cities can and will govern themselves without depending on the state and central governments if they have control of development without continuous political interference and exploitation.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this piece belong solely to the author. These do not reflect the opinions or views of STIR or its members. STIR is only a platform to facilitate these views.)

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