A hundred-year-old colonial law comes in handy


It is hardly surprising that most Indian cities are so messy, says Bimal Patel, an architect and planner who is president of CEPT University in Ahmedabad. When European and American cities were swelling quickly, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were surrounded by large farms that could be turned into fully-formed suburbs. By contrast, most Indian farms are tiny. A builder who buys a plot of land on the outskirts of an Indian city usually has just enough space to squeeze in a few homes. He will throw them up without sparing a thought for where any major roads or other infrastructure might go. Slum developments do not even have underground sewers.

Ahmedabad does things differently. Two municipal authorities—one for the central city, the other covering a much larger area around Ahmedabad—identify large blocks of land to develop. On the fringes of the city, they usually claim about two-fifths of the land area for roads, schools, parks, social housing and so on. Rather than claiming land only from farmers who happen to be in the path of roads, though, the authorities take the same proportion from everyone in the block.

Then, using a century-old town-planning law introduced by the British former rulers, Ahmedabad’s officials reorganise all land holdings in the block so that they align with the new road grid. Field boundaries that once curved and twisted become straight. The authorities pay farmers for the land that they seize, and charge them for infrastructure improvements. Usually, the land jumps so much in value that everybody comes out well ahead.

This process can be fraught, and is not entirely clean.


The same system works elsewhere in Gujarat. The city of Bhuj, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2001, has been rebuilt using town-planning schemes. Town planning is being revived in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra (Gujarat and Maharashtra both used to belong to a huge state known as Bombay). Other states are interested, too. JICA, the Japanese aid agency, has tried to spread knowledge of town planning to other Asian countries, including Thailand.

Mr Patel of CEPT University says he is sometimes told that the technique would work less well outside his state. Gujaratis have a reputation for being industrious and pragmatic; perhaps that explains why farmers are willing to submit to the shrinkage and reorganisation of the lands they used to cherish. Nonsense, he says. They agree to it because it has repeatedly been shown to work for people like them. Planning laws have made Gujaratis rational, not the other way around.