Lessons for Mumbai: Govt Agencies Cannot Aim to Maximise Profits Like Private Land Developers

A new, well researched book by three architects and activists shows what Mumbai can and should learn from other cities

In 2003 the pro-corporate think-tank Bombay First commissioned the international corporate consulting firm McKinsey and Company to prepare a ‘comprehensive vision’ for Mumbai to help it achieve the status of a ‘world class city.’ The idea was to compare Mumbai with other international cities and chart out a plan for development for the next ten years.

McKinsey is known around the world as one of the great business success stories of recent times. Such is its prestige, that its staggering list of failures has been exorcised from public memory. The business journalist Duff McDonald wrote that McKinsey’s missteps would have ‘doomed lesser firms’ – since it hand-held companies like General Motors, Swissair and most notably, Enron, to their spectacular demise. 

After 20 years of McKinsey’s recommendations, does Mumbai belong to McKinsey’s list of achievements or failures?

After all, Mumbai’s planners and managers have followed McKinsey’s advice closely. They have transformed Mumbai into a ‘consumption centre’, privatised the airport, eliminated octroi, expanded private transport infrastructure to connect business districts, selectively increased FSI, relaxed environmental and land regulations, and much more. 

They have even outdone McKinsey in some areas. For instance, McKinsey had advocated the recently launched Atal Setu MTHL as a ‘rail-cum-road link’, but the Metropolitan Development Authority (MMRDA) seems to have decided that because a railway will benefit low-income Mumbaikars more than consumers of cars and luxury real-estate, it should not be a part of the MTHL. 

McKinsey’s most visible contribution undoubtedly has been the three word justification for everything that benefits the city’s political, bureaucratic and economic elite: ‘world class city.’ 

Understandably, many critics have objected to this catchphrase, stating that such superficial comparisons with developed cities distract attention away from Mumbai’s real problems. Others have argued that the ‘world-class city’ focus ignores the city’s inequalities, and consequences of reforms on the city’s poor. Some even believe that such comparisons are counterproductive, since every city is unique, and that no single model of urbanism is desirable or replicable around the world. 

The criticisms may have a point. McKinsey’s recommendations cherry-picked examples from around the world to buttress a pro-privatisation, consumption led growth agenda, with no regard for the consequences on the city’s workers, housing poor and the environment. But to assume that any comparison with other cities is illegitimate is itself a form of conservatism. There are lessons one can learn from other cities, provided we are conscious of their value and appropriateness to our own contexts. 

This is the purpose of a new book, titled 6 Metros, authored by Mumbai’s highly acclaimed urban planner Shirish Patel – who incidentally was behind the ‘world-class city’ of Navi Mumbai built in the 1970s – along with architects and urban designers Oormi Kapadia and Jasmine Saluja. 

‘6 Metros: Urban Planning and Implementation’ (in two volumes), Shirish B Patel, Oormi Kapadia, and Jasmine Saluja, Vakils, Feffer & Simons Pvt. Ltd., 2023.

6 Metros is a voluminous account of how six different cities of comparable size (London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Delhi and Mumbai) have evolved methods to address their urban development goals. These methods include institutional aspects of the planning process, implementation, land acquisition and regulation; issues of land allocation and development intensity in the form of land use, transit, housing, social infrastructure (open spaces, health, education, social amenities) and density; and experiential dimensions of the city that are shaped by guidelines that shape urban form and fabric. 

The book may seem to some as an academic exercise of comparing six cities based on various urban planning parameters. But this would be a mistake. In fundamental ways, this is a book about Mumbai. The three authors of this book live and practice in Mumbai, and the various issues identified in the book reflect the authors’ concerns as professionals and activists with Mumbai’s problems. In other words, the book is an evaluation of Mumbai with reference to other cities. 

How is the planning process organised in other cities? Those familiar with Mumbai recognise that while the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is responsible for overall urban management of the city, the periodic incursions of the state government in planning regulations and through its various parastatal ‘authorities’ have affected a territorial and functional fragmentation of the planning process. These ‘authorities’ independently pursue their projects and plans, often ignoring or even conflicting with each other. Sometimes, the result is a downward spiral of absurdity. 

For example, the original proposal for the northern section of the Coastal Road project was debated as a choice between two alternatives – a sea-link and a road along the coast with a combination of reclaimed and stilted sections. Eventually, it was decided that both these alternatives will be constructed, by three separate agencies: a Coastal Road from Versova to Dahisar constructed by the MCGM, a sea-link from Bandra to Versova by the MSRDC, and an extension of that sea-link from Versova to Vasai-Virar to be built by MMRDA. It is significant that the sea-link from Bandra to Virar does not appear in the MMRDA’s 2016 Regional Plan, nor in the BMC’s 2018 Development Plan. In other words, the MSRDC and MMRDA will be executing their projects contrary to statutory plans. 

Through their study of six cities, the authors of 6 Metros advocate a solution to Mumbai’s ‘balkanised’ planning system by shifting decision-making and accountability to elected representatives at the local levels: a Mayoral level that deals with issues of the city such as transit, infrastructure and services, and a Municipal Councillor level that deals with detailed local-area planning supported by technical inputs where necessary. Although outside the scope of their book, we could by extension envision the allocation of functions to a Metropolitan level planning board, composed of elected city representatives, to oversee various aspects of metropolitan management.

The core concern of the book, and the main axis of comparative analysis between different cities, is the question of land. How do other cities administer urban land? This is a question that is most lucidly discussed in the first chapter of the book, titled ‘core beliefs.’ The land market, they argue, calls for entirely different forms of regulation. 

The authors recommend a policy of land pricing that ranges from fully marketised land to price controls that make land affordable for lower income groups, to land that is taken off the market, reserved specifically for economically weaker sections of society. They observe that such practices are explicit in public and social housing schemes, and are implicit in the ‘inclusionary housing’ policies of other cities. 

In inclusionary housing, a developer or land owner supplies a portion of their land for affordable housing as the condition for the commercial exploitation of the rest. In Catalonia, Spain, they note, 50% of floor space offered for sale is set aside for affordable housing, and in London it is 35%. It must be noted that for inclusionary housing, the cost of construction is fully reimbursed to the developer, allowing the public authority to enforce adherence to adequate standards. 

This is different from ‘redevelopment’ schemes in Mumbai, where the cost of a replacement ‘free house’ (which can be put back on the market), and therefore the cost of land and construction is passed on to new flat buyers. This has resulted in a great deal of reconstruction, poor quality rehabilitation, and a rather small increment in new house supply which in turn is affordable only for the astronomically wealthy.

It must be pointed out that the authors of 6 Metros are not simply peddling new ‘ideas’ to solve complex urban problems. By making land governance and regulation the focus of their arguments, they hope for a shift in the priorities of urban planning, from one oriented towards profit at all costs, to one that sets up a sensible framework of regulations to achieve equitable and sustainable development. As they write in their introduction, ‘when it comes to land, there are other considerations that far outweigh the promised efficiency of markets.’ It is the delineation of these ‘other considerations’ and their achievement, that forms the main preoccupation of the book.

They acknowledge, however, that good regulation hinges on governments and government agencies that act impartially, competently, and in the pursuit of the public interest. Government agencies are not equivalent to private developers who aim to maximise profits from land. Unless this condition is ensured, they write, ‘all we can do is extend our condolences to that city and hope for a change in its political and bureaucratic leadership.’

Twenty years ago, McKinsey’s influential ‘world class city’ document for Mumbai demanded an urgent implementation of its recommendations otherwise it was in ‘grave danger of collapsing completely.’ It picked examples from other cities to make a case to ‘actively focus on economic growth,’ ‘high-impact projects’, ‘public private partnerships,’ and a empowered administration to drive Mumbai’s transformation. 

6 Metros shows, in contrast, what intelligent observers can learn from other cities, and what we can do to improve our own.

Hussain Indorewala teaches at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture in Mumbai.