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People’s Participation in Planning Mumbai?: Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh

December 17, 2013

This is a guest post by Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh

Since the past six months in Mumbai, there has been an unusual convergence between urban activists, community groups, rights groups, unions, Non-Governmental Organizations and academics, who have come together to provide a theoretical critique of the city’s neoliberal development model, to formulate a more diverse and hopeful vision for the city than the one proclaimed by its power elite, and to present practical alternatives to plans and projects promulgated by faceless state bureaucracies and unaccountable private consultants.

On 22nd October 2013, more than 1500 people gathered at Azad Maidan to formally present “The People’s Vision Document for Mumbai’s Development Plan (2014-2034)” to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM).[1] The People’s Vision Document (PVD)[2] is a remarkable collective vision statement, an outcome of discussions focused around specific issues in the city with more than a hundred grassroots and community groups, along with activists, experts and academics who participated in them. With this movement, the less advantaged residents of the city have announced and forced themselves into an exclusionary and secretive Development Plan process; refusing to be silent spectators, in a striking example of initiative, organizational ability and creative agency, they have asserted their right to the city’s future, whose owners and managers have done much to keep them out. To use the language of other social urban movements around the world, some of the most marginalized groups of the city are fighting for spatial justice, urban democracy, and have claimed their ‘right to be equal in diversity.’[3]

For the past year, there has been a lot of talk in the local press about “people’s participation” in planning Mumbai, mainly around the revision of its Development Plan. Over the years, different agencies and interest groups have produced their own “visions” for the city, and all have insisted that they have been participatory in one way or another. The discussion around participation, as a result, seems to be hopelessly confused, and little attention is paid to questions of what participation is, who is to participate, why it is necessary, and how it can be done. In what follows, we will first compare four cases where claims have been made about people’s participation in the making of visions and plans for the city, and attempt to assess their veracity by looking closely at their proposals and processes. In the second half of the essay, we will explain one case that is less known compared to the others – the People’s Vision Document – and explain its significance, and conclude by pointing out what we think are some of its shortfalls and limitations.

Visions, Processes and Plans for Mumbai: A Comparative Assessment from the perspective of participation

In a very well-known contribution to the literature on planning processes, the American planner Sherry Arnstein constructed what she called “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,”[4] in an attempt to cut through the fog of rhetoric surrounding the subject. As she rightly pointed out, the “controversial slogan” of citizen participation and the answer to what it actually means is “purposely buried in innocuous euphemisms” such as – to use terms that have been frequently used in the discourse around Mumbai’s Development Plan – “political engagement,” “consultation workshops” and “citizen involvement.” To her, participation signifies distribution of power, as a “categorical term for citizen power,” the strategy by which the have-nots join in determining how information is shared, goals and polices are set, tax resources are allocated, programs are operated, and benefits like contracts and patronage are parceled out.[5]

Her ladder is an indispensable tool to measure the content of claims to participation: it begins with the two bottom rungs, manipulation and therapy, which are basically “non-participation.” The next three, in reverse order, are informing, consultation and placation, that she calls “tokenism.” The next two are partnership and delegated power and together with the one on top, citizen control, are classed under “citizen power” – the only rungs that qualify as participation in any meaningful sense. Let us employ Arnstein’s ladder to evaluate the some important recent visions and plans made by different groups in the city, not just to assess their merits or effectiveness, but mainly to measure the quality and degree of citizen participation.

1) Visions for a “World Class” City

Since the early 90s, big business groups and their consultants have produced an deluge of proposals, visions and plans for the city. Mumbai First and McKinsey’s Vision Mumbai of 2003, MMRDA’s 2007 Business Plan for MMR with Lea International, The Credit Rating Information Services of India’s (CRISIL) Roadmap, the establishment of Mumbai Transformation Support Unit (MTSU) and its Concept Plan of 2011, are some examples. An analysis of the forces and institutions behind these plans and their programs has been done in considerable detail elsewhere,[6] but how do they fare on Arnstein’s ladder? Clearly, these schemes belong right at the bottom: manipulation and therapy. Arnstein defines manipulation as “the distortion of participation into a public relations vehicle by powerholders” and therapy where planners assume that “powerlessness is synonymous with mental illness,” and subject citizens to healthy doses of “education” and “group therapy.” The assumption is that it is people that need to be educated and persuaded by planners and officials, not the other way round. Special committees are set up with combative prefixes – “empowered,” “high-powered,” “steering” – and the social elite are invited to be a part of them in the name of participation. Extensive public relations campaigns are organized to shape values and attitudes or residents, and cleanliness and beautification “drives” are undertaken to restore the lost “lustre” of the city, and so on – all standard examples of manipulative and therapeutic non-participatory planning undertaken by the city’s power elite.

2) The MCGM’s Development Plan

For its third revision since the first Development Plan (DP)[7] for Bombay was sanctioned under the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning (MR&TP) Act of 1966, the MCGM appointed a Bangalore based French firm, Group SCE, to prepare the Plan in April 2011. Much to the MCGM’s credit, it has made little show of citizen participation in the current DP revision process. The only places in the task schedule for the DP where the meddlesome masses are allowed to say something is in three “probable consultation workshops.”[8] The workshops are not meant to be an actual part of the process, and each of them may occur – once after the release of the existing status report, once after the release of the vision and objectives, and once after the release of the final plans. But unlike plans made by big business groups, the city government is subject to periodic elections, and under the provisions of the MR&TP Act required to carry out a “suggestion and objection” process providing a very tiny window of public influence. On Arnstein’s ladder this is definitely informing, a species of tokenism, with a “one-way flow of information – from officials to citizens” with people being offered “very little opportunity to influence the program designed ‘for their benefit.’”

So for instance in September 2012, the MCGM released the Existing Land Use (ELU) maps of the city. This was the city’s first encounter with the DP. The result was dramatic: over the next six months, institutions and individuals pointed out 5,134 errors in the maps. Predictably, in a meeting in May 2013 with stakeholder groups, the MCGM rejected all except “250 discrepancies” as mere “comments” or “suggestions.” However, it was forced to review all “comments” under public pressure[9] and present them in the form of an Action Report.[10]The Action Report, despite being a small victory, has serious problems. Some of the most significant errors in the ELU, especially those having to do with the mapping of slums, urban villages, hawkers, the homeless and other vulnerable groups, were admitted, but have been put away for the proposal stage. This clearly violates the MR&TP Act, which defines an ELU map as “a map indicating the use to which lands in any specified area are put at the time of preparing the map.”[11] Furthermore, a survey is, as Patrick Geddes taught, the most crucial stage of planning: it is an acknowledgement of facts on the ground and a willingness to work with things as they exist, as opposed to the desire to force planners’ own arbitrary visions on them. The public outcry and the response to it in the form of the Action Report was ironically and characterized as people’s “participation” in the planning process by the press and others.[12] But far from being participation in any meaningful sense, it was a representation of the fact that planners would rather undertake extraordinary pains to organize and operate a complicated exclusionary process instead of setting up participatory structures for plan making.

One of the most controversial aspects of the ELU maps was the non-inclusion of land use data for areas that come under a Special Planning Authority (SPA). SPA’s are the government’s planning bureaucracies or quasi-governmental agencies – Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA), the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) and the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) – responsible for the development of some areas in the city. 9.4% of the city’s total land area is notified as under an SPA, effectively leaving out a large chunk of the city’s population and urban functions from the plan. The larger problem with SPAs, however, is that unlike the MCGM where the elected representatives are in theory accountable for plans they make, in the hands of bureaucrats, the only mechanism for public influence on planning for these areas is the option of making “suggestions and objections” to the agency’s plans, which the agency may adopt “if it thinks fit.”[13]

More important is the fact that land-use maps and studies tell us pitifully little about the kinds of present activities of people, the quality and condition of their environments and social services that they have access to, and the opportunities for engaging in empowering work, associations and other essential functions of everyday life – all of which are better indicators of their future wants and needs. Urban problems have less to do with land use allocations and facilities than planners assume, but unfortunately this physical determinism is implicit even in the way the MR&TP Act defines “development”: “…the making of any material change, in any building or land or in the use of any building or land…” Though it is obvious that many social problems in the context of a developing society like ours are physical – much needed infrastructure, housing, amenities – but poverty will not vanish with more houses, health will not improve simply by building more health amenities, illiteracy is not always about fewer educational amenities, nor is the amount of road area a good indication of transportation issues. The large problems of our city have to do with access and affordability, and secure jobs and welfare programs combined with greater control of people over their built environment – urban democracy and participatory planning – will do much more to overcome these, rather than development approaches that are based on sociological abstractions and conceived in narrow physical terms without any sense of what makes places good to live in.


3) UDRI’s Stakeholder “Engagement”

Since September 2009, the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI), an organization that facilitates exchanges between designers, planners and other professionals on urban affairs,[14]organized a few workshops on the Development Plan for the city.[15] In order to get people to “participate” in the Development Plan, it conducted surveys in collaboration with some schools of architecture of more than 2000 people: the questionnaires were based on issues of governance, housing, environment, water and sanitation, health, education, energy, livelihood and urban form. As a next step, the UDRI arranged multiple meetings with “stakeholder” groups and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) “to understand the needs and solutions for sector wise planning issues.” These consultations with more than 150 individuals in 42 meetings were based on 11 sectors, with finance as another sector added to the ten from the survey stage. Based on these meetings, UDRI formulated 35 “stakeholder principles” that it presented to the city government and its planning consultant Group SCE in a meeting at the MCGM office in December 2011.

Though the UDRI has not made any plan for the city, how participatory have its efforts been so far, and what degree of participation does it seem to invite in its various proposals and recommendations? A cursory glance at UDRI’s questionnaires reveal them to be mere attitude and opinion surveys, those that “generate” a good bit of “data” as evidence of participation, and can then be used to justify select proposals. “Do you think there is an increased need for citizen public participation in planning Mumbai?” Asks the questionnaire. Thankfully, 84% say yes.[16] Their “stakeholder principles” on the other hand, are a mixed bag, with some reasonable suggestions such as reserving all tenable slum land for “affordable” housing (without a clarification about what is affordable and for whom),[17] but most are monstrously vague: “planning of the built environment shall be based on and derived from a detailed understanding of livelihood, housing, environment, transportation, health, education, energy, water and sanitation, and security.”[18] Recommendations for citizen participation in these “stakeholder principles” fail to go beyond “discussions and exhibitions” of public projects and information about future plans in the form of performance reviews and reports.[19] Moreover, most of the meetings and workshops in UDRI’s “engagement” with stakeholders were predominantly discussions between professionals and experts (“selected based on [their] immense field expertise”[20]) or presentations by them to the public, with the entire process designed, managed and financed by the organization. On Arnstein’s ladder, this would not rank above consultation, a form of tokenism just one rung higher than the tokenism of the MCGM.


4) The People’s Vision Document (PVD)

What about the People’s Vision Document (PVD)? What form and degree of participatory measures does it call for? Like the UDRI effort, the People’s Movement was initiated and facilitated by a single organization. However, in the identification of sectors for stakeholder meetings, in the composition of individuals and organizations that participated in those meetings, and in the recommendations that have come out of them, the YUVA led effort has been quite distinct. Beginning in April 2013, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), a rights based organization that works on issues of urban poverty and marginalization,[21]began organizing meetings and discussions between more than a hundred community groups and other grassroots organizations, activists, researchers and experts to formulate a “People’s Vision” for the city, made by and with some of its poorest communities. This was meant to be a clear alternative to the MCGM’s own “Vision and Guiding Principles with Objectives” for the DP that was scheduled for release in August 2012. YUVA structured these discussions around sectors that, apart from the usual planning issues of housing, education, health, transport, services and open spaces, were also on social issues such as gender discrimination, the needs of children and the aspirations of youth. Then there were issues of occupation and class, physical disability, historical settlements, primary producers, and democratic processes and participatory institutions. The PVD itself was authored sector-wise separately – the responsibility was taken up on a voluntary basis during the group meetings – and compiled, and has clear and pointed recommendations. Interestingly, the PVD is anything but a list of demands: rich in analysis and possibilities, it is an incisive commentary on the problems facing the city with concrete measures to overcome them.

What began as a series of stakeholder meetings facilitated by YUVA soon evolved into an autonomous movement, self-financed, with its own name, and a convener group comprising of individuals from various community groups and organizations. Significantly, YUVA itself soon stepped back from its role as the financier and facilitator, and has become one of the actors working in the movement, though it still plays an important coordination role. In general, the temper of the PVD exhibits the willingness of people to articulate their own needs and priorities, and attempt to overcome various obstacles to their own development in partnership with the powerholders. Though this is still not quite delegated power or citizen control, it is nevertheless a lively example of how communities can organize in an effort to shape their own lives.


A Side note on the “Community Participation Law”

One of the chapters of the PVD is titled “People’s Participation,” demanding decentralized decision making and citizen participation in planning. Apart from an amendment to the MR&TP Act to include mechanisms for people’s participation in plan making, it rather uncritically calls for the passage of the “Community Participation Law” (Nagar Raj Bill) mandated under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), which requires the formation of Area Sabhas or area level citizen councils (registered voters of the local polling booth) that elect a representative (who can be recalled). These representatives then form two third members of a Ward Committee chaired by the elected Ward Councilor, to undertake ward management and development functions.

Decentralization is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but the JNNURM’s Community Participation Law only assign responsibilities and duties to the Area Sabhas but no effective authority. All the “functions” of the two-third elected members of the Ward Committee are advisory and supportive, not decisive – they have no policy or planning functions or powers. This is because the remaining one-third members of the Ward Committee are nominated by the Councilor from NGOs, businesses groups or other organizations, as members of “civil society” – presumably, the two-third elected representatives are neither “civil” nor are they a part of “society.” For all important functions, the bill requires the creation of special committees as subsets of the Ward Committee that are again nominated by the Councilor: functions such as maintenance of accounts, preparation of annual budgets, enforcing zoning and land use provisions, and participation in spatial planning for the ward and the city. Naturally, “respectable” and “eminent” individuals from corporate bodies and select NGOs will be handpicked to constitute these smaller committees, while the representatives of the Area Sabhas will do a lot of talking but not much else. Significantly, a large part of the urban populations in India today are poor migrants, many of who are not easily registered as voters, and will be excluded from representation at the Ward Committee. The concept of voters also does not give groups who work in an area but do not reside there – such as informal vendors – any representation in local bodies.[22] Quite ingeniously, this “decentralization” of decision making seems to increase control of the central and state governments and private power in Municipal affairs as opposed to the empowerment of local communities, by creating and strengthening unelected professionals while weakening elected members. A product of what PratapBhanu Mehta calls a “bureaual mind,” the Bill is based on the “deeply problematic” assumption “that the more matters are insulated from representative government and handed to independent professionals, the better off the system will be.”[23] Unless the provisions for nomination in the bill are removed to constitute the Ward Committee as a body of elected representatives only, the Community Participation Law does not qualify on Arnstein’s ladder as anything more than placation, where communities have some degree of influence though their inclusion is still tokenistic, to be easily sidelined by powerful individuals and groups.

People’s participation in decision-making and planning, or urban democracy, is no quaint dream, and good examples of such institutions can be found at home and abroad. One of the best known cases is Brazil, where popular mobilization led the Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT) to introduce participatory budgeting in the late 90s, and in cities such as Porto Allegre all municipal budget decisions have been handed over to participatory citizen councils.[24]Participatory budgeting, now practiced in more than 300 cities around the world,[25] combines representative and direct democracy, and contrary to the assumption of urban managers and technocratic planners that “too much democracy” is impractical and inefficient, some of these experiments have been quite successful and efficient: in Porto Allegre, much greater public investment in poorer areas dramatically improved living conditions, achieving almost universal provision of water supply and sanitation, a threefold increase in number of public schools (from 1988 to 1998), and much greater coverage in housing assistance.[26] Similarly, at home, the successes of village-level participatory planning councils in Kerala in the 90s are well known.[27]  But value of participation much exceeds its utility; social plans and outputs ought to be determined by people who are most likely to be affected by them. And even if one were to argue that urban democracy is inefficient – with evidence to the contrary – popular participation is, like health or happiness, a good in itself, for which some degree of “efficiency” – whatever it means – may be sacrificed with advantage.


Shortfalls and Limitations of the PVD

With all its obvious merits, the PVD is not very coherent as a collective statement. With multiple authors and chapters dedicated to concerns of specific sectors, it was natural that contradictions between recommendations for different sectors might arise, as is evident in the chapter on participation. Besides, the level of analysis and the quality of proposals are not consistent throughout the document. For instance, in its transport section, the PVD promotes Transit-oriented Development (TOD) with mixed uses, and “appropriate” land use policies and zoning regulations. But it does not provide adequate safeguards from this becoming a pretext for increases in Floor Space Index (FSI), something that other chapters of the Document actively discourage.

Secondly, for a statement that is representative of a wide range of groups, it misses out some communities and their perspectives on the development of the city. This fact has been admitted by the PVD in its own introduction. Workers unions representing informal vendors and fishworkers are a part of the PVD, but others such as informal industrial workers, sanitation workers, domestic workers do not find mention. Also, though issues of urban fishing villages are included in the document, urban agricultural villages (Gaothans) have been been missed out, though they were part of the early discussions. In one of the public meetings, a representative from the Gaothans could not be persuaded about problems with FSI incentives. Eventually the community dropped out of the process; however, the Movement has renewed discussions with them and a section on Gaothans may soon become a part of the Document.

Finally, the politics of the PVD seems to be that of accommodation with the realities of the city and negotiation with the powerholders rather than a demand for a redistribution of power and resources: much of the document demands inclusion and an increase in participation and access to urban services. In the early stages this might be sensible, but unless the movement and the demands are broadened to include power-sharing arrangements to correct fundamental inequities, there is a danger that the reconciliatory approach might result in tokenistic concessions, but not decisive victories.


In Conclusion: The PVD and the city’s future

Despite its limitations, the Movement over the DP and the PVD it has authored is undoubtedly a propitious event in the history of Mumbai’s development. It is perhaps the first time that a large number of disadvantaged residents have provided an alternative and a hopeful imagination for the city’s future, in which they are an essential part and play a central role. Furthermore, as a clear statement of the expectations of a large body of residents that has anticipated the MCGM’s own vision and objectives, the PVD has set the tone for the rest of the debate over Mumbai’s Development Plan. The city government now has the document, and a few choices. How will it respond?


[Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh are Assistant Professors at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA). They can be contacted at and]


[1]                “Mumbai’s Urban Poor Demand Inclusion in Development Plan.” 2013. The Hindu, October 23.

[3]                See the preliminary draft of the Rio de Janerio Declaration – Social Urban Forum,, March 2010.

[4]                Arnstein, Sherry R: “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 1969, 35 (4): 216–224.

[5]                Arnstein, Sherry R : ibid.

[6]                Indorewala, Hussain: “Theme Park Mumbai.”, 2013.

[7]                A DP consists of five components: (1) Existing Land Use Maps (ELU) and an analysis report; (2) A statement of guiding principles and objectives (or vision); (3) Proposed Land Use (PLU) maps; (4) Development Control Regulations (DCRs); and (5) Estimation of costs, financial plans, and strategies for implementation.

[8]                See the schedule of tasks for the DP on

[9]                KunalPurohit: “BMC Agrees to Review ELU Map Errors Found by Mumbaiites,” Hindustan Times, January 18, 2013.

[11]             See the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning (MR&TP) Act of 1966. Emphasis added.

[13]             See the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning (MR&TP) Act of 1966.

[15]             UDRI: Mumbai Reader 2013. Urban Design Research Institute, 2013. p.46-128.

[16]             UDRI: Mumbai Reader 2013. p.69

[17]             See “stakeholder principles” No. 02 in UDRI: Mumbai Reader 2013. p.78

[18]             See “stakeholder principles” No. 22 in UDRI: Mumbai Reader 2013. p.79

[19]             See “stakeholder principles” No. 19 & 20 in UDRI: Mumbai Reader 2013. p.79


[22]             CCS: “CSS Series on NURM Reforms No. 2 – Community Participation Law: Nagra Raj Bill,” Centre for Civil Society, 2007.

[23]             PratapBhanu Mehta: “Leaving It to the Pros.” The Financial Express, 2013, November 8.

[24]              See Baiocchi, Gianpaolo: Radicals in Power: The Workers’ Party and Experiments in Urban Democracy in Brazil. Zed books, 2003.

[25]             Rochido, Janaina: “Brazilian Cities Pioneer Democratic Budgeting,” City Mayors, 2006, cited in Patel, Raj:  The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. 1st ed. Portobello, p.147.

[26]             Baiocchi, ibid, p.23.

[27]             Isaac, T. M. Thomas, and Richard W. Franke, Local Democracy and Development: The Kerala People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning. Rowman& Littlefield, 2002.

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