Srinagar Master Plan (2017-2035): A debate off the track

Srinagar city is quite vulnerable to natural disasters, mainly earthquakes and floods; The draft plan has very rightly talked about mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) in development practices of Srinagar.
Srinagar Master Plan (2017-2035): A debate off the track
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Srinagar city's draft Master Plan (2017-2035) is now in public domain for discussion and feedback. Well-written and well-researched, it is a document of mammoth ambition. Given all the thinking that has gone into it and some very futuristic ideas proposed, its team leaders and the drafting team deserve appreciation.

Given the situational limitations, the challenges with the engagement of private consultancies and the inter-agency coordination and information-sharing issues, the architects of the document have come up with a work which is worthy of debate and reflection. Its architects should not be disheartened by uninformed and discouraging feedback. Refinement would come naturally through the process.

On a vacation in Srinagar right now, I happened to attend a couple of discussions on the Master Plan this month. The discussions have been quite insightful. A few quality reviews have also been published in this newspaper. While there have been some plausible suggestions about certain proposals of the Master Plan, it appears the debate has gone a little off the track, with Srinagar's urban de-congestion consuming most of the attention.

Seen from the point of view of current international best practices in review of development policies, there are four broad areas in the draft master plan that would require further attention and fine tuning – its raison d'être, technical logic, structure and the proposed activities/rules & regulations.

1. Raison d'être

After reading the 290-page Master Plan document the first question that one is left asking is this: what is the purpose of this master plan? What is its goal? Is the goal to de-congest the city and decentralise its economic and other activities to its suburbs? Or the goal is preventing further horizontal expansion of the city? Or the goal is conservation of wetlands, waterbodies and green spaces in and around the city? Or is the goal promotion of tourism and agricultural activities within the new city limits and its surroundings? Or is the goal merely the classical demarcation of city's various geographical zones based on the type of social and economic activities undertaken there?  

Or, possibly, all of the above?

Interestingly, the draft plan refers to a set of principles and seems to be hinged on a vision for Srinagar city – referring to smart & sustainable development, economically empowered growth and better quality of life and so on. Then on page 108 it document goes on to mention that the master plan's overarching aim was "that the historic environment of the city of Srinagar and its heritage assets should be conserved so as to contribute to the quality of life and uniqueness…"

Technically, the aim should figure at the beginning of the document, and aligned with a set of objectives. Without an overarching goal and logical objectives associated with that goal it is difficult to figure out what our proposed activities are trying to achieve. 

It is possible that the current structure of the draft plan draws its inspiration from the J&K Development Act, 1970, [Chapter III(a) & (b)] which doesn't clearly stipulate the purpose of the Master Plan and, instead, emphasises on geographical zoning for development and so on. If required, the government should consider an amendment of the language of the Act, to make it more purpose-oriented and legally meaningful.

2. Technical logic of the document:

The existing draft document is hinged on a vision. Vision is equivalent to a dream. From a technical perspective, a vision requires a goal to be realised. The goal in turn needs to be underpinned by objectives. The envisaged activities/rules/regulations/proposals would then be logically linked to those objectives.

In its current form, the document contains historical description of Srinagar, sectoral proposals, zoning proposals, development regulations for zones/developmental entities and a set of proposed activities/rules.

The reason the document struggles on readability and coherence is that it consists of overlapping sub-goals and sectoral activities in a disjointed logic. Moreover, there is sectoral segregation of the plan, leading to an activity-centric logic, in contrast to an objective and outcome-centric logic.

Take, for instance, the proposal of shifting a particular school and other government offices from the Srinagar city centre. The reason we are hearing quite diverse arguments in support and against the proposals is because there is no clarity on what we wish to achieve by shifting those establishments from the city centre. For instance, if the purpose is de-congestion and free flow of vehicular traffic in the city centre, then it does make some sense. Since these proposals are not linked to a definite objective, a consensus is hard to arrive. 

The draft Master Plan offers a standard alternative of converting all the vacated government offices and one school from the city centre to tourism-related assets. Now if the purpose is de-congestion it is not clear if conversion of these buildings to tourism assets will really achieve that.

If, on the other hand, we go by the plan's vision of fostering "economically empowered growth" of Srinagar city, then such de-congestion could have serious implications for business, commerce and services activities of Srinagar city centre, resulting in shifting of businesses to other places. Consequently, the city centre or the central business district would no more remain a hub of economic activities.

3. Structure:

The ideal structure of the Master Plan should include a goal, objectives and objectives-linked rules/regulations and proposed activities.

A policy document like the Master Plan, which is expected to be subjected to a review every five or ten years, must have a monitoring and evaluation framework. However, a monitoring and evaluation plan is difficult to conceive without progress indicators.

There could be two ways of assessing progress during reviews – either to have activity progress indicators liked to the proposed rules/regulations, or to have activity progress indicators linked to the expected outcomes. The problem with the existing structure of the draft document is that it doesn't delve with outcomes, because there are no overarching objectives. A sound monitoring and evaluation framework will have to be rooted in the Master Plan's goal and objectives with clear output as well as outcome indicators.

While the draft document does articulate the purpose of the mid-term appraisal and the objectives of the revision of Srinagar Master Plan-2021, the final draft doesn't seem to have logically reflected on the performance of the 2021 Master Plan because performance is not measured against any indicators.

From a readability and reference point of view, the flesh of the document – the development regulations – should figure prominently in the document. Historical description, if at all necessary, should go to endnotes. Similarly, any other description that is not legally meaningful for the document should go either to the end notes of footnotes.

4. Proposed guidelines and activities:

A number of technically sound recommendations have been made in the document. I would particularly like to mention the proposal of introducing Floor Space Index (FSI), mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) across the development practice, the proposal of 3-tier ring roads and the use of land under armed forces in Srinagar.

a) Floor Space Index or Floor Area Ratio

One of the most important features of this draft plan is the introduction of the much-awaited Floor Space Index or Floor Area Ratio (FAR) concept. Again, however, the goal-orientation of this concept needs greater clarity.

If one of our objectives is to curtail the horizontal growth of Srinagar city, preserve the green areas and wetlands, including flood basins, in and around it, then this is indeed an important regulation to introduce.

The draft Master Plan says that it seeks to discourage horizontal growth of the city and outlying villages by increasing residential densities, FAR/FSI, etc. However, at the same time, the Srinagar Metropolitan Area (SMA) is proposed to be increased from the existing 416 sq. km. to 766 sq. km. including several semi-urban areas of Budgam, Pulwama, Baramulla and Ganderbal districts.

While this expansion is supported by the logic of population increase of the next two decades or so, a justifiable projection, the introduction of FAR/FSI should ideally translate into a leaner SMA.

Besides going against the avowed objective of conserving wetlands and water bodies, such an expansion would also result in institutional overstretch of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) and Srinagar Development Authority (SDA). In the absence of a plan of financial self-sufficiency, such an overstretch of SMC and SDA would impact the quality of municipal services as well. Moreover, the functional overlap between these two bodies and other government departments in the expanded areas would create another operational mess as we witness in the Srinagar city areas falling within neighbouring districts. Moreover, ensuring compliance with and monitoring of the master plan rules would be a colossal task. 

The Revised Master Plan's proposal of increasing FAR/FPI to 300 persons per hectare (PPH) for what it says "ensuring the preservation of prime agriculture lands and ecologically fragile area" may needs to be revised upwards if we really want to preserve our green spaces and wetlands.

For too long we have been averse to the idea of vertical expansion of Srinagar, without solid and logical justification for that aversion. In a situation where our population growth is likely to continue for many decades to come, stopping horizontal growth is inevitable.

b) DRR mainstreaming

On the issue of managing disaster risks for Srinagar, the draft Master Plan has touched an important concept that is mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction in the city's development practice. Considerable thinking seems to have gone into this section. This Master Plan must have clear, legally binding, guidelines on disaster risk mitigation compliance measures for all kinds of development. Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) sensitivity needs to be built in into building code. Some technical clean up around the ideas of Disaster Risk Management and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) will be useful too.

c) Land stretches under non-civilian use

The draft Master Plan has touched a very critical issue – the use of large tracts of the city's land by armed forces. Interestingly, the document reveals that an area of 23 sq. km. is under the defence use, surpassing the area under the entire public infrastructure use in the city. The plan's recommendation of immediate shifting of the army establishments from Tattoo Ground, Alouchibagh and other civilian areas is both logical and necessary, especially given the fact that the state government has already handed over the Sharifabad karewa land for defence use in exchange of the Tattoo Ground land. 

If these lands are vacated, these could be used for multiple purposes, including public assets and civil residential purposes. Tattoo Ground in itself could house a mini city within Srinagar. The Master Plan should have a special section under the de-congestion objective delving on the possible use of this land once made available.

Recommendations

The first thing that the Master Plan needs to do is define its goal. I will discuss here five possible goals that could be considered.

Possible goal 1: Catalysing economic growth in Srinagar Metropolitan Area (SMA) towards making the city a hub of job creation

That would mean that the Master Plan will help create the necessary conditions for encouraging greater business and investment activities leading to the SMA becoming an engine of economic growth and private job creation in the state.

The document has itself noted that the city will need around 5.50 lakh additional direct jobs over next twenty years. What it has to clearly articulate is how it will help achieve that. 

An economic-growth centric goal could be supported by the objectives of clear zonal demarcation of the SMA based on respective zones' economic potential, rules and regulations that could promote ease of doing business, hassle-free vertical expansion in earmarked zones and other business-friendly activities.

The current draft seems to be overly focused on agriculture diversification and green collar jobs. Such an approach has to be re-considered, and will be best decided when the goal is figured out. 

Possible goal 2: Achieving urban de-congestion in SMA for hassle-free movement of people and goods

One striking common thread across the draft Master Plan is the notion of decongestion of Srinagar city. It almost appears as a goal in itself. But the question that arises is this: is de-congestion in itself a worthy goal? Or it should be one of the objectives to meet a certain end? Ideally it has to be the latter. Therefore, the de-congestion focus needs to be re-thought in the review. A de-congestion centric master plan will do no good to Srinagar's core needs. 

Possible goal 3: Making Srinagar a hub of tourism-related activities

One of the ambitions of the draft Master Plan reflects a desire to promote tourism, include heritage tourism in SMA. While the conversion of some heritage buildings housing government offices into tourism assets, in principle, is a good idea, tourism promotion should ideally be one of the objectives in promoting economic growth rather than a goal in itself. A tourism-centric master plan cannot help Srinagar.

Possible goal 4: Making Srinagar city a disaster risk-free city

Srinagar city is quite vulnerable to natural disasters, mainly earthquakes and floods. The draft plan has very rightly talked about mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) in development practices of Srinagar. While making the city less vulnerable to disasters is supposed to be a major cross-cutting objective, having it as an over-arching goal is not necessary.

However, it is very important to shelve the idea of shifting major government offices to Nowgam, which itself is a highly flood-vulnerable area. Ideally, all major government assets, including those related to disaster management, listed for shifting should move to highlands, which are less vulnerable to natural disasters and are conducive to vertical expansion.

Possible goal 5: Making Srinagar among the top 10 cities under the Liveability Index 

Liveability-oriented goal for SMA is a goal worthy of serious contemplation and discussion. Given that countries in Asia, including India, have recently taken to liveability indexing of their cities, it is a good time to have the SMA Master Plan have liveability orientation. Some of the standard parameters of liveability include availability of open spaces, environmental quality, availability of public transport, work friendliness, response time to health emergencies, public socialising and recreational facilities, education quality and so on.

Technically, the reason this orientation would make better sense is that progress on all the liveability parameters could be measurable. Ten or twenty years down the line we could easily assess how well we have done in the implementation of this Master Plan. 

Cross cutting themes:

Across all the objectives and sectoral initiatives, it is extremely important to have certain cross cutting themes that will logically serve the overall goal. Currently, some worthy cross cutting themes appear as standalone sectors. Those cross cutting themes should include Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), gender and environmental responsibility.

Need for prioritisation: 

In its current form, the Master Plan reflects a wide ambition. It seems to venture into too many sectors and sub-sectors, including the operational details of certain proposed activities compromising focus, coherence and readability.

There is a lot that could be done for Srinagar, but we will have to prioritise. Given our governance limitations rooted in the raging political turmoil, there ought to be a participatory prioritisation exercise involving all the key stakeholders on what we should do. That prioritisation should ideally focus on the goal, objectives and the parameters of the liveability index. We usually do such prioritisation exercises involving governmental and non-governmental stakeholders in countries where consensus-building is seen as a priority. Same could be done for this master plan.

Language:

The existing draft quite often uses language that is recommendatory in nature. Legally speaking, any violation/deviation of the Master Plan proposals made by any agency/department or person are illegal and are considered a cognizable offence warranting penal action under law. 

The draft document has very rightly noted that the laws that the Master Plan draws its authority from are "not comprehensive and have remained static and archaic.…" 

It is, therefore, important for the government to consider amendments to the J&K State Town Planning Act-1963, the J&K Development Act-1970 and the J&K Municipal Corporation/ Municipal Act-2000 for making the Master Plan legally more meaningful.

In the finalised version, rules/regulations have to take precedence over proposals and recommendations.

The author is a development economics practitioner and has worked on development issues across thirteen countries. 

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