How one Indian city cracked the problem of urban spread

A FEW MILES west of Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, a smiling patriarch named Shivaji still farms the land around the small redbrick home where he was born. But the city is creeping towards him. Mr Shivaji has already sold about a quarter of his land to a speculator (he hid the money in a hole before India suddenly cancelled most banknotes two years ago, forcing him to come up with a better plan). Slicing through his farm is a wide, straight strip of grass on which the municipal government will eventually build a road. Under it, a sewer has already been installed.

Ahmedabad, which contains 6m people, is growing by about 2% a year, both in population and in size. In that sense, it is a typical Indian city. But whereas most Indian cities—and indeed most of them in the emerging world—sprawl haphazardly, Ahmedabad is spreading in an orderly way. Many farms close to the metropolis, like Mr Shivaji’s, already contain the ghostly outline of a rectilinear road grid. This is gradually being filled with homes, offices and parks (see picture, which shows part of Ahmedabad’s urban fringe and one edge of Lucknow, a city in Uttar Pradesh). In some ways Ahmedabad is more like 19th-century Barcelona or New York than a modern Indian city. It is also a model for the future.

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. Pankaj Patel, the man who bought land from Mr Shivaji, lists some of the many things that go wrong. To begin with, he says, people whom he calls “land grabbers” hear that an area is slated for development and try to snaffle as much as they can—sometimes by fibbing to the farmers by telling them that the government will seize their land and give them almost nothing. Everybody complains that their reorganised land parcels are less well situated than their neighbours’. Some bribe officials to give them a better deal. Rich, powerful people who own country estates in the targeted districts find various ways to gum up the works.

Not one of these problems is fatal, however. Whereas attempts to seize land under eminent-domain laws are frequently paralysed by protests, the town-planning schemes trundle along. Crucially, the development authorities can ban building along the paths of roads even while arguments rage over the new land parcels. The town-planning schemes have proved flexible. To acquire land for a 76km ring road, Ahmedabad created 47 schemes and built the road in just four years.

The result is a tidy city, which can become much larger before it begins to suffer from the usual diseconomies of scale. Usually, the fringes of developing-world cities are messier than the middles. But the Atlas of Urban Expansion, a project based in New York University, estimates that roads built in Ahmedabad after 2000 are 8.5m wide, on average, compared with 7.2m for roads built earlier. Roads also take up more of the land area in the newly developed suburbs. Because wide roads can carry more cars and buses, future suburbanites in Ahmedabad ought to be spared the awful traffic jams that frustrate large Indian cities such as Delhi and Mumbai.

How to charm a farmer

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.

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