A geo-spatial approach to urban development

Apr 2011 | No Comment

From a cosmetic `GIS Mapping’ to a comprehensive geo-spatial analysis and solution approach

Dr Mahavir

Professor of Planning, School of Planning and Architecture,
New Delhi

Recommendations of the National Commission on Urbanization (NCU), set up in 1985, covered the aspects of emergence of nodal points; special regional characteristics of urban growth; spatial eco-tones of urbanization; spatial distribution of wheat and rice productivity and industrial employment; and spatial planning of settlements . Besides other analysis, it studied the spatial distribution of cities and urban agglomerations in 1971 and 1981 . Accordingly, the Commission came out with a set of recommendations that included a geo-spatial perspective to the pattern of urban settlements at the National scale. It went on to recommend location of urban settlements by population size and function in their regional/ sub-regional context. It highlighted the necessity of delineating properly the planning regions at national level and sub-regions at state level. Identification of 329 Generators of Economic Momentum (GEMs) for development as National priority cities and 49 Spatial Priority Urbanisation Regions (SPURs) (Map 1) were very important recommendations of the Commission from a geo-spatial perspective.

The Commission reminded that a major dimension of the problem of meaningful growth of National cities, viz., Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi and Madras, is the spatial dimension . Unfortunately, no elaborate efforts were made to implement the recommendations of the Commission. Despite two successive National Housing Policies within a span of a decade, the country is yet to evolve a National Urban Policy. Although numerous attempts have been made by the scholars and alike to analyse the spatial distribution of urban settlements in the country , this has not translated into an `official’ approach for spatial settlement pattern planning for urban areas in the country. At the national level, the Planning Commission constituted a National Task Force on Urban Perspective and Policy in 1995. The reports of two (out of 5) technical groups are yet to be finalised. These are expected to provide input for the National Urban Policy . This has been the state of affairs as far as spatial approach to urban India at all levels of planning, i.e. the National, regional (State), city/ town, zonal or area level.

Lack of geo-spatial planning for urban development

As physical planners always knew and emphasised, solution to many of the urban problems lies in the rural areas or the hinterland. Yet, most efforts in urban planning overlook this aspect. The need for establishing a set of regions for planning purpose was realized in the 1950’s, when the Housing and Regional Planning Panel of the Planning Commission made specific recommendation to this regard. Consequently, 15 agro-climatic regions for approach to agricultural planning were accepted by the Planning Commission. Subsequently, a tentative scheme of 13 macro and 36 meso-regions was formulated. Yet, there was no effort to locate or plan for a (urban) settlement pattern in these regions. Today, while we have a number of Metropolitan Regions and their plans (e.g., those of Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, and so on), there is no effort to plan or guide their spatial arrangement at a National scale. The mega cites, metropolitan cities and various other large cities are growing spatially, vertically, economically and demographically without reference to their respective locations at the region, state or national level.

A missing ministry of regional (planning and) development

Thousands of crores of rupees are being pumped into urban areas under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), primarily for the betterment of slums and squatter areas and related infrastructure development. Yet there is no matching effort to cut migration from rural to urban areas. Some regional planning is indirectly happening in the disguise of `Rural Development’, through various schemes of the Government, viz., Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojna, Mahatma Gandhi NREGS, etc. But these are isolated efforts at the `settlement’ level rather than a comprehensively planned effort at a spatial level. The consequences of these efforts in evolution of a `urban’ settlement pattern and therefore the spatial urbanisation seems to be no one’s concern. Though we should be talking about sustainable employment, the various employment programmes generate daily wage jobs for limited number of days. This does not ensure that people stay in villages .

Some beginning was made with the conceptualization of PURA (Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas), a dream project of the former President, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, where he advocated for the development of `clusters of villages’ linking them through a loop of 30-40 km and providing them physical, electronic and knowledge connectivity. Even this effort was subsequently dumped by the Government.

Ironically, we do have separate ministries of Urban Development and Rural Development respectively, both catering to the planning and development needs of various `settlements’. Unfortunately, there is huge gap in terms of a Ministry of Regional (Planning and) Development both at the Centre as well as states. Geo-spatial planning at a regional scale, as a result, takes a back seat.

As is the case for regional planning in general, there is hardly an organisation to plan and oversee the growth and development of `metropolitan regions’ at the national level spatially. `Urban planning is a State subject’, is the often used excuse to pass the buck to the State Governments, whereas most of these metro-regions have inter-state and/ or the National ramifications as in the case of the Central National Capital Region (CNCR), Puducherry Region or the Chandigarh Region. It is high time that besides creating a Ministry of Regional (Planning and) Development, the metropolitan city and region planning should be accorded a `Central Subject’ status.

A General Lack of Geo-Spatial Approach

Probably the first ever visible use of the Geo-Spatial technologies, in India, was made during the famous general elections to the Lok Sabha in 1984. GIS tool `PollMap’ was extensively used to relate some key spatial indicators into predicting the number of Lok Sabha seats that the Indian National Congress was likely to win. This was by far the most accurate prediction of election results in India. The GIS expert behind this application , Dr Manoshi Lahiri, was recently honored with the Life Time Achievement Award , yet, when it comes to use of the technology for various formal tasks of the Government, the same Geo-spatial approach seems to be lacking. The recent exercise in delimitating the constituencies for the National and various State and local level elections did not use such technologies and the process is generally not backed by logic. The demand for creation of a separate state of Telangana and a chain of demands for the creation of other smaller states also seem to have their roots in political calculations. Use of Geo-spatial technologies into analyzing the various spatial indicators apart from the original criterion of he language, could make the exercise more logical and convincing.


Locating and developing SEZs is closely related to the process of urbanisation. However, in this case also, the approval and establishment of the SEZs is on a case to case basis by the respective State or the Central Government. There has been hardly any attempt to plan for a proper distribution of the same at the National or State scale. A cursory look at the locations of SEZs (approved as well as in various stages of approval; Map 2) suggests large areas of gap in their spatial location. Clearly, there are concentrations of the SEZs and voids, across the States. An opportunity to coordinate their locations with that of large and metropolitan cities was not utilised.

Master plan of Delhi

Scope of Master Plans (or Development Plans) generally confines to broad proposals for allocating the use of land for various purposes such as residential, industrial, commercial, recreational, public and semi-public, etc. The various Master Plans (including Development Plans) prepared in the country dwell upon this premise and are essentially supported with an existing Land Use Map and one for target period, along with other related maps. The entire Plan (document) relates spatially to the various proposals under the Plan. The recent Gazette, notifying the Master Plan for Delhi – 2021 , although making detailed proposals on various aspects, lacked a formally notified `Land Use Plan (map)’, not only raising questions about its legal and professional sanctity, but also raising questions about geo-spatial considerations. Surprisingly, it also fails to provide an area-wise break-up of land under various proposed land uses.

Although there are a few examples in `geo-spatial’ approach to Master Planning in the country, these are largely confined to `mapping’. The Master Plan for Delhi – 2021 states , “Mapping of the NCT of Delhi would be done using remote sensing and GIS tools and will also be updated from time to time to have valuable data as regards ground situation …”. We need to graduate from merely `mapping’ to a comprehensive geo-spatial analysis and solutions.

A missing sub-regional plan

National capital Region (NCR) of Delhi is one of the largest metropolitan regions of the country, spreading across four states. The NCR Plan – 2021 envisages preparation of sub-regional plans, at the level of each state, to ensure a proper distribution of settlements, apart from other details. Delhi, however, has chosen not to prepare such a sub-regional plan, showing a disregard to a geo-spatial approach. At the NCR regional level too, a point based settlement pattern has been proposed where the largest urban settlement (i.e., Delhi) has not been differentiated from the smallest. Introduction of the concept of Central NCR (CNCR) was a right step in the direction of a geo-spatial approach. Unfortunately, this opportunity has also not been exploited in the absence of any plan for the CNCR, which could have also worked as a sub-regional plan. Similarly, no effort has been made to ensure a shift form a `point base approach’ to large `Continuously Built-up Areas’ approach while dealing with settlement patterns as well as while dealing with large built masses spreading beyond administrative boundaries.


The Union Ministry of Urban Development launched a centrally sponsored National Urban Information System (NUIS) Scheme, in March 2006. The Scheme comprises two major components, i.e, the Urban Spatial Information System (USIS) that includes development of GIS based multi-hierarchical database, with application tools, to support Master/ Zonal plan preparation; Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) administration and utilities management, and the National Urban Databank and Indicators (NUDB&I), that includes designing and establishing a comprehensive data bank and integration of these parameters to support planning and derive indicators for National Urban Observatory (NUO) for monitoring the health of urban settlements.

The specific objectives of the NUIS Scheme include: to develop attribute as well as spatial database for various levels of urban planning and decision support to meet requirements of urban planning and management by use of modern data sources such as satellite and aerial platforms to generate a comprehensive 3-tier GIS database in the scale of 1:10,000 for utilities planning and to build capacity among town planning professionals in the use of modern automated methods.

Among various other targeted achievements, it is expected that the implementation of the Scheme will result in planning and management of urban settlements based on updated and scientific database supported as decision support system, employing modern planning methods using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology. 168 towns and cities of the various sizes were selected under the Scheme.

Simultaneous to the NUIS, the Government of India initiated Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), with objectives to include planned development of identified cities including peri-urban areas, outgrowths and urban corridors leading to dispersed urbanization. 65 towns and cities were selected under the Mission.

Though both the NUIS and the JnNURM aim at planned development of towns and cities of all sizes, the schemes remain largely in isolation to each other, from conception to detailing. The scale and size of the two schemes vary grossly. The coverage, both in terms of population covered and the spatial distribution of towns and cities is with apparent disregards to each other. Both the JnNURM and the NUIS have their independent criteria for selection of towns and cities. When translated into the objectives of the two schemes, it means that only 23 of these cities will have benefit of a planned overall development with the use of modern data sources such as satellite and aerial platforms to generate a comprehensive 3-tier GIS database, as well as focused attention to integrated development of infrastructure services. While for these cities the two schemes become complementary to each other, the remaining 210 cities would gain from only one of the two schemes.


Spatial distribution of the selected urban settlements seems to have been overlooked in both the schemes (see Map 3 ). While there are clusters of JnNURM cities, there are large regions without any JnNURM identified city. Similarly, while the NUIS cities are relatively uniformly distributed, there are regions devoid of NUIS cities (e.g., most of the Central and North-western India). At the same time, there are clusters of cities covered by both the NUIS and JnNURM. Criteria for selection of towns and cities, under both the schemes do not have any criterion for their geographic location in a state or a region. There are also cities, close to each other, yet covered by one of the two schemes separately. Non- synchronization of the selection of cities also means that while all of them would have a City Development Plan (CDP) prepared under the JnNURM, they may not necessarily have a Master Plan in place.

City development plans

The JnNURM also raises a pertinent question about the need of a new (planning) document when a Master Plan/ Development Plan may be already in place. The name `City Development Plan’ itself is misleading to the general public and the legislator as well as the administrators. Many may take it a synonym to a Master Plan, which is a statutory document having gone through the process of `public opinions and objections’ and backing of

the relevant Act of the State Government. CDP, on the other hand, is more of a guideline and may not stand in a Court of Law. A CDP also does not find place in the recommended planning system detailed out in the UDPFI Guidelines and also not in force by the Institute of Town Planners, India (ITPI) . There is no formally specified plan period for a CDP. However, a cursory look at many of the CDPs prepared indicates it to be about 5 years, i.e. 2006-11, whereas the plan period for a traditional Master Plan is usually 20-25 years. Above all, as stated earlier, a traditional Master Plan essentially follows a geo-spatial approach to planning. The JnNURM is seemingly altering this position to a `non geo-spatial’ approach, hence exposing a lack of `geo-spatial’ vision to planned urban development.

And there is now talk of undertaking `GIS Mapping ’ of the slums and squatter settlements under the newly launched Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY), to make it look `geo-spatial’ and thus achieve the objective of `Slum Free Cities’.


There has been a general tendency of non `geo-spatial’ approach to urban planning in India, be it at the National or at the lowest level of hierarchy. No concentrated attempts are in place to plan or recommend an urban settlement pattern in the country, spatially. Urban development, by Constitution, is a state subject. As a result, planning for metropolitan cities and their regions also remains a `local’ initiative, though having national ramifications. Absence of a Ministry of Regional (Planning and) Development further contributes to a `non geo-spatial’ vision at the National level.

Location of SEZs in the country (or in States) also does not reflect any geo-spatial approach. Though not directly related to urban development, the current debate on creation of smaller states had a potential to be resolved with geo-spatial technologies. Besides, a general tendency to bypass the time tested approach of Master Planning, which is essentially geo-spatial in nature, is emerging in the form of Master Plans without the supporting Land Use Plans (e.g., in case of Delhi) or in the form of CDPs, which is not only non geo-spatial, but also non-professional. The scheme of NUIS started with good intentions (towards geo-spatial approach) but was overwhelmed by its `flagship’ cousin, the JnNURM.

A geo-spatial approach for urban planning and development in India would include, establishment of a Ministry for Regional (Planning and) Development at the Centre, bringing `Metropolitan Planning including the Metropolitan Region Planning’ under the Central ambit, initiation of another Commission on Urbanisation, better synchronisation between the NUIS and the JnNURM and bringing the CDPs prepared under the JnNURM into the planning framework suggested by the UDPFI Guidelines.

Also, planning for urban settlements has to graduate from a cosmetic `GIS Mapping’ approach to a comprehensive geo-spatial analysis and solution approach. The newly launched Rajiv Awas Yojana and the likely setting up of a National GIS should provide the opportunity for ensuring a geo-spatial approach to urban planning and development. There is no dearth of technology and humanware, there is only a need for a strong geo-spatial vision and approach at all levels of urban planning and development.

(Maps 1-3 follow)

Map 2 Locations of SEZs in India
accessed on December 29, 2009

Map 3 Locations of NUIS and JnNURM Cities

Source: Mahavir and Maqbool Ahmed, D. (2010), ‘A Tale of Two Schemes: JnNURM and NUIS’, Spatio-Economic Development Record, Vol.17, No. 3, May–June, 2010.

Endnotes and References

* Misra, B., Regional Variations in Urbanisation and Urban-Rural Relationships, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, in Ministry of Urban Development, Report of the National Commission on Urbanisation, Vol. V, Research Study Reports, Part – I, pp. 1-52, August 1988.

ibid., pp. 27.

* Saini, N. S., Ansari, J. H. and Chatterji, M. N., Evolution of Urban Planning in India, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, in Ministry of Urban Development, Report of the National Commission on Urbanisation, Vol. V, Research Study Reports, Part – I, pp. 232, August 1988.

* Ministry of Urban Development, Report of the National Commission on Urbanisation, Vol. II, Part I, Chapter 2, Map 4 and 5, August 1988, pp.51-52.

* Ibid, Map 6.

* Town and Country Planning Organisation (TCPO), Urban and Regional Planning and Development in India, Ministry of Urban Affairs and Employment, Government of India, New Delhi, 1996.

* accessed on December 30, 2009

* accessed on December 23, 2009

* accessed on December 11, 2009

* accessed on December 24, 2009

* PollMap, India Today, February 9, 1998.

* GIS Development, Vol 14, Issue 02, February 2010.

* Menon, Amarnath K., Dividends of Division, in India Today, Vol. XXXIV, No. 52, December 28, 2009, New Delhi

* accessed on December 29, 2009

* Ministry of Urban Development (Delhi Division), Gazette of India: Extraordinary, Notification dt. 7th February, 2007, New Delhi.
ibid., pp. 121.

* Ministry of Urban Development, Regional Plan – 2021, National Capital Region, NCR Planning Board, Government of India, New Delhi, 2005.

* Mahavir, `Modelling Settlement Patterns for Metropolitan Regions: Inputs from Remote Sensing’, ITC Publication No. 35, Enschede, The Netherlands, 1996.

* Mahavir and Maqbool Ahmed, D. (2010), ‘A Tale of Two Schemes: JnNURM and NUIS’, Spatio-Economic Development Record, Vol.17, No. 3, May–June, 2010.

* Ministry of Urban Affairs & Employment (1996), Urban Development Plans Formulation & Implementation (UDPFI) Guidelines, Government of India, New Delhi.

* Institute of Town Planners, India (1998), Conditions of Engagement of Professional Services and Scale of Professional Fees and Charges, New Delhi.

* accessed on December 22, 2009

* Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (2010); Guidelines for GIS Mapping, MIS Development and Integration of GIS with MIS, Unpublished * Report of the Sub-Committee 1 on Rajiv Awas Yojana, Government of India, New Delhi.

* Rao, Mukund; Establishing A National GIS Under Indian National GIS Organisation (Proposal under consideration of Planning Commission), Presentation made (on behalf of the Planning Commission) to the Secretary, Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, New Delhi, February 3, 2011.

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