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3 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:12am

Commonwealth Games, a failure of “just-in-time“ planning

Delhi debacle is a warning to urban planners.

By Asher Ghertner

Through the 1980s and 1990s, businesses across the world experimented with a system of product assembly known as “just-in-time” production. By sourcing parts “just-in-time” for their final assembly, these companies were able to cut inventory costs, leading to leaner, more competitive industry.

Cities competing for global investments have been experimenting recently with a model of what we might call “just-in-time” planning, a process in which decisions are made at the last minute, or in extreme instances, when projects have already begun.

The Commonwealth Games debacle is an example of this ‘just-in-time’ planning.

Over the past decade, Delhi — which hosts the Games as they open today — has been one big construction site, with billions of dollars each year pouring into new roads, shopping malls, apartments and now the Commonwealth Games. Yet, with a conspicuous absence of maps, figures, and other records of land use – once considered standard tools of urban planning – it is impossible to keep track of this urban change.

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In 2006, I asked a top planner in the Delhi Government what method he used to survey the city for the newly updated master plan. He replied, “We didn’t do a survey. Well, we did a ‘windshield survey’: I sent some engineers out in cars and had them look [around]… We know what needs to be done without having to survey. We know what a world-class city should look like.”

In the excitement about Delhi’s self-proclaimed transformation into a “world-class city”, planning has come to mean facilitating developments that contribute to an imagined “world-class” future, even if they violate existing laws. As long as these projects appear “world-class”, the government is rarely questioned: everyone understands that ‘world-class’ deadlines do not wait for debate.

“Just-in-time” planning creates ambiguity regarding how land can be used. Planners can now weigh up the advantages of, for example, placing a school or a shopping mall on the same lot. While educators wait patiently for a school to be approved, government planners can always hold out in case a private developer presents a more compelling proposal. In terms of local government revenue and macroeconomics, the private developer makes more sense. Indian economic growth depends disproportionately on investment — according to the Indian Government, it was responsible for 40 per cent of GDP growth in 2007 (in the UK it was only 18 per cent). Sustaining growth therefore requires continually presenting favourable investment opportunities.

In theory most policies and laws in India prevent projects that are outside the public interest, but the “just-in-time” approach allows planners to exceed the limits of their own regulations.

By launching projects before any semblance of regulatory oversight begins, they can use the urgency of the deadline to overcome rules and sanctions. The decision on where to locate the Commonwealth Games Village is a clear example of this. In 2004, the Supreme Court of India ordered the demolition of the homes of more than 150,000 slum residents for occupying the ecologically fragile Yamuna River floodplain.

Soon after this environmental precedent was set, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) decided to build the Commonwealth Games Village on the Yamuna just downstream from the demolished slums. Two DDA-commissioned scientific studies found its proposal ‘unviable’ with potentially ‘catastrophic consequences’ for the floodplain. But, by the time the DDA sought government approval, construction was already underway.

When a court case challenging the construction was finally heard in 2008, the Supreme Court noted the need to complete the Village in time for the 2010 Games and claimed, contrary to evidence, that ‘the Commonwealth Games Village site is not on a riverbed or the floodplain.’

Under the logic of “just-in-time” planning, the urgency of becoming world-class allows political leaders and planners to invoke exceptional powers, requiring exceptional sacrifice from the public and exceptional investment by the state.

It is on this basis that money for healthcare and education is diverted to bankroll bridge-building and the most expensive Commonwealth Games ever. It is also on this basis that Commonwealth Game workers are paid below minimum wage, multi-generational slums are demolished and illegal malls approved.

The Commonwealth Games crisis does not signal an absence of planning, as most commentators have noted. Instead, it is a symptom of an ad-hoc mode of planning, which extends the state’s powers. Like businesses experimenting with ‘lean’ and flexible inventories in the past, cities around the world have adopted lean and flexible planning to gain competitive advantage.

As the images of unprotected Commonwealth Games workers on 12-hour shifts show, “just-in-time” is not always time enough.

Dr. Asher Ghertner has been researching urbanization in India for the past six years and is Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics.