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Legacies of colonial urban planning in Bengaluru

  • Photo: "Dismantled houses where there have been cases of the plague". Source: Gordon, H. (1899) A Plague Stricken City. The English Illustrated Magazine, 22 (193): 17-23 in Ranganathan, M. 2018 "Rule By Difference: Empire, Liberalism, and the Legacies of Urban 'Improvement', Environment and Planning: A (Economy and Space). Published online June 22, 2018. DOI:
    Photo: "Dismantled houses where there have been cases of the plague". Source: Gordon, H. (1899) A Plague Stricken City. The English Illustrated Magazine, 22 (193): 17-23 in Ranganathan, M. 2018 "Rule By Difference: Empire, Liberalism, and the Legacies of Urban 'Improvement', Environment and Planning: A (Economy and Space). Published online June 22, 2018. DOI:

In a rapidly growing city like Bengaluru, the discourse of urban ‘improvement’ is pervasive from schemes to widen roads, to water and sanitation development, to drives against irregular housing. On the face of it, such plans appear to be technical exercises directed towards providing better services to the public and improving the living environment of the citizens and thereby enhancing their quality of life. However, new historical research by Prof. Malini Ranganathan, an urban geographer at American University, USA, raises doubts about that hypothesis.

Using archival research on Bengaluru from 1890 to 2010, a study published in the journal Environment and Planning: A (Economy and Space) finds that far from being a technical exercise, urban improvement is a conscious effort by the rulers to modify the behaviour and settlements of the population to suit a broader policy agenda. As a result, its consequences are often far from innocuous as it tends to entrench different forms of social difference.

The study identifies three successive historical epochs, namely the colonial, nationalist and neoliberal periods, each characterised by different broader policy objectives, and traces how they are reflected in the way the city was planned and evolved.

“Many colonial cities around the world instituted something called "improvement" in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Indian cities under British rule were no different. The British empire sought to transform colonised land into taxable properties, and their colonised subjects to "civilised" peoples,” explains Prof. Ranganathan. She adds that towards this end, they carried out “slum demolition targeting the bodies and homes of natives, the planning of new suburban residential extensions, and languages and discourses that sought to inculcate rational, western practices of urban planning in colonised subjects. While this might have created better housing and infrastructure for the upper classes and castes, the result was often to deepen racial segregation; poorer ‘natives’ in one part of the city and white Europeans in another, as was the case in cities in South Africa, southeast Asia, and India as a large historical literature has shown.”

Bangalore was segregated between the European Cantonment in the north-east while natives were confined to the Pette in the west and the native bazaar (now Shivajinagar). While there was interaction between the two areas, there were stark differences in the urban environment of the two areas. While the native Pette had a reputation for unsanitary conditions, the study finds that a significant cause of this was that the colonial government spent only half as much per capita on public works in the area compared to the European Cantonment areas.

Large-scale demolitions followed the bubonic plague outbreak of 1898 which killed about 10% of Bangalore's population. At the time, the colonial government forcibly removed people to “plague camps”. While new extensions like Basavanagudi were established, few of the poor and displaced could afford them. While this generated new streams of taxable revenue, it further intensified segregation of the natives based on their social class and caste. Hence, the benefits of such improvements accrued to Europeans and upper caste Indians leaving more impoverished natives displaced and without adequate housing.

Tracing the next phase of improvement, Prof. Ranganathan says, “After independence, improvement continued in India, as post-colonial urban governments inherited improvement laws, institutions, and planning codes.” While extensions like Jayamahal in the north, Jayanagar in the south and Rajajinagar in the west were built, the focus was on housing employees of the new public sector industries. “On the one hand, certain areas of the city benefited from improvement. On the other, the lower-classes and ostracised castes were left out of improvement, or worse still, were harmed by certain laws and beliefs,” adds Prof. Ranganathan. For instance, there were strict eligibility criteria for planned housing developments favoring middle class culture and aesthetics. These tended to be reinforced by residents themselves. When Cauvery water supply became available through state projects starting from the 1970s, this supply largely benefited residents who lived in planned or “improved” areas.

The turn to neoliberal policies was reflected in the policies of the newly constituted Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) in new developments targeted towards non-resident Indians and the policy of regularisation (Akrama Sakrama) of irregular constructions instead of the old policy of demolition. The number of illegal sites increased more than six-fold between 1980 and 2009, and BDA planners, revenue officers and elected representatives were all implicated in profiteering from informal urbanisation. Added to this, long delays between notification and actual possession of agricultural land acquired for planned city extensions coupled with reduced rates of compensation have fed the rapid growth of land speculation for unauthorised residential development.

Prof. Ranganathan concludes, “When we look at cities in India today, we may ask questions about why certain areas of the city look well planned with neat grid-aligned streets and relatively more consistent access to water and sanitation, while others have a more haphazard and narrow arrangement of streets. We may also wonder why certain areas of the city are associated with Hindu upper castes and wealthy classes, while others have a higher proportion of religious minorities and the urban poor. To understand this geography, we have to look at how the city was planned over a century ago, and how certain legacies continue into the present.” This study makes an invaluable contribution towards furthering such understanding.