It appears that the folks at the Lucknow Municipal Corporation have a curious notion of the meaning and purpose of public participation. When their funding proposals under the centrally sponsored scheme for urban development (JNNURM) were rejected due to the lack of public participation, they came up with the brilliant idea of a “city volunteer technical corps” that would participate in the planning process. Members will be chosen by the city corporation based on “expertise” in planning and related areas. The newspaper also reports that a prior attempt to constitute such a consultative body was aborted when “undesirable” persons who were not “experts” entered the consultative group. The corporation promises only to include “desirable” persons this time round.
The first impression one gets when reading this article is that the city is merely trying to limit the voices that get heard during the consultative process by consulting only the “desired” sections of society. In this case, the notion of “expertise” merely serves as a facade to justify policies that might not be acceptable to all sections of society. It is often the case that “experts” bring into their judgments implicit biases, particularly against the urban poor.
Indeed, the whole rationale for a consultative process is based on the idea that “experts” have no special knowledge of “public interest”. The advocates of communicative planning argue that public interest can be understood only through consultation with the public. If this is the rationale for public participation, then surely the process needs to include all stakeholders, not just “experts” selected by the city corporation.
I do not mean to say that experts have no role in planning. Experts are critical in order to convert the goals laid down by the public into meaningful action. But it is unusual for the city corporation to ask experts to volunteer to help the city. Such “volunteer” experts, in my opinion, lack any accountability in their actions, and it is quite irresponsible for a city to depend on volunteers to take major decisions on behalf of the city. In the planning profession, much as in any other profession, the fiduciary relationship is the primary source of professional responsibility.
From this perspective, the kind of public participation Lucknow is going for represents the worst of both worlds. As a select group of “experts”, the technical corps cannot claim to represent the public and therefore have no special knowledge of public interest. And at the same time, by asking the members to serve as volunteers, the city is freeing them of any accountability that planning “experts” would be held to had they entered into a fiduciary relationship with the city.
UPDATE: Upon further reading, I found that the idea of constituting committees of volunteer “experts” is a JNNURM requirement. Here are some documents regarding the use of volunteer expertise in the JNNURM planning process – , , . I believe that my criticism still holds. These “experts” do not have either the accountability that professional planners are held to, nor can they claim to represent public interest. Their inclusion in the planning process cannot be a substitute for meaningful public participation or the development of in-house expertise within municipal corporations for urban planning.