Your home leaves an ecological footprint

Several developments have forced us to question relationship between environment,real estate.

Written by PSN Rao | Published:July 21, 2012 3:05 am

It is now a well established fact that real estate development contributes immensely to the growth and development of the nation through the numerous forward and backward linkages with the economy. It also a business which provides employment to construction workers who are mostly from the rural areas. The sector absorbs skilled,semi-skilled as well as unskilled workers and also provides employment to women and supplements agricultural income.

However,the question today is,do these benefits outweigh the environmental degradation that is likely to be caused on account of real estate development? Can real estate development and environmental sustainability be married together in so called ‘green projects’? Which brings us to the next question: how long can this ‘marriage’ last,and is it sustainable in the long run?

Ecosystem Destruction

Several developments over the years have forced us to question the relationship between environment and real estate and the impact it has left.

Take for instance the happenings around the Aravalis,right at the doorstep of Delhi. A look at the Draft Development Plan 2031 for Manger,Faridabad prepared by the Town Planning Department of the Haryana government as well as the new tourism policy of the state are enough to expose the state of affairs.

Mangerbani,a forest area in the Aravalis,one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges,with unique flora and fauna,is about to be taken over for real estate development. Hundreds of acres of forest land,which was communally owned by the villagers soon got fragmented into private plots and changed hands.

Investors have sunk a fortune into this area in the hope of cashing in on the real estate boom. This is bound to have implications for the ecologically sensitive area,which is also a crucial water recharge zone for Delhi and the surrounding National Capital Region.

Apparently,there have been directives of the Supreme Court and the environment ministry has issued rules relating to this area,but the government is found wanting when it comes to compliance.

What makes the situation appalling is that the government itself has initiated what could be the beginning of the destruction of an ancient ecosystem.

Ground Water Depletion

Another issue is the overexploitation of ground water reserves by real estate developers,leading to the falling of the water table to dangerously low levels. This is exactly the problem happening in Gurgaon,the much-hyped suburb of Delhi. A serious water crisis in the city led to residents knocking the doors of the courts and finally,the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) has been restrained from issuing further licences to real estate developers who consume ground water.

While this may be an environmentally friendly order,it raises many more questions. Knowing that there are technical issues involved,why have no efforts have been made by the officials to take appropriate measures to ensure that alternatives are worked out? By stopping construction,are we addressing the problem,or are we creating other new problems? Who will provide housing if licenses are stopped? Will this lead to further increase of prices which are already high? Where does the average middle class family stand in this struggle for shelter?

Let us look at the eastern part of the country. Kolkata,the capital of India for about two hundred years,is also facing serious problems arising out of the real estate-environment interface. Studies by the city-based Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management are quite revealing. According to experiments conducted here,excessive drawing of underground water has resulted in land subsidence. It is believed that most of this happens on account of rampant real estate development and resultant lack of provision of infrastructure in a proper manner.

The threat of land subsidence in Kolkata including the Salt Lake City and East Kolkata Wetlands is looming large,at an average of approximately 13 mm per year. The appearance of cracks in some of the buildings there can perhaps be directly attributed to underground water issues. About three decades ago,there was a similar situation in Chennai which had a severe water crisis. Obviously,no lessons have been learnt from the past.

CRZ Violations

Down south,an expert team appointed by the Kerala State Coastal Zone Management Authority (KSCZMA) found that over a dozen apartment complexes by various developers have been in violation of the Environment Protection Act and the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) regulations.

The KSCZMA compiled details of encroachments and CRZ violations near the Chilavannur backwater which is a part of the Vembanad lake since 2002 . Satellite images showed that these stretches were swampy areas before the construction of the apartments began in the region. It is believed that massive reclamation was carried out by the builders in the ecologically-sensitive region. In its report,the experts recommended the local municipal body to issue stop memo to all the ongoing projects in the area coming up in violation of the provisions under the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification,2011.

It is further understood that some of these projects have,in addition to flouting environmental norms,also flouted municipal norms by consuming more FSI than permitted.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

Coming to western India,the Lavasa Corporation stands out as a case study in the environment-real estate interface. Lavasa city,encompassing around 25,000 acres of land,was planned based on the Special Regulations for Hill Station Development issued by the Maharashtra government in the year 1996.

Controversies started with the drawing of water from the Varasgaon Dam and clearing forests for commercial purposes. According to the environment ministry,the project is illegal since it is not in compliance of the Environmental Impact Assessment Notifications of 1994,2004 and 2006.

After a prolonged battle,Lavasa Corporation Limited (LCL) finally was able to get the environmental clearance for its first phase,subject to strict compliance to major pre-conditions,namely the payment of substantial penalty for violation of environmental laws,which is incontrovertible; and the creation of an Environmental Restoration Fund (ERF) with sufficiently large corpus,which would be managed by an independent body with various stakeholders under the overall supervision of the environment ministry. An imposition of stringent terms and conditions,to ensure that no further environmental degradation takes place and that any degradation already occurred would be rectified within a time-bound schedule.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The issues are many here. On the one hand,the demand for urban space is growing,be it for residential or commercial use. Governments have more or less withdrawn themselves from the business of land and housing development and are only encouraging the private sector to take up such activity. However,when the real estate developers do so,they are at the receiving end from the same governments who have been promoting them. The general impact on the common man is negative: project delays only lead to cost escalations translating into higher prices.

The end product becomes unaffordable to the buyer. The buyer’s hard-earned money is stuck for years with no solution in sight. At the same time,the impunity with which sanctions are given and regulations are flouted speaks volumes of the state of affairs.

Once environmental damage has been done,nothing can change it for the better. A forest ecosystem once lost,can never be recreated,whatever the penalty that the developer is ordered to pay. Stakes are high,lobbies are strong and networks deep and rooted.

The end result of the whole episode is that environment continues to be degraded,projects continue to be delayed,consumers continue to be priced out of the market.

What we need is not merely strict laws or their enforcement in terms of a ‘strict no-no’ attitude,but to encourage and guide the process in a harmonious manner so that environment and real estate development can go hand in hand,and not hand in glove.

—The author is a Professor at SPA,New Delhi

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