Can’t have smart cities with dumb administrators: Christopher Benninger

'What I absolutely love about Pune is the spirit of people here. I think it has kept the city going,' says Benninger.

By: Express News Service | Pune | Updated: December 22, 2015 3:13:26 pm
christopher benninger, idea exchange, architect christopher benninger, planner christopher benninger, mit, smart city, pune development, pune city development, harvard, smart city, pune news ‘I think the reason why politicians have picked up the term ‘smart cities’ is because they know that a new massive electorate, comprising young people, is on the rise,’ says Christopher Benninger.

American-Indian architect and planner Christopher Benninger, who is an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has taught at the Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from 1969 to 1972, talks about the challenges of rebuilding Pune and the project’s viability.

Sunanda Mehta: You are not really sold on the idea of Smart City, why is that so?

Christopher Benninger: ‘Smart City’ is a catchy term coined by US-based consultancy firm McKinsey. They gave five weeks of free consultancy to Chandrababu Naidu because they wanted to be involved in the development of the new capital of Andhra Pradesh. I think the reason why politicians have picked up this term in India is because they know that a new massive electorate, comprising young people, is on the rise. These voters are interested in the development of infrastructure. Politicians know they can woo these youngsters with the term smart city. Apparently, this electorate has many swing voters and the governments are afraid that if they don’t push for ‘smart cities’, they’ll lose voters. However, what they don’t understand is that it won’t deal with the basic urban issues. One should understand that it’s not possible to have ‘smart cities’ with dumb administrators. There is a lot of incompetence at the administrative planning level. In these ‘smart cities’, 70 per cent of the current population won’t be able to afford a residence. The all-class inclusiveness is clearly missing. A few years ago, 30 per cent of residents of Pune could afford to pay any EMI to purchase a new flat in an upcoming scheme. I’m not aware about the current percentage. However, it is better than Mumbai. In Mumbai, only three per cent of people can afford to stay in MNC area, south of the airport. Another six per cent can afford to stay in Vashim and Thane. Ulhasnagar, Karjat and Panvel are affordable to another 17 per cent but it is too far from their workplaces. Which means 74 per cent of people from Mumbai can’t afford to live in Mumbai. It leads to illegal housing, squatting etc.

Partha Biswas: Affordable schemes for common people are on a decline. The new schemes are coming up in remote areas. What is the solution?

If you fly over Pune, you can see that the city is growing like a spider’s web, which means there are many open spaces in between which have been left vacant. To control rates, there must be proper utilisation of small places. It can be achieved with the Site and Services scheme. This scheme gained popularity in the 1980s and 90s, however, it didn’t receive impetus in India. Site is land, which is not affordable to common people, and services are basic amenities like roads and street-lights which people can’t build. People then have to build their own houses according to their financial capacity and upgrade infrastructure. In 1972, under this scheme, I had consulted for Madras Metropolitan Development Authority (MMDA) on their housing sector investments, a project which was backed by the World Bank. The idea was to avoid the resale of subsidised housing, given to low income groups. Our project came up in Arambukkum, Chennai. Today, there are over 25,000 houses constructed under this scheme which have been upgraded over the years. It can be implemented in Pune, but requires government’s will. Recently, a 10,000-acre plot, which is just outside Mumbai, was given to a private company under SEZ. Why can’t we afford to make a Special Habitat Zone? I’ve given suggestions to implement Site and Services in the New Capital Committee of Andhra Pradesh.

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Anuradha Mascerenhas: Many NGOs from Pune are working on such affordable and hygienic houses for slum dwellers. What do they lack?

Yes, these projects can work, but only for small geographical areas. The scheme should be such that its implementation should be very easy even at a big level where thousands of acres are involved. In India, we’ve sanctioned huge portions of land for SEZ. The government is constantly using its acquisition powers in doing so. In Pune, you have places like Chakan and Hinjewadi, which are very well planned. But most of our problems like slums and footpath squatting are also because of the mismanagement of land. The SEZ mechanism can be used effectively for SHZs. Unfortunately, until three weeks ago, Pune was the only city of its size and population to not have a Metropolitan Region Development Authority. Now that the PMRDA is here, we can hope for better things.

Ajay Khape: Isn’t it already too late for PMRDA?

It is never too late to start doing things right. Earlier, it was difficult to find planners. You just had a couple of arrogant ministers to face. Now, with Girish Bapat as the chairperson and Mahesh Zagade as the CEO, we at least have a team responsible for things.

Nisha Nambiar: Have you been added to the advisory body of PMRDA?

No. The thing is that I’m very hesitant. Not just with the PMRDA, but with anything, to be honest. Frankly, I’m very busy and I don’t like giving free advice to government on what they should or should not do. Advising people who don’t show any interest in doing something is not my thing. If the government is interested and they show keenness, like Chandrababu Naidu did, I don’t have any qualms in giving advice. Otherwise, there are good architects like Sharad Mahajan and Anita Benninger in this city who are doing a great job.

Ajay Khape : What do you think about the new township culture rising around Pune?

This is actually a problem related with land market and government apathy. Between Pune and Mumbai, there are a lot of places where you find 30-storey buildings coming out of nowhere. It won’t be appropriate to blame the builders for them because the land rates are cheaper outside the city. It is profitable for them. If they buy 80 or 100 acres, they can build a new township on their own terms and conditions. Interestingly, the government is also eager to offload their responsibility towards the population living in these townships and asks builder to provide basic amenities like schools, hospitals, fire-stations and so on. People seem to enjoy these private services more than government services because they are more efficient and don’t include many administrative hassles.

Anuradha Mascarenhas: Do you think Pune has a better future? What are you optimistic about?

As an observer, I feel Pune has developed well due to benign neglect. The city did not have an urban development authority for so many years, that is why we didn’t hung up like Bangalore. In Bangalore, it takes at least an hour and a half to reach the airport, no matter where you are traveling from. Pune is attracting investors in the form of IT and animation companies.

But the investment is majorly from the private sector, not public sector. What I absolutely love about Pune is the spirit of people here. I think it has kept the city going. In Kolkata, people are very good at convincing you, why you can’t do something. Pune is very optimistic.

Anuradha Mascarenhas: Recently, there has been a proposal to increase the FSI in Cantonment area, do you think high rises are a solution to the woes of Cantonment?

I think it is a ridiculous idea. Increasing FSI and TDR is the easiest solution that everybody thinks about. I’ve heard that PMRDA is looking to increase the FSI dramatically, like four times. They are planning to reduce the size of plots and increase the size of roads. They believe that new FSI will help them to collect four times more money from a plot than what they’re receiving now. But they are ignoring that they’ve to supply water and electricity to these people, they are forgetting about the sewage facilities. I feel that instead of Cantonment, high risers should be built near Metro stations, which can later be developed into commerce and entertainment hubs. That’s how the government can get good tax rates as well.

Sunanda Mehta: What are your suggestions as an architect?

Focus on mapping. I would begin with water drainage systems in the city, followed by underground water reservoirs, sewage lines and ecologically fragile places. These places can be turned into biodiversity parks later. Pune has many river-beds and hills, which can be utilised later to avoid ecological degeneration. I would build many sidewalks and curbs, which are missing in the city. To be honest, to manage a city, government needs to create a post of City Manager. In the US, we have such posts. Here, IAS officers are burdened with that responsibility. The poor guy can’t handle highly corrupt corporations. The government retains employees who are incompetent or indolent. That is why the hire and fire culture of corporates should be introduced to ensure a rapid progress.

Nisha Nambiar : What do you think about Lavasa?

I don’t have anything against Lavasa. The arguments of environmentalists were not proved. I don’t see anything maleficent about a project, unless it is completely corporate owned. Lavasa has restaurants and shops owned by different investors. If you say that Lavasa is for the elite, that is right. It is meant only for the upper middle class and wealthy people. You can’t build a hill-station for poor after all, the idea is super romantic.

Transcribed by Aashay Khandekar

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