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Urbanscape: At what cost this elevation?

The idea that the future of Delhi lies in highrise housing is increasingly gaining traction.

Written by PSN Rao | New Delhi | December 31, 2011 12:12:20 am

The sum and substance of the recent criticism levelled by the Minister for Urban Development, is that the Delhi Master Plan does not respond to the needs of the day and needs drastic change. The solution that is doing the rounds is that Delhi should go vertical. The source of this inspiration is unknown,whether it is aping the West,going the ‘Mumbai way’ or is it driven by the virtues of private enterprise. Prima facie,this appears to be a simple solution. However,there are many implications and without analysing all these in detail,we cannot take any drastic and sweeping decisions. Here are some points of contest.

Emerging Issues

High Far: By increasing the Floor Area Ratio (FAR),one can assume that people would pull down their old structures and start building taller ones. The implication is that higher economic potential on a parcel of land always results in an increase in land value. In the absence of strict controls,which is a very plausible scenario in the Indian regulatory regime,the end result is that housing will only become more expensive.

Amalgamation: Most parcels of land in Delhi are ‘small’,and therefore the idea is being mooted that an assembly of small plots into a larger plot would enable high rise housing complexes in a cluster format. According to the Law of Assemblage in real estate,this will invariably result in an increase of the unit land value,the end result being high-priced housing.

Infrastructure: In the new situation,there will have at least five times the people living in the same area,which can even stretch to twenty times. In such high density situations,we need completely revamped infrastructure: sewer lines,water lines,power lines,drainage,roads,parking,schools and various other facilities in order to achieve a quality of living desired. If not,there will be a breakdown. Are we in a position to do this? And who will bear the costs?

The Poor: In this entire process,we must remember that there are many pockets of urban villages,squatter settlements,footpath dwellings and so on that harbour the low income population. How do we incorporate street vendors and others who are eking out a living to barely make two ends meet? Where will they go?

NCR Plan: We have a National Capital Region Planning Board created by an Act of Parliament. The high rise concept being debated today does not really fit into the scheme of things of the NCR Plan for Delhi and its region. We need to look at both these plans together and not in isolation,as is being done currently.

Heritage: The urban landscape of Delhi is strewn with historic monuments of various eras,perhaps with no other parallel in India. In such a sensitive archaeological situation,can high rise buildings be an answer? How does one juxtapose the two? There would be in fact very few pockets where one can actually build highrise structures.

Safety: Delhi is highly prone to earthquakes. High rise buildings are therefore not recommended in such areas as per the national disaster atlas. Design and other precautions need to be taken,which only make tall buildings much more expensive. It also needs a very high level of fire safety precautions,equipment and people skills to manage any untoward incidents. Are we planning to do anything at all towards working up on those capabilities? The answer again is,no.

Affordablity: Governments should ensure that whatever framework is evolved,the bulk of the population in the middle and lower income bracket are catered to adequately. We need to ask ourselves if this whole idea of ‘affordable housing’ is achievable or is it something that will be thrown out of the window? Are we ready to put in conditions,even more importantly,are we ready to adhere to them? Moreover,highrise housing complexes are energy guzzlers. They need a very high level of technology and building maintenance as well,leading to increased expenses.Further,the costs of revamped infrastructure are all to be again loaded on the housing units,making them even more expensive.

Mumbai-Delhi Debate: If Mumbai has done it,why not Delhi is the question being asked today. Another issue that is being raised is,if it works in Mumbai,will it work in Delhi? In Mumbai,redevelopment policy has worked in those plots of land where land values are high and where developers could see substantial profit. The same can happen in Delhi too. Further,just as in Mumbai,so in Delhi too,while the existing owners get brand new flats for free,the new property owners will have to cough up huge sums of money,they are invariably luxury apartments. The Mumbai experiment has therefore only a limited success; infrastructure still being a key issue there. So who is gaining?

The Larger Public Interest

The real estate enterprise is excited about the business opportunities and the killing to be made at the end of the day. Of course,for everybody in it,there is a lot of money waiting to be made. But what about the home buyer? Will it be any better now? That is the larger public interest which we need to squarely address. The rich who would have purchased a flat in Gurgaon would now perhaps buy a flat in Delhi. So what is the big deal? Who are the winners and who are the losers? The middle income bread winner is still where he was,maybe worse off. The reading between the lines is clear.

The advantages that are being put forward are that we can release more land and therefore,accommodate more people. If the policy is to be implemented in areas squatted upon,the squatters may get free housing units while the developer may make a good profit in the bargain. This is what is being done in Mumbai.

Infrastructure has gone for a toss course.

Going vertical is therefore,a dicey issue. If implemented carefully,it could perhaps solve some of the immediate problems,provided we are in a position to balance out other issues. In the Indian context,we need to put in adequate mechanisms to govern the real estate sector so that it serves the larger public purpose and not merely feed narrow personal ends.

The ‘devil is in the detail’. We need to carefully work out the mix of FAR,height,ground coverage,density,energy consumed in travelling large distances in a spread out city vis-à-vis energy consumed in a tall building,costs of infrastructure augmentation,margins,end prices,viability,maintenance issues,methodologies of involving private enterprise,affordability,etc.

A lot of detailed analysis needs to be done before such sweeping statements can be made serious policy.

South East Asia,particularly Singapore and Hong Kong have models which are superior and with vertical development as one of the elements of the policy,have been able to solve the housing problem to a great extent. We need to learn lessons and develop a carefully calibrated policy,tailor made to our own context; not copy-paste.

—The author is Professor,SPA,New Delhi.

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