Strict zoning in terms of mutually exclusive residential, commercial and industrial zones causes productivity losses, and hence income and wealth losses.
The only people who benefit significantly from zoning regulations are bureaucrats who usually have little or no idea about urban planning and aesthetics.
A few months ago, I had opined that violating zoning laws and stringent construction norms is not necessarily bad because such violations keep housing and rental cost low as well as increase the density of living (and hence our productivity and real incomes). I said:
As a 20-year-old, who will participate in Bengaluru’s rental housing market next year, this writer is genuinely happy whenever someone indulges in a zoning violation by, say, building residential housing in a commercial zone or an industrial zone. The same is the case whenever I see people blatantly violating floor area ratio norms by adding another floor or extending floor space in a pre-existing floor.
It is now the turn of Bengaluru’s parents to feel this way. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) seems to have adopted the Delhi Development Authority’s zeal to fight ‘irregularities’ (read as - create new avenues for unofficial income). The News Minute reported that the BBMP sent out notices to nearly 4,000 pre-schools operating in residential areas to stop operations and relocate to commercial areas. The reason - zoning regulations were violated.
Here is a rough translation of the notice posted in The News Minute report:
Through this notice we would like to inform you - it has come to our notice that you are running a business/shop in ‘____’ address. We have been getting complaints from various residents asking you to stop running a business/shop given that the said area is residential. Since commercial activity is not allowed, we through this notice are asking you to stop running your business/shop here. You need to close down your business/shop within 3 days of receiving this notice or face legal action under the Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act.
The BBMP calls pre-schools as shops/business for one reason - they are not officially classified as utilities in the Bengaluru Development Authority Zoning Regulations as per Revised Master Plan - 2015. Middle Schools are given the said classification. So, are high schools. But those who created the master plan forgot to put pre-schools in the list!
Few days later, many protests and an online petition prompted Mayor Padmavati’s intervention and BBMP to stop churning out these notices. It formed ‘a committee comprising both elected representatives and officials’ to examine the issue of who should get served such notice; and give their report to the BBMP council. In effect now a politician-bureaucrat partnership is created to earn unofficial income. It is important to note that this is also a change from the DDA model which was mostly dominated by bureaucrats. .
Coming back to the original issue, it is pertinent to think what would have happened if the law was strictly enforced from the very beginning. The business model of these pre-schools hinges on building them in residential localities and thus be easily accessible to parents . If the law had been properly followed, most of Bengaluru city’s pre-schools wouldn't have existed or would have been quite far from the prominent residential areas.
The same is the case not only with pre-schools but also other urban businesses like beauty parlours, medical shops, small eateries run usually by local entrepreneurs and more. Strict zoning in terms of mutually exclusive residential, commercial and industrial zones also causes productivity losses, and hence income and wealth losses. It increases the time it takes to commute, it increases the cost of renting, it increases the cost of doing business and more. The only people who benefit significantly from zoning regulations are bureaucrats who usually have little or no idea about urban planning and aesthetics.
The government of India is trying to bring about a change in such laws in different states by tying grants via the Housing For All Scheme, the Smart Cities Yojana and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation to zoning reforms in the form of a move towards mixed use zoning. One can only hope that they succeed in convincing Siddaramaiah’s government in Karnataka to implement those reforms in our cities. That we need these reforms is beyond doubt.