Urban Development In Bangalore Is Entangled In A Web Of Hypocrisy 

Urban Development In Bangalore Is Entangled In A Web Of Hypocrisy 

by Shreyas Bharadwaj - Monday, July 25, 2016 01:24 PM IST
Urban Development In Bangalore Is Entangled In A Web Of Hypocrisy Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • The Karnataka Urban Development Authorities (Amendment) Bill is causing an uproar among some sections of society in Bengaluru— even though this amendment is not applicable in Bengaluru.

    However, zoning taxes— as well as land costs— will now decrease due to this bill. New residents, as well as the relatively poor and old residents, will have cheaper housing options.

The Karnataka Legislative Assembly recently adopted the Karnataka Urban Development Authorities (Amendment) Bill. The bill seeks to reduce the compulsory requirements for parks and playgrounds from 15 percent to 10 percent of the total land area of new residential layouts, as well as reduce the requirements for civic amenities from 10 percent to five percent.

Quite predictably, this has caused an uproar from the likes of MP Rajeev Chandrashekar, Prof Ramachandra of IISc and Prof Harini Nagendra of Azim Premji University— as well as those sections of the general public who take it upon themselves to save the city from “cunning politicians and builders” (after having elected these politicians and bought flats from these builders). A petition on change.org, by a group that calls itself #saveBLR, has already attracted over 5000 signatures.

One can agree with them to an extent when they say that the Government of Karnataka is overrun by corrupt ministers. However, this is one issue where the ministers have got it right. Just to clarify, the amendment is not applicable in Bengaluru which is governed by a different set of laws. Hopefully, the Karnataka government will pass a similar amendment to the Bengaluru Development Authority Act.

One of the reasons given by campaigners is that this is not the kind of city that residents want to live in and the amendment has been passed because of a government-realtor nexus to cut down public spaces, and it will make the city less livable . This is an incredibly shoddy argument against the rule, given the fact that the opposite is true. The present amendment is for residential layouts developed by government authorities.

The New Indian Express reported a department official saying that:

While UDAs had to set aside 25 percent of the total area, private developers were setting aside only 15 percent, allowing them to have more sites in the layout. This gave them an undue advantage, making it harder for UDAs to enter into agreements with land owners.

What does that show? Buyers did not mind smaller parks and playgrounds. 

A preference for larger public spaces would entail higher costs to buyers. Most of them are not ready to pay the extra monies required for the same. Developers realize this and are building accordingly. But are most people ready to pay double the normal amount to have amenities like a garden, swimming pool, etc? Of course not.

It is certainly true that some residents might want more public spaces and amenities and are ready to pay for it. It is also true that there are many premium developers who cater to exactly this sort of buyer class. What one doesn’t understand is why do these people want to force their preferences on the rest ?

Now, coming to the allegation that this is a realtor-politician nexus leading to vanishing public spaces in urban areas. Any data to back up this allegation ? As of now, not much. We do have data on who encroached upon Bengaluru’s lakes. It turns out that in Urban Bengaluru, the government is the biggest encroacher with 2254 acres ot total encroachment while the numerous private individuals and developers have managed only 2023 acres. (Bengaluru Rural sees a reversal). The figures are from the Government of Karnataka. One has to expect a certain degree of underreporting of the government encroachment. So much for the narrative “Government good, Private bad.”

The same Prof Ramachandra of IISc, who had previously claimed that Bengaluru was dying in five years— with no evidence to back up his claim (following a long tradition of eco-warriors)— now argues that it will be a “blow” to the Bengaluru’s green cover. The professor, one of the most eminent scholars on Bengaluru, did not know that Karnataka Urban Development Authorities Act does not apply to Bengaluru.

Another aspect that these campaigners have not even bothered to explain to the general public is housing prices. New layouts are built for new residents of the city and newly-rich, old residents of the city. Given the low floor space index, restrictive construction norms, moronic building byelaws and the extremely high cost of land in Karnataka’s cities— it is almost impossible for most of these residents of the city to buy houses near the city centre. They will have to look towards the relatively cheaper parts i.e. towards the edges. If you impose similar restrictions there too, the cost of housing increases and slowly you would find more people moving further away from the city centre for affordable housing i.e. suburbanisation. As Shanu Athiparambath explains:

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser called the impact of government regulations on housing costs, “zoning tax”. To put it simply, by adding “zoning tax” and land costs, we can find out the gap between housing costs and construction costs.”

(To know more about the costs of suburbanisation in Bengaluru, do read this.)

The Green Belt Iteration

The public spaces argument has an interesting iteration— we need green belts to limit sprawl. The same people who disagree with Donald Trump’s “big, beautiful wall paid for by Mexico” have weirdly come to believe that a green wall will somehow stop urban sprawl in cities like Bengaluru. As it turns out, the green belt is quite useless. Dr Madalasa Venkataraman has found, through a Bengaluru specific study, that “(the) market does not perceive the urban growth boundary to be an effective containment strategy. The UGB (green boundary) is reduced to a redundant policy which has not necessarily achieved its goal of containing sprawl.”

The city has, and will continue to spread out as long as regressive, land use policy prices are keeping folks out of the housing market. It will continue to eat up what is left of the green belt as housing demands are so high and builders are effectively not allowed to build high rises within the city. A change in our land use and zoning policy to allow more construction near the centre would, in all probability, stop sprawl in a few years.

There is little hope for that in the near future. Meanwhile, destruction of the green belt continues unabated. The question does arise— have the environmentalists been campaigning to end this policy? The answer appears to be clearly in the negative. However, they have been demanding for long, discredited policy prescriptions like satellite towns, developing the secondary cities and town’s more elaborate master plans.

Zoning taxes, as well as the land costs, will now decrease due to the Karnataka Urban Development Authorities (Amendment) Bill. New residents, as well as the relatively poor and old residents, will have cheaper housing options. Any rollback of this amendment will be deemed, correctly, as “anti-poor.” In addition it will project many of the campaigners as wealthy hypocritical NIMBYs (NotInMyBackYards).

Shreyas Bharadwaj is a Hindutvawadi from Mysuru who is interested in writing about cities and public policy.

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