Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Hill Tops & Hill Slopes in Pune - The Controversy over BDP raises its head again!

The most damage happening to Pune's Hill Tops and Hill Slopes is due to the BDP Reservation that came into being as a brainchild of some activists posing as Urban Planners. The 4% development rule in the core city of Pune has also ensured that Hill Tops and Hill slopes have been retained, but the requirement of land acquisition forced by the BDP Reservation actually caused maximum damage to the city's hills on its fringe.

Have you seen citizens get divided over an issue of a hilltop or a hill slope in the core city of Pune? No. The reason why citizens and political parties are so divided over the issue is because the BDP reservation has made them unnecessarily take two extreme positions when it comes to hills in Pune. These both warring sides have forgotten that Urban Planning is often about compromised allocation of land resources to meet the demands of various functions in a city.

And by compromise I don't mean that we should compromise giving up Open Lands, Riverfronts etc. But at the same time, planning solutions and policies to resolve problems that are facing a deadlock is absolutely necessary. Taking a stand on either of the extremes is causing maximum damage to the city and particularly its Green spaces. Unfortunately, in the heat of being self righteous, most citizens and activists are creating a situation which will only worsen and possibly damage the hill tops and hill slopes of the city. We have to remember that most times, 'No Action' is the 'Worst Action'!

While most of us are really concerned about the city of Pune and its hills, why isn't any of these groups talking about or raising up a storm over hills and hill slopes that are routinely brought under real estate development outside of the city? Just drive 2-3 kms outside of Pune and you will see a very different approach to hills and their development. Also, while we may consider that 'No Development' is the only way to save hills, we really need to think again. Across all countries and particularly in India, private ownership has been largely successful in retaining hills. While public ownership has actually caused environmental degradation. Why then are we talking about a BDP Reservation that requires private land to be acquired by municipality? Aren't we actually doing exactly opposite to actually saving our hills? World over, private ownership, with the right policy directives, have transformed natural areas. California, is an example, where rocky hill slopes & hill tops has been opened up for only low density premium real estate, making these 'rich' havens pay for the conservation of the remaining hill side and making it accessible as public land. When we speak of conservation, we have to have the correct fiscal mechanisms in place too. Where else will Pune Municipal Corporation get the money to first acquire and then develop the BDP, if it ever happens? Activists, often fail to answer these questions, while taking an unrealistic stand.

Now the BDP has become a political issue and lost all its logicality. For example, the BDP reservation was actually proposed in 1997, the plan getting a State sanction sometime in 2003. During this time, the NCP was in power in the State and NCP-Congress was in government in Pune. While Adv. Vandana Chavan has been most vocal about saving hills, why didn't the NCP actually implement the BDP? What was stopping them? The reason that BDP didn't take off was merely that it is an absolutely wrong, unrealistic and financially unviable policy. And I attribute the entire onus of the burden of degradation of the hills of Pune to the BDP policy framed then. A Non-issue was made into an Issue due to mistake in policy making. This can go down as a classic example of what wrong policies can do to a city!

Having said this, I am of the opinion that hills are public Green spaces and need to be retained so. Detailed survey of the Hill Tops and Hill Slopes can give so many new insights and options into evolving planning solutions for the hills. I would like to ask whether, all these apparently Pune's well wishers, have ever considered doing such a survey? If they have, they will realise that its quite possible to identify and restrict genuine homeowners whose development can remain restricted to a certain portion of the hill slope. But acquiring these lands and possibly converting it into slums in the near future, is definitely not a solution. BDP reservation is sure to do that!

Lastly, coming to possible planning solutions. There are many. But these solutions will surely try and accommodate genuine landowners/homeowners and cannot take an extreme view regarding hills. Planning solutions can be making micro-plans for the hill tops and hill slope areas, similar to town planning schemes. Development is restricted to a certain portion of the hill slope which is relatively stable and suitable for putting in the required infrastructure. Building/house heights can be restricted, like its done near the Airport. Type of construction can be defined to ensure slopes are properly retained.In fact, allowing genuine homeowners to remain on the land will have tremendous benefits and the hill tops will certainly be conserved with appropriate planning mechanisms.

To accommodate the landowners with minimal compensation, TDR and such other instruments can be used. Allowing restricted real estate development after paying hill slope premium in a restricted area can generate funds to ensure that the remaining hill slope gets conserved and people are not displaced. Such premium housing can actually fetch a higher price and thereby private interest will ensure that the remaining hill slopes are maintained as green spaces. Solutions can be worked out if we really want to ensure that hills are conserved. And sticking with the BDP reservation is definitely not a solution. Period!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Potholed HellHoles - Indian Roads during Monsoons!

Every year, year on year, Indian cities and villages and the roads connecting them become hell holes - potholed to such an extent that it is downright dangerous to traverse these. Fatal and non fatal Road accidents, due to pot holes abound, but very rarely is the condition of the road blamed for causing accidents. Much attention is given to over-speeding and non-wearing of helmets as causes of accidents, but very rarely do we say that "if only roads were designed and built better, we would have many of our young population alive"!

Its important to understand that the degradation of roads is because of a multiplier effect of various reasons. Roads rarely get damaged due to use (or overuse) only. Overuse along with presence of water, leads to rapid degradation of the road surface. So, a road that's fine over an entire year, rapidly disintegrates with the first showers of rain. So water has a big and important role to play in degrading road surface, particularly when roads are made from asphalt or bitumen. Since it has a lesser damaging impact on concrete surfaces, we see cities with money, spend frivolously on concrete roads rather than asphalt roads. In Pune, for example, we have seen a massive spending on concrete roads- in fact the concrete road fervor has a reached a point of obsession that even smaller by lanes have been now concreted, pushing asphalt out completely. But the fact remains that good, well built asphalt roads are much better for our vehicles, offer a smoother ride and are relatively better in ensuring water also seeps into the ground, unlike concrete roads.

Corruption, while an important aspect in degrading roads, is not the only one to work in isolation towards bad roads. If it was, we would have seen better roads inside private societies and private townships. Even here, we find roads in a bad shape during monsoons. However, corruption definitely leads to misjudgment of technical priorities and shoddy construction techniques become popular to save time and money. So, a contractor, can get a road contract for 50 Crores, of which he needs to pay 5 crores as kick backs. So effectively, he ends up with 45 crores to actually do the job. He now compensates for the shortfall by use of shoddy material or less use of material and faster construction. So a base layer which is so important for the road, is completely missed and the road gets constructed in less time, less material and less labour cost. Plus, there is a chance to win the same contract again next year, knowing that the road will get washed away in the monsoon.

However, due to this, a more damaging impact that is seen over a longer period of time, is that road construction starts getting done by missing the base layer, as if it never was a requirement in the first place. As a standard road making practice, every time, a step is missed leading to wrong techniques being employed in road construction, as a regular and accepted practice. This is exactly what has happened in India, which tell us why even private developers are unable to make roads of a quality that we see in other countries.

The most important aspect compromised by missing one base layer, is grading. If you see a well designed and well made asphalt road, it has, what is known as, a Camber - that is, the road has a peak at its centre and it slopes down towards the side. This basically ensures that any water that falls on the road is carried quickly, without any stagnation, to the road sides and into the storm water drain that runs alongside.

On Indian roads, this grading for Camber is totally missing! Hence, even when storm water drains are made, water rarely reaches these drains. Water just flows along the path of least resistance to wherever the slope leads it. It stops, when it finds a depression in the road. Asphalt is a porous material and hence water seeps inside and into the base layer, which is missing some crucial layers. As a result the road starts degrading.

The second point where road starts disintegrating is the side of the road. Often road contracts are awarded a contract to ashpalt the vehicular carriageways only. This is a bad practice in road contracting and needs to be stopped immediately. Road contract needs to be given fully, where edge treatment is a necessary feature of road design and construction. So we see the contractor lay out the asphalt in the centre, leaving the edges or sides completely unfinished. The dirt edge at the side, coupled with the flow of water and stagnation of water, starts disintegrating the road surface from the sides.

So where do we go from here? First and foremost, politicians and city administrators need to understand that laying a road is not just about coating a base with asphalt. There is a serious technique involved. Its not rocket science, but there is a systematic way in which this needs to be done. As soon as we realise the importance of road construction, we will know that we cannot compromise on aspects like grading, having a proper base layer and having a finished edge to complete the road. Miss any of these steps and you will need resurfacing every year. Do all these steps fully and systematically, and we will have a road that will last us 10 years.

Now unless there is a serious effort to ensure roads should not last and make money off every road contract, its another matter! In such a case, we need to change political representatives and corrupt officials immediately. Period! Elections are around the corner and ensure that you will throw out people who are giving you bad roads for years together.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Building Collapse: Who is really responsible?

Failure of a building’s structure leads to collapse. What are the various reasons for a building’s structure to collapse? The most simple reason is that the load on the building is her than the one its designed for, leading to one or more building elements to buckle/crush/bend. This triggers a chain reaction, causing undue stress on the remaining elements, causing failure and thereby collapse. 

Similarly, a failure in a building that is under construction can also be caused due to incorrect scaffolding that supports the structure till the concrete gains adequate strength to stand on it own. Over the years, we have seen multiple such failures, the recent one at Pride Park Xpress site at Balewadi being one of the latter kind.

Immediately post such a failure, there is, of course, a knee jerk reaction from everybody involved leading to arrests of professionals, while Developers evade this successfully. The primary stakeholders in a real estate are the Developer (project proponent), the team of consultants including Architect, Structural Engineer and a Technical team of Contractor, the Municipal / Town Planning Authority and of course the numerous common persons who have bought homes in the project. 

A typical process of building construction can be listed as follows, with minor variations between cities and regions:

1. A Developer identifies and invests in a site, develops a tentative brief of the kind of homes/offices that he/she wishes to build based on market conditions.
2. An architect is consulted to generate a design based on the brief and one that fits into the legal requirements of the Development Control Rules. Typically, the Floor Space Index (FSI) which defines how much space in square meters can the project construct is designed by the Architect. This is called the maximum potential.
3. Other consultants such as Structural Engineer designs the proposed building for structural stability and defines what strength of materials will have to be used
4. Other consultants such as Mechanical & Plumbing Engineers design the services such as Water & Electrical Systems
5. Clearances and NOCs as may be applicable are applied for and the project is scrutinized at government level. For example, Fire Safety scrutiny, Environmental Scrutiny etc
6. The Municipal or concerned Government authority Sanctions the Building Plans. This can also be done partially or fully. For example, a building project can get an initial sanction for 5 floors, but since the DC Rule allow a more FSI, this building can increase the floors in the revision sanction
7. Essentially it is assumed and it is a standard practice to design the building for its maximum potential. So even though the sanction can happen partially over floors, the structural stability is designed taking into consideration the entire final construction that is possible for the project
8. Now the project is ready for construction on site. The work is tendered out to a Contractor, who is legally contracted to conduct all site execution activities, including employment of labour, transport of materials etc
9. During construction, the respective consultants make periodic site visits to check specific requirements as per their scope of work
10. If all goes well, the project takes shape in a year or two and homes are ready for occupancy, as designed and planned by a concerted effort of all consultants and with investment of money by the Developer.

If you see the above 10step process, you will realise that the home that you stay in is actually made possible due to all the stakeholders doing the right work for you. Even if one of the stakeholder makesa mistake, there is failure - right from water seepage inside a building to actual collapse of the building itself. 

The reason that I am prompted to write this article is the fact that when a building collapse occurs, the first thing that this entire real estate industry tries to do is allocate responsibility to someone else. The other day, when I spoke about this responsibility allocation at a coffee table conversation, I realised that I was making very hollow arguments to a homeowner, essentially conveying a very serious message that when it comes to constructing a building, no one is really responsible for anything! Now, that’s a scary thought. All the lifelong savings are put into investing in a home which is built under the responsibility of no one!

Real Estate sector needs a serious thought to allocation of responsibility. First and foremost, this sector is fraught with Developers who can bring in investment but who don’t even have a basic office and systems to manage construction of homes. Secondly, professionals like Architects and Structural Engineers, who are bound by their respective professional Acts, are a weak lobby and pander to the needs and whims of the Developer. The defined responsibility versus the actual engagement with the project is seriously compromised due to cut throat competition of lower fees. Many Developers do not value good consultant inputs, which comes at a higher price. Also, sometimes, contrary to the scope of work as defined in the Professionals Act, reducing fees and thereby reducing the involvement of professionals in the project is a common practice prevalent today. 

So consider this case, A developer negotiates with an Architect and Structural Engineer to arrive at a reduced fees and reduced scope of work. The design is done by both these consultants and handed over to the Developer. Further to this, no engagement of both these consultants happens on site. So, essentially these Professionals have no direct control over whether the structure is actually being built as designed! Then, are they responsible for failure? Is reducing the scope of work of professionals permitted by law and should professionals put their foot down when it comes to such practices?

The municipal authority/sanctioning authority conducts site visits to building projects. But are they equipped to conduct an audit of construction management practices happening at site?In the latest case of Balewadi project, the immediate reactions of the Municipal officers was that the 13th floor was not yet sanctioned and thus illegal. This does not make any sense. The failure of scaffolding in this case and structural collapse in other cases may very well happen to sanctioned floors. So really, the illegality of not following a sanctioning process cannot be an argument for building failure. Vice versa, a totally illegal (not sanctioned) buildings are very well standing and may be structurally stable, while completely sanctioned (non illegal) buildings may fail.

These and many questions need a proper understanding and analysis to bring in more credibility, more accountability and thus formalizing the real estate sector. The formalizing of the sector has been resisted by Developers for long, but good Developer firms are realizing the importance of regulation and formalizing now that the sector is losing credibility in the midst of an economic slump.

Finally, we have to also address the issue of ‘immediate action’ carried out by police and authorities when such a mishap occurs. Arresting and thereby badly impacting the professional reputation of a professional is a knee jerk reaction. Can we not lay down a process that is better suited to control professional ignorance, if any? Architect Hrishikesh Kulkarni has cited an excellent example. In the medical profession, when some surgery/medical procedure goes wrong and leads to complications, including death of the patient, a procedure to expertly assess the causes of failure has been laid down. Construction of a building can be compared to a surgery, where multiple stakeholders are involved and even a slight mistake by anyone of these can lead to serious repercussions, he says. The Medical fraternity has evolved the procedure of a Board of Medical Experts to tackle this issue. In case of failure, this Board which is essential medical experts, assess the reasons for failure and then allocates responsibility to the concerned professional. 

This not only gives a chance for professionals to present their say/plea and an experts body can really assess the causes and reasons for failure in a fair and transparent manner. This cause can be taken up by the Associations of Architects and Structural Engineers. However, like said earlier, the concerted effort of many professionals, skilled and unskilled labour is at work when building homes. Unless, we put a serious thought of how to formalize this sector, we will be just tackling one problem, without giving clear answers to another. Strict allocation of specific responsibility to professionals and registration and minimum requirements for Developers and Contractors can be good starting points towards this direction.       

Monday, July 4, 2016

Environmental Clearance in Maharashtra - Mired in Controversy!

It has been 10 years since the first EIA notification of 2006 was published by Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), at that time. This Notification was critical to the Real estate industry as it categorically laid down the requirements of Environmental Clearance for any construction more than 20,000 sq m. The Environmental Clearance (EC) requirement was actually called as the Prior EC, which was to be applied for and granted prior to a project getting constructed on site.

Since then, the EC and its process took some time getting in to the construction process, which was already fraught with Building Sanctions from the local authority. However, it can be said that by 2008-2009, most of the medium to big projects started adhering to the requirements of environmental scrutiny.

The requirements of a Prior EC created its own problems and the State and the Centre vacillated regarding the interpretation of the 2006 Notification. As a result, we find, particularly in Maharashtra, that we have a long list of project that are termed as Violation projects.

During the period from 2008 to 2014, as more and more projects applied for EC, there was a long waiting time. In some cases, projects waited for almost 2 years before the project was first heard by the State appointed Environmental Appraisal Committee (SEAC). This was of course, unacceptable and hence we find that the violation List is particularly long during this period, as Developers chose to violate the EC notification than face the wrath of customers or default on the loans that they had availed for the project. It just didn't make economic sense to wait for two years to face environment scrutiny!

In 2014, with a new Committee in place and the efforts of the Central government towards 'Ease of Business' the State department and the committee members worked to bring down the pendency of projects. The MOEFCC will be happy to note that today, there is no pendency with the SEAC in Maharashtra, making it possibly the smoothest and cleanest process in the real estate sector.

With the preparation of the Model Building Bye Laws of 2016, this picture is going to change completely. The Central government departments, the MOUD and the MOEFCC have come together to frame/suggest bye laws that will incorporate environmental conditions as a part of the Building regulations. This move suggests that since the other Building regulations are controlled by the Local Municipal governments, the compliance of Environmental regulations will also be decentralized to the civic authorities. The State will merely enact a GR or make amendments to the Maharashtra Regional &Town Planning (MR&TP) Act to this effect and the Municipal authorities will have to set up mechanisms to check environmental compliance.

As an environmental consultant in the field for the past 10 years, my critical observations on the entire EC process and the suggested new process are as follows:

1. The State government was doing a good job and most of the issues like Water availability, energy feasibility and operational concerns like waste management were being checked by the SEAC. I have found that the EC process made Developers and consultants in the Real estate sector realize (possibly for the first time) that you cannot put up a project where there is no water available. Otherwise, developers were building projects and buyers were buying properties in these projects which had no source of water.

2. Despite irregularities that we observed in the Building sanctions process at the Municipal level, the SEAC brought in a fair and a reasonable check to the entire system of building sanction. No doubt, it was restricted only for projects larger than 20,000 sq m, but nonetheless, Developers had to ensure that all project documentation was, in the least, consistent and was checked very diligently by the SEAC.

3. While these positive beginnings can be seen, there was a complete grey area as far as implementation of environmental measures was concerned. Few of the unlucky ones, which had to come back to the SEAC and had their implementation checked, found that most Developers had not even looked at the conditions stipulated in the EC, after the EC was granted. This opens up a can of worms that governments are not yet geared to look at.

4. The State Pollution Control Boards - agencies which are given the primary responsibility of environmental protection in the State, are the weakest links in the entire process. Consent to Establish and Consent to Operate is required for all real estate projects greater than 20,000 sqm, and it is expected that the stipulated conditions of the EC will be verified by this agency before final consent is given. However, we find that the SPCBs work on the principle of loads of paperwork and nothing on the ground !

5. Another negative side to this State level process is that project teams have to travel across Maharashtra to Mumbai (and sometimes Pune) for the EC hearings. Plus, the entire process is all about documentation, documentation and documentation, so it involves huge paperwork. So while we commit to protect the environment, we end up creating a large Carbon footprint of the process itself.

6. The positive aspect of change that the Model Building Bye Laws may bring for Environmental compliance is its local scrutiny, and thus will considerably reduce the timelines, the paperwork and thus the carbon load of the process. Further, a local process can also bring in better implementation checks and thus we may actually see environmental measures being put into projects as proposed. 

7. On the flip side, a local environmental clearance, if not guaranteed to be corruption free, will just mean complete failure of environmental protection and its norms. Similar to the Building sanction process which is fraught with corrupt practices, environmental compliance will get mired in controversy and effectively no environmental action will be seen on ground.

8. The biggest fear for Architects and Developers is actually this. They who have battled with a corrupt Building Sanction process for so many years are extremely skeptical that a clean, reasonable and timely EC process will be implemented in the Municipal body.This body of professionals fear this the most!

9. Transparent online process of application, compliance re-submission and grant of EC had gained good ground at the State level, but since Jan 2016, there seems to an almost intentional failure of the online system. web portals crash, ECs are not being uploaded on time and there reigns supreme chaos when it comes to deadlines and procedures. It seems like the transparency offered by the online system is not favored by the politicos nor the bureaucracy!

There is a need for a serious intervention by the Chief Minister in the working of the Department of Environment, State of Maharashtra. With a nice rapport shared by Shri. Devendra Fadnavis and Shri. Prakash Javadekar, and the commitment already shown by Shri. Sudhir Mungantiwar in protecting & promoting Forests,  Maharashtra can take the top slot in becoming a State that really streamlines the Environmental Scrutiny and Implementation process for other states to follow.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Smart Punekars - can we stop debating and start executing!

On 25 June 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the 14 Smart Proposals/Projects for Pune. This inauguration is gestural and all the first round of Smart Cities will begin the execution phase of their respective Smart Solutions/Projects in their respective areas.

As per the Smart Cities Proposal submitted by the Pune Municipal Corporation under the Smart Cities Mission, the single most issue that Pune's citizens had highlighted was the issue of Transport & Mobility. From a city of cyclists, Pune has come a long way to become a City that's stuck in a Traffic Jam. Mobility, one of the most primary requirements of economic activity is seriously affected in the city. Mobility is directly linked to employment opportunities and economic growth. While mobility is linked to pollution, congestion etc, most people do not realise that its impact on economic opportunities is far far greater than the impact on environment like air quality.

The second most important issue highlighted by Pune's citizens was water supply. This was a bit of a surprise considering that Pune is fortunate to have more than average water consumption per capita in comparison to many other cities in the country. However, the equitable water supply, remains elusive in Pune and thus, this was a target put forth in the Smart City Proposal for Pune.

The Smart City Proposal for Pune was an opportunity under the Smart City Mission to create pilots that would otherwise not be a priority under regular Municipal working. And I think, Pune, really cashed on this opportunity and objective to emerge a forerunner amongst other cities. The 14 proposals and a quick summary is as under:

1. Sustainable Livelihood Centre - This is in tune with the Skilling India Initiative that aims to engage youth in skills and thereby open up employment opportunities to him/her.

2. Slum Rehabilitation of Babasaheb Ambedkar Slum in Aundh - the objective is to showcase a pilot that can be undertaken under the Housing for All scheme. If this proves to be a success, it's model can then be expanded to other parts of the city.

3. Street and Pedestrian Walkways - Urban Design, an areas neglected and not formally recognised in our traditional municipal processes has been placed as a project under Smart City to develop a model and show that a well designed street can have multiple social, economic & liveability benefits

4. Central Command & Control For Public Transport - Lack of reliable public transport in Pune has been our primary cause for all mobility issues. With this proposal, there is an attempt to streamline operations of PMPML before or concurrent with physical investments that are required.

5. Vehicle Health Monitoring - Again moving towards the target of  reliable public transport, the proposal will ensure that buses do not break down and cause inconvenience, which is an important factor in people choosing to use public transport. So this initiative, is a soft initiative, which till directly impact ridership

6. Passenger Information System - we have argued time and again that no information about Bus, the bus routes, their timings have led to people not using public transport. While, public transport interventions have largely remained for physical bus increases, rarely have we attempted to put information on a public platform. The Smart City Mission has given this opportunity to invest money into these systems that will increase ridership.

7. City Common Mobiliy Card - Mobility is not just about point-to-point transport, but the ability to move across the city easily. Again, this initiative would never have become a priority in traditional PMPML budgeting which is given a chance under the Smrt City Mission.

8. Traffic Demand Modelling - Aimed at improving public transport through route optimisation, this initiative rarely figured in traditional investments in PMPML, although it was spoken about for many years.

9. Modern Buses - a very Important aspect of having a good, reliable public transport that will transform peoples' perception about public transport and attract more people to use it.

10. Pune Maximum Solar City Project - city level energy generation has never even entered the minds of our traditional municipal working. This is a great opportunity for the city to begin putting up energy infrastructure in the city and becoming self sufficient in energy. Many cities outside India have done this (Ex. Copenhagen) and our traditional systems did not allow this at all.

11. Plastic Bottle Recycling Project - Despite all our best efforts to make citizens aware about plastic waste, a city needs infrastructure to tackle plastic waste. Again under the Smart City Mission, this is great opportunity for the city to add the necessary environmental infrastructure, which has rarely been on the radar of municipal corporations.

12. MoVe Tracking System - A monitoring system of tracking garbage vehicles so that the city understands how and when garbage moves within the city and thereby arrive ate better systems and routes to make garbage management efficient.

13. Quantified Cities Movement - This is a great collaborative platform that will share experie3nces across cities, create data and information for other cities to follow and set benchmarks. Time and again, in conferences, we see limited sharing of experiences on innovative solutions to civic problems. Smart City mission has given an opportunity to formalise the process of information sharing and making comparatives, thereby rewarding merit based on benchmarks. This will really cause a great transformation in bureaucratic mindsets and bring in private competitive thinking into the management of cities.

14. 100% Grievance Redressal System for Water - PmcCare is already operational in Pune and the benefits of a system that gives a timely response to citizen's grievances cannot be debated upon. It's responsive, accountable and transparent. Again, this initiative, may take some time to fine tune itself but nonetheless, it is a great opportunity to bring in fast, reliable civic services to the citizens in a transparent manner.

There is still a debate as to whether Smart City is a hype with no substance. Well, of course any scheme needs execution before it can be termed as successful, so let's not get ahead of ourselves and start labelling schemes and programmes just yet. But I feel this is a great beginning of many new ideas that cities will be able to quickly transform into reality, giving a much needed boost to the urban development sector and its stakeholders - citizens !

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Water Management – Increasing water availability in cities

It is very rare that we,in India, hear that the monsoon has been good for successive 5-6 years. With every good monsoon, there are at least 2 failed monsoons in between. Every other year, the Indian economy reels and awaits the rains, all of us looking upwards towards the skies, praying that the heavens will open up, this year.

Despite doing this year on year, we in India have not at all given a serious thought to making ourselves water efficient. Be it rural water management or urban, we face a serious drought and when the rains come, we forget to plan for water in the next year. Nitinji Gadkari has recently said that “we are a rich country full of poor people”, which is definitely true of nation’s water resources.

I have undertaken the task of putting on paper the various means and methods by way of which we can increase water availability in our cities today. Most of these means and methods are already out there, practiced by hundreds of people, installed in buildings, but these have remained just there. Personal interventions. There has not been a concerted effort to take this up at a city level or even to institutionalise it.

I have always maintained that water supply is a public infrastructure and cannot be undertaken by private entities to provide water for themselves. Some years ago, I had visited Kodaikanal, a supposedly beautiful hill town known for its views and lush forests. All I did see there were water pipelines running along one side of the mountain, alongside the roads and reaching every house that nestled in these hills. It was as if, every house-owner was asked to put in his/her own water line, starting at some public water storage tank and ending at the doorstep. What a disaster! And after having laid this utterly leaking and wasteful distribution infrastructure, the city had massive water cuts. So having a water line and having water are of course two very separate things, as most of us, have realised, particularly, when India faces a drought.

But let me come back to the issue of increasing the availability of water, rather than get into the logistics of supplying it first. Because, that’s the core issue. NO WATER! Period.

Evaporation Losses
A study has estimated that about 20 % of the total storage capacity of the dams is lost to evaporation every year. Apart from this storage reservoir evaporation,  we have massive additional evaporation losses happening during distribution of water through open canals.
The Canal Solar Power Project in Gujarat proposed over the canals from the Narmada dam is a classic example where evaporation losses will be curbed apart from other obvious benefits. Just the pilot phase of this project, over 750 m canal is estimated to prevent evaporation of 9 million liters of water annually while generating about 1MW of clean energy.

Leakage Losses
In the city of Pune, according to the City Development Plan, about 31% of all treated drinking water leaks into the ground. Pune has a population of about 38 lakh people and it is estimated that Pune utilizes about 1222 MLD (Million liters per day). Of this, about 866 MLD is lifted from the dams (the four reservoirs of Khadakwasala, Panshet, Temghar and  Warasgaon) and about 356 MLD is drawn from the various wells around the city.

Of the 866 MLD, which travels to Pune in leaking underground water supply system, about 31% is lost, thereby the actual supply is around 598 MLD. Of this 598 MLD, Pune is gracious in supplying water to the immediate neighboring villages, estimated to be about 67.5 MLD. So effectively, the total water that is supplied to Pune is 530 MLD or about 139 liters per capita per day (LPCD). So the myth that Pune citizens end up using more than 250 lpcd is busted through this simple calculation.
Now the remaining 356 MLD is accessible to a few as this is drawn from the various groundwater sources in Pune and its distribution is not equitable across the city. So to club this volume of water to derive an average water consumption per person will be a mistake. However, some fortunate citizens who do end up accessing this water, their water consumption goes more than 223 LPCD.

In any developed country, the water leakages are curbed to 2-3%, while we are at 31%. There needs to be systematic effort to upgrade the water supply distribution system. Even if we can curb the water leakages to 5%, we will have about 1094 MLD instead of 850 MLD water to use and with a regulated and equitable supply of 150 LPCD (the standard is 135 LPCD), this same water can suffice about 7.2 million people, instead of 3.8 million currently. That’s a simple 40% increase in service delivery of water with the same storage reservoir capacity.

Reuse of Wastewater
As per global standards, every person requires minimum 135 litres per day for fulfilling the basic needs of drinking, bathing and cleaning. Of this, 80% of the water converts into wastewater. Now considering that Pune, gets 1222MLD per day, 950 MLD of wastewater generated by the city each day. Currently, 50% of this gets treated at a primary level and is let off into the river. The remaining 50%  i.e 400 MLD sewage goes directly into the river every day and pollutes it to a point of ensuring that there is no Dissolved Oxygen and hence no aquatic life left in the river adjoining cities. The irony of the situation is that 80% of the wastewater is actually WATER. Removal of the 20% stuff from this water can get us the precious water that we are so mindlessly casting away into our rivers. And in turn causing an even greater problem of river pollution.

Just imagine for a moment that in this drought situation, you were asked to cast away about 400 MLD  of potential clean water into a river daily. Well, that's what we are doing all 365 days, all 24 hours in our cities.

A very serious concerted effort to treat our wastewater at the city level can give us an augmented supply of water. The environmental norms established under Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MOEFCC), require that most new building complexes should install wastewater treatment infrastructure.. Where this works properly, citizens are benefiting of getting an assured, treated water supply for landscaping, flushing purposes and maintenance of the outdoors. However, this initiative is happening at a building level, often generating large quantities of water which are once again left into the drains. If there is an effort to facilitate the reuse of treated wastewater at the city level, we will be able to reuse this water more efficiently and in a more systematic manner.  A massive augmentation of water resources is possible through this. It is estimated that about 665 MLD (a conservative 70% of 950 MLD of wastewater) of treated wastewater can be made available to the city. And guess what? It will also keep our rivers clean. A very important and beneficial outcome, most will agree.

Reuse of Stormwater
The monsoon gives us an opportunity to tap rainwater at one single period in a year. Most of the monsoon rain that falls on surfaces finally ends up as Stormwater – polluted with oils, grease and other pollutants, but nonetheless, an opportunity to tap the Stormwater and treat it for reuse. This needs to happen at the city level.  For this, our roads need to have established channels for Stormwater. Presently , the stormwater network along the roads is about 52% as it is available only at  selected and major roads. As a priority, if stormwater network is put in place, another beneficial outcome that the city will encounter is that road surface does not disintegrate due to collection and stagnation of stormwater. Thus, the city can save thousands of rupees on road surface repairs, as water will flow into stormwater channels and get carried to a treatment plant. It's difficult to estimate these flows, but looking at the level of concreting in our cities today, we have a potential to tap and reuse thousands of litres of stormwater annually.

Rainwater Harvesting
One of the major and priority environmental concerns for India, as per the State of Environment Monitor by the MOEFCC is the deletion of groundwater. Maharashtra, including Pune district, shows massive depletion of groundwater sources. We have failed to generate a data in Pune, but informal information shows that there are hundreds of wells in Pune which supply water to the city. This water is neither recorded in our regular water supply nor is it accounted for in our wastewater estimates. But the fact remains, that people are extracting groundwater in cities across India. A mapping of these groundwater sources and again a neighborhood level effort to harvest rainwater and recharge these wells will mean that these water sources are augmented, thereby increasing the overall availability of water in our cities.

Some years ago, an erudite professor and architect Uday Chipalkatty had shared with me a proposal of underground water reservoir for the city of Pune. He had proposed an elaborate system of wells and bore wells that are recharged during the monsoons and a collective city underground reservoir is tapped by the city to augment its water supply. Some such solutions need to be further explored to look at local, decentralized water augmentation options for cities.

Such city level planning and technology solutions have rarely been brought to the fore. At the local level, city corporators/councillors are often busy in giving fix-it solutions to the citizens. A broken pipe here that's fixed, or an illegal connection there that's legalised to augment the water supply.
Cities have the resources and the incentives to work on such mid to long term solutions to create their own reservoirs of water. This needs a systematic plan at the city level, supported by the State and the Centre. Urban water management will also mean more water resources for rural areas and possibly end of reliance on a good monsoon, end of drought year after year.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Drought - Urban Versus Rural Water Use

The summer is upon us and the low water availability is causing the arguments for and against the use of water come to the fore. These are the undercurrents, so to speak, even when water is available, but these are pushed further underground then, as water is available and rise to the ground when it's not.

A failed monsoon last year is one of the primary reasons for these arguments to surface above the ground. However, a quick glance on the water availability figures and it tells us that India will consistently face a cycle of either failed monsoons or failed capacity of water resources, each decreasing the per capita water availability in the coming future. The global annual average of water availability is 6000 litres per person, while it was 3000 litres a decade ago in India and it has slipped to 1200 litres per person.

The reason for writing this article, however, is to bring to the front  valid and and non valid arguments of water use. Particularly, if we are going to see a drought, more frequently, if not every year, now is the time to set some things in perspective. The urban uses of water are diversified and numerous. These do not remain restricted to the basic use of water like drinking, irrigation and basic personal cleaning like in rural areas. Constructing buildings, laying roads, using swimming pools, landscape around buildings, maintaining the areas around buildings, cleaning roads, cleaning vehicles and such seemingly ‘luxury’ water uses are in fact a necessary part of an urban life. Even the most water conscious people in the cities will agree, albeit reluctantly, that urban water use cannot remain just for the basics. Similarly, like water use in rural areas is linked to a very important economic activity of agriculture, in urban areas too, most of the water use is linked directly to or indirectly supports revenue generating economic activity. In fact, I contend that urban water use is, in fact, more productive in economic terms, than its rural counterpart, perhaps sugarcane farming coming a close second.

So, when arguments are made to stop the use of water of one particular use because the other do not get water are unfair. The reason why we are reeling under a severe drought is that we have, over years, failed to anticipate the growing requirement of water and provide for it. Period. We have capped our water availability through large infrastructure like dams around 1960s and have not added anything significant to this since then. The reasons are many, including social uprooting and environmental concerns.

But, to make urban users feel bad for the worsening water situation in the rural areas is not correct. To some extent, the plight of the rural drought has made urbanites realise the preciousness of water and that they are actually putting in efforts of conserving is a positive fallout of the situation. But to make an urban person feel guilty that urban water use is unnecessary and futile, is carrying it to an extreme. And in a state like Maharashtra, 50% of the total population lives and earns livelihoods in cities. So half of the people are directly linked to agriculture, but the other half is dependent on performance and liveability in cities as well.

Take the example of a swimming pool. Apart from being a luxury as it is touted, swimmers as sportsperson have selected it as a sport, just like cricket. They are, year round, putting in tremendous hard work and effort to excel at the sport. When such a sportsperson excels at international level, all of us are proud and indirectly take credit for it. When India does not produce international sportspersons, we blame on the lack of facilities in India. Not giving access to use of a swimming pool during summers is one such case. In a water worsening situation, to make this sportsperson feel guilty for the ‘futile’ use of water for the last year, because of which a poor farmer doesn't have enough to water to drink, is unfair. He has indirectly, perhaps, earned the right to the water allocation just as much as anyone else in this country. If we compare this to an industrial setup, then the allocation of water to an industry, whether more or less, is as much important as making it available to farmers and irrigation. All these are valid economic sectors that are helping earn a revenue, making livelihoods and sustaining people.

Although I am personally not a great fan of cricket or the IPL, it is a similar case. The overall economic benefits of urban water use are much higher than the rural water use, is my contention. It is a controversial contention, solely because it becomes an argument of the rich against the poor, the haves versus the have-nots rather than being just  the urban versus the rural.

This may sound like a very callous argument when the fact of the situation is that literally thousands of rural households are on the brink of starvation, thirst and economic ruin due to the drought. But, there is also a need to place the other side of the argument that the urban water use cannot be consistently shamed into believing that it is futile, serves no apparent purpose, and seems just like a resource being wasted.

Augmenting water resources is the only logical step. Initiatives like the Jal Yukt Shivar, micro watershed bunds, rainwater harvesting are decentralized and sustainable solutions which will lead to making us water positive. Similarly, recycling and reusing of wastewater, managing storm water and most importantly improving the distribution network of water supply are some of the water augmentation measures that the government needs to invest in very very fast to yield immediate results in the next year. In the rural areas, shifting to better irrigation practices, changing cropping patterns to conserve water, shifting to crops that use less water can be initiated to reduce the water footprint of farming as well.

Lastly, we need to recognise that some areas in our countries are just not meant to be farmed and cropped. Shifting this agrarian population and the lands to a more fruitful sector and use should be a priority for the government. It's like continuously putting money in a loss making business that can yield no positive outcomes. But, this argument will invite a wrath from many, as farming is looked upon as the only ‘pure’ and ‘non sinful’ activity and people professing this activity need to be kept at it at the cost of them losing their lives.

Countries with far less water resources have done this and India has plenty. This needs a concerted and focused effort, driven by the government, but implemented across the country by small private agencies that can turnaround the water situation for the better. The most recent example that comes to my mind is the use of recycled waste water by Nagpur Railway Station to save more than 400,000 litres of water. Many Green Buildings across the country are putting up infrastructure to recycle and reuse wastewater. But we also need this at an urban scale to better use the treated water.
And all this, we need to do as urgently as possible. If we don't, every year, the April-May season will see ‘Water Wars’ surfacing and governments falling due to this single most pressing issue that impacts each and every person personally.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Model Building Bye-Laws 2016 by Ministry of Urban Development, Govt. of India

When the Model Building Bye-Laws 2016 were published this week, there was a certain resistance amongst us Building professionals. The reason was that there is a certain skepticism for any rules that come from the way top. We architects, like to deal only with local level regulation, something that gets our Plans sanctioned as fast as possible from the Municipal body. Also, there seemed to be no involvement of Indian Institute of Architects, a apex body that represents all Architects of this country (at least not mentioned in the document itself).

But, after the first reading of the document, I was pleasantly surprised! First of all, I really appreciated that the basic objective outlined in the document was to bridge the gap - where building bye laws to do not exist, this Document will hopefully give guidance in formulating local bye laws. Secondly, where local bye laws and enforcing mechanisms do exist, these are guidelines to streamline the timelines and the overall mechanisms, plus act like a parent document, in ensuring that all bye laws conform to some standards.

Again, when anyone says, they are going to "streamline processes and reduce timelines", there is skepticism. However, the Model Building Bye-Laws 2016 has really put out a first class document in actually outlining detailed Do's and Dont's for local bodies to reduce Building Plan Sanction timelines, in what is called as "Ease of Doing Business" measures.

Following is a list of Salient features of the Model Building Bye-Law 2016, which are clearly impressive and should see a quick follow through with States and local authorities:

1. There is a provision for 'empaneled professionals' to scrutinize Building Plans at the local level. This is a very bold step and something that has been advocated by us for some time, particularly, for expertise oriented subjects like Green & Energy Efficient Buildings. The fact that the Governments is open to devolve scrutiny functions to private players is truly a step towards better governance.

2. There is a provision for Deemed Sanction and Deemed Occupancy Certificate. This is a fantastic guideline, asking local governments to rate the risk of buildings, create standard plans for small buildings and basically trust a team of building professionals like Architects, Structural Engineers, Service Engineers to take the responsibility and move ahead with Deemed Sanctions.

3. The guideline to create Standard Building plans & structures for very small structures, on plot areas less that 105 sq m, is a great step to ensure timely and affordable housing units.

4. Another interesting guideline is the establishment of an Urban Arts Commission/ Urban design Cell and a Dedicated Cell led by a Town/Urban Planner. This has been spoken about, also mentioned in the National Building Code 2005, but remains on paper. Hope this Model Bye Law, under the need to ease business processes, pushes this requirements at local level.

5. The guideline categorically has recommended removal of the practice of "Notice of Commencement" amongst other seemingly futile and duplicate processes required for Building construction.

6. Another very interesting aspect, which the Model Bye Law 2016 addresses is the upkeep and maintenance of buildings for Fire Safety. While we as building professionals may put all the fire fighting equipment in place, if the Building does not maintain it over the period of its use, it is a very serious threat. The guidelines can now be taken up by the Chief Fire Officer at the local level to even audit buildings during its use.

7. The guidelines for Streamlining of Building Plan Approvals are most impressive and I see a very serious attempt by the Central Government to reduce the time frames in this process. The Model Bye Laws guides the local authority to create multiple layer local plans, like Development Plans, that clearly indicate the restrictions put in place by Defence, Airports etc. The detailed guidelines on a Common Application Form and the NOC processing to be done online, are really very progressive, bold and path breaking for Indian bureacracy.

8. Lastly, the issue of Environmental Clearance, a sore point for most projects, and which supposedly caused huge delays, has been partially revoked. The categorization of building projects into A - 5000-20000 sq m, B - 20000-50000 sq m and C - 50000-150000 sq m and their corresponding environmental measures are listed, which need to be included in the local bye laws. This is a brave step and will be quite fruitful.

It remains to be seen how States and further, Local Municipal Authorities, make use of this Model Bye Laws 2016, but all in all, this is a great initiative of Modi government and Shri. Venkaiah Naidu's commitment to reduce governance, streamline procedures and make it easy to transact business in India. And most of, the Building and Construction Sector, reeling under global downturn and some of the stringent provisions of the Real Estate Bill, will rejoice, if these guidelines are put into practice and change the scenario of Building Sanctions!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Why is Maharashtra's Budget important for India?

Maharashtra state has been the forerunner in many aspects. From social reform and women's education to Industrialisation and Urbanization, Maharashtra has led India's growth. While there was a nationwide interest in The Union Budget, I wonder why Maharashtra's Budget does not get discussed and debated and tweeted and  whatsapped as much! After all, the successes, the spendings and the fiscal policy of the State of Maharashtra creates a significant impact on India's success & fiscal health.

The overall outlay of the budget allocation of Maharashra is about 12% of that of India's, which is significant for one state. In fact, the total outlay of Maharashra this year exceeds the total outlay for India in the 1990s.
Further, the total allocation for the Agricultural & allied sector in Maharashtra is about 25000 crores, while in the Union Budget it is about 36000 crores. So the approach of the Central Government to boost the agricultural and allied sector sees the most support in Maharashtra's Budget, with a huge allocation. This keeps into focus the distress of the farmers at the same time supports PM Modi's approach to spur growth in rural India.

This is also in line when we understand the overall growth of Maharashtra, at 8% is despite the faltering 2.7% decline of the agricultural sector.  So while Maharashtra outperformed the national average, it's 8% growth was significantly supported by the manufacturing (growth at 5.9%) and the service sector (growth at 10.8%), both strong points for the state. So the Fadnavis government has clearly identified that reducing the decline of the agri sector with large fiscal allocation and initiatives like Jal Yukt Shivar, will directly cause a spurt in the growth. So while, I was a bit upset with low urban sector allocations, I think, a significant pro agri budget in the interim, will cause a direct growth in the rural areas, which will indirectly spur demand in the urban areas.

Maharashtra is one of the most attractive and the forerunner for the Make in India initiative of the Central government. With Maharashtra's robust industry set up, under the banner of Make in India, Maharashtra is poised to tow the lion of economic growth for the nation. The CISCO investment, amongst others, look like the beginning of this. Further, in Maharashtra, the urban areas that support services sector come in the form of attractive cities like Mumbai, Pune and Nashik - enjoying skilled manpower, academic thrust, women in the workforce amongst others, between the three of them.

Finally, a parting note on where I find the Maharashtra Budget has fallen short in terms of allocations to certain important sectors. The Jal Yukt Shivar initiative has tremendous protein tail, but the 1000 crore allocation seems low to make in impactful effect. Also, the promising Service Sector in Maharashtra is dependent on the cities. The services sector is the one that is pulling the bandwagon of 8% growth. However, there is low allocation for urban infrastructure development, including essential amenities like water resources, for the cities of Pune, Nashik, Kolhapur, Nagpur & Aurangabad.
Maharashtra has tremendous potential for sports, mainly due to international access and thriving urban services sector. There is almost no allocation for sports facilities or promotion of sports. Tourism, particularly around Archeological Sites and Monuments, can be a great revenue source. However, the Budget does not have an approach to invest for promotion of tourism in Maharashtra.
I was personally, disappointed to find no allocation for environmental conservation projects, environmental cleanup, development of eco zones etc. And lastly, I find that the allocation for internal security like police does not figure in the Budget at all.

A leader of all other States in India, India's push towards economic growth is definitely towed by Maharashtra. India's success, economically, is closely linked to Maharashtra's and hence I feel that Maharashtra's Budget should have received more attention in Media.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Special Townships in Pune's vicinity: Are they turning into Developer fiefdoms?

The Township dream shown by the Government and the Developers is slowly turning into reality! This supposed panacea of  quality housing, good infrastructure and the benefits of an exclusive mini city to township residents, is lined with a grey and thorny lining. Why? Well, for one, the Government has created and also implemented the Special Township Policy, but there are no clear guidelines indicating how these Townships will be managed? Will they be managed by an Urban Local Body? Most probably, but there are no guidelines on this yet. Will they be managed privately? Well, let's hope not!

As per the Special Township Policy, the government has indicated that a Township Management Authority (TMA) will manage the township and till such time that the TMA comes into existence, the Developer of the Township will be solely responsible to managing all the common assets. Of course, at a cost! No denying that fact and in fact, why should anything be free! But what is essentially happening in reality is that the homeowners within these township are now at the mercy of the Developer when it comes to defining these costs. In a democratic country, townships are increasingly looking like personal fiefdoms of Developers, the Raja and the Praja syndrome, the Landlord and the peasants! As long as the Developer remains 'reasonable', the costs will be reasonable. But the day he/she decides that the water charges need to be raised from Rs.16/kl to Rs. 39/kl, the peasants will have to pay!
Unfortunately, No guidelines exist today that defines a democratic setup of representation in this TMA, which is how small and large local bodies in India run. This democratic setup is essential to ensure a fair and transparent process that can define how these costs are laid down and possibly periodically revised. So, in a democratic country, the township residents are going to live in a beautiful, gated, quiet, clean, but an undemocratic fiefdom of a township Developer!

Another issue that this raises, is who owns the land under the Special Township? In absence of a government urban local body, the common areas like roads, environmental services and other assets will be owned privately. Then who maintains these? In a conventional housing complex development, the Developer develops the parcel of land, forms a Society of residents, Conveys the last to the Society and thus clearly demarcates the rights and responsibilities of the Co-operative Society. In a Township, there will be multiple Cooperative Housing Societies, each one using collective common amenities of the Township, like roads, gardens etc. Who owns and who maintains these? At what cost? All these and many more questions are all up in the air, tossed, awaiting a time when all will come crashing down.

In most Townships, the stucture is one layered. The homeowners are part of the citizens of the township and a township management cell of the Developer deals directly with these homeowners. In some townships, there are multiple cooperative housing societies, who are representating the homeowners and then there is the Developer who is functioning as a township manager. How are these different? Why are these different? What is the correct structure to be adopted? The primary question of who owns, who maintains and who is accountable can be answered very differently in these different organisational structures. What is the organization that the Goverment has envisaged in case of a Special township is yet unclear.

This article is a beginning of a series to highlight that there is a serious policy and guidelines gap where Special townships are concerned. These havens, incentivized for developing planned urban settlements, are turning into a cauldron of discontent. The Government needs to take cognizance of this before the pot boils over!