Urban professionals are likely to view Minister Kamal Nath’s obsession with higher FAR with a liberal dose of skepticism. Turning Delhi into a Shanghai or a Manhattan is exactly the kind of glitzy dream private sector developers have been selling to the government for many years. Which makes me suspicious indeed about how exactly this all will happen, who it will benefit and who will lose out.
We do know that Indian cities have a really low Floor Area Ratio (FAR, or Floor Space Index, FSI). We also know increased FAR would create a lot more space. Space that is much needed. But will we be smart about the kind of space we want to create? Let me explain. There is this peculiar herd mentality among developers in India and developers tend to have a short-sighted approach. NCR towns have many ghost malls and ghost commercial buildings that were built to sell space to speculative investors. That may not happen in the city centre, but in order to make the optimum use of the increased space, we do need to be really smart about ensuring the right mix of uses are accommodated in the high FAR zones. We need a new kind of vision, new ideas, innovative fresh thinking. Affordable housing, public spaces, large green areas, accessible public spaces at suitable scale, safe spaces for children, walkability, transit-oriented development, mixed-use, mixed-income communities, sustainable communities, a whole host of new concepts need to be built into a new vision for Delhi.
To densify is not enough, it needs to be done very sensitively. People need to be involved. We need to take firm decisions, not pander to a specific class of people, politicians, bureaucrats, the usual suspects. Increased density will need a new moindset and buy-in from all the above mentioned anf that is an uphill task. For instance, New Moti Bagh is a government colony recently built. Driving past is enough to see what a colossal wastage of land it is, in a prime South Delhi location. Smartly built apartments or duplex villas would have freed ample spaces for more multistorey housing and a large green lung for the neighborhood. Instead, the government has built a large number of ill designed, poorly planned, sprawling ‘bungalows’ that smack of an outdated post-colonial mindset of what the ‘sahib’ is entitled to. Urban Harakiri is what I call it.
And of course, there is that critical piece- infrastructure. Roads, sewage, drainage, electricity, water, public amenities, parking, so many details to get right if increased FAR is to be a reality. The carrying capacity of the land needs to be increased hugely by planning, engineering and investment. This is an enormous opportunity for sustainable design as well.
My third concern is more at an urban design scale. How exactly will the FAR increase happen? Will low-density areas that are now aging and dilapidated, like some Central Delhi government colonies, be slated for the redevelopment? I certainly think that is a great opportunity to give the city much-needed housing, retail, commercial space and public spaces right in the heart of the city. Then there are sensitive areas in the city that cannot be touched, like historic precincts. Will redevelopment happen in an incremental manner, or will we expect things to be razed to the ground and replanned and rebuilt? These are all issues that impact the lives of common people as much as they affect the economic survival and success of the city.
All I know is that there should be far more public debate about the measures proposed by our Urban Development Minister. Citizens deserve more information, more transparency about monumental changes that will impact their lives closely, give a new identity to their city and therefore impact their identity as well. Citizens and urban professionals must be involved to build a new vision. I cannot emphasize this enough. If we do not insist, we will once again see our beautiful city being raped and plundered, like it was when the invaders came in during the Medieval Times. Ironically, these would be invaders from within. And we would be defenseless and defeated.