I wanted to share this fascinating piece in the Next City about Indian cities and density. The article argues that low FAR (floor area ratio, that essentially controls how much you can build) makes no sense for Indian cities. We’ve known this for a while. To me, the constant back and forth about FAR and the obsession of planners and private developers with it has been a source of frustration and amusement in equal measure. Why? Because FAR alone cannot determine urban form, or infrastructure, or anything unless it is rationalized with other development controls. Unless there is a vision of what we want the city to be. The obsession with FAR is, I think, yet another symptom of the disease of technocratic planning that India suffers from.
But to get back to the article. What fascinated me was the revelation that Indian cities do not really account for the fact that the per capita consumption of space will increase over time, as people become more prosperous. We need to, therefore, stop planning cities at “essentially slum densities” and be more real about the kind of people that will come to occupy, say the areas around a Metro corridor as time goes by. I also liked that the piece points out to another paradigm shift that is needed- one in which we see increasing populations as a good sign and not only as a problem. If more people want to come in, then something is happening right in a city and we need to 1-create more space inside the city for these people and 2-enable them to come in and leave more efficiently, and support meaningful suburban development.
Author Stephen J Smith cites the work of Alain Bertaud, a former World Bank researcher in the piece. Bertaud advocates that Indian planners junk the idea of low FARs and allow cities to grow out “to the same height as its peers across the world”. Can we handle that?
For a low-income person in a city like Gurgaon, owning a legal home is a distant dream. During my field trips, I have spoken to scores of families that belong to Gurgaon and its surrounding areas that have invested in unauthorized colonies (usually plotted from agricultural land) bought on power of attorney basis from landowners. This, they say, is their only option to own a home in the city.
The new Haryana Affordable Housing Policy 2013, the details of which are now out, seeks to address this issue by setting new rules to bring on private developers into the low-income housing game. In a city where land prices are through the roof and housing is unaffordable for middle-income people as well, it remains to be seen how transparently and efficiently such a policy can be implemented so that the intended ‘beneficiaries’ get to buy and occupy these homes.
How the policy is to work
Essentially, the government plans to grant special licenses to developers to build these projects. The carrot on offer, of course, is increased density and FAR norms. Under the proposal, the projects licenses would get to build out to a density of 900 people per acre as opposed to the current maximum of 300 people per acre. The units are to be 28-60 sq m in size, however 50% of the units must be less than 48 sq m.
The developer has to qualify in a point-based system that takes into account the condition of existing infrastructure (roads, water, sewerage, developmental works) and the developer’s presence in the specific sector where the project is proposed; thus encouraging projects in areas where infrastructure is better developed to come up first as well as preventing developer monopoly over certain areas. Only one project will be approved per sector as per Master Plan. Once the license is awarded, the project is to be developed with 4 years and cannot be converted into a normal project.
Projects on plots upto a maximum of 300 acres are permitted in the State’s larger cities like Gurgaon and Faridabad, while maximum plot sizes go down to 150 and 75 acres for smaller cities. The allotment process is to be stringent and in the hands of a panel and will be done at the rate of Rs 4000 per square foot in Gurgaon, Faridabad, Panchkula and Pinjore-Kalka, and Rs 3600 per sq ft in other development plans.
Out of the subsidy mindset, finally!
In a rare and progressive gesture, the policy refrains from labeling any units as ‘EWS’ and categorically does this to prevent any cross-subsidy from applying to these projects. While there is a concern that the Rs 15-30 lakh price that these units are expected to be sold at will not really be affordable to the ‘urban poor’ in Gurgaon, keeping these out of the ambit of subsidy certainly prevents gross misuse of the policy. By this I mean that there will be no perverse incentive for middle and higher income people to buy the subsidized units, nor for poor people who get them to sell for profit and exit the investment. The units will go to a section of people who are still under-served, even though they technically will not come under the EWS and LIG categories who can afford homes priced between Rs 5-10 lakhs typically.
Some things slightly off….need to be thought through further…
Cars are a reality, transport planning on urban scale needed urgently: Parking, a typical problem area, rears its head here too. Half car parking space per unit is to be offered as stilted/covered parking but not to be allotted to flat owners, who will get two-wheeler parking instead. Visitor parking is to be uncovered parking. We are talking about middle income people here and I would wager every unit will own at least one small car, so this is a highly impractical situation and we are staring at a parking disaster in these projects. It would be more practical to incentivize such projects along transit corridors and plan an efficient transportation system that links these areas with employment centres. So that people who are hard pressed to buy a home are not forced to buy cars in the first place! From an aspiration perspective, a four-wheeler is a craze. We regularly see families that have no savings to speak of buying second hand cars, partly because a car is a status symbol, and mostly because there is little public transit to speak of. There is a desperate need to align this policy with other larger, more ambitious transit initiatives, both public and private.
What’s in it for the developer besides FAR/FSI? Developers are to provide bank guarantee as well, in addition to putting their lad on the table AND putting in the money to develop the project. Seems a hard ask to me!
Migrants allowed? Eligibility criteria not so clear: The eligibility criteria prevent the allottee or any family member from owning another govt allotted unit in urban areas in Haryana and limits the number of applications to one only. However, this is only applicable to ‘licensed’ colonies, so those currently living in illegal colonies are eligible. Plus, the newspaper reports that this scheme is for residents of the State. The draft policy makes no such specification. Does this mean that no domicile will be asked for? Private property does not restrict higher income migrants from buying; will these units also be available to migrants from other States with no identity papers from Haryana? I find that hard to believe in the light of the general drift of State housing policies, but if this is so it would mean a huge step forward as well.
The other issue is the one-year limit on reselling the flat. How will that be monitored?
No clarity on O&M: The developer is to maintain the project free of cost for five years, after which a resident association takes over. While this policy is an improvement over the existing one, this is a tough issue with affordable housing and needs definition certainly for a sustainable solution.
Imperative to learn from failures elsewhere: This policy has been a long time coming and it takes a few very bold steps forward; however, I wonder if the failed or partially successful experiences of other States have adequately been considered while drafting this (O&M experience of SRA scheme in Maharashtra, a case in point).
NCR cities might be special? The situation in Gurgaon and Faridabad is drastically different from other cities in Haryana. It seems to me that a differential approach could have been taken for these two cities to position them better within the NCT of Delhi.
Dovetail with other schemes critical for a sustainable and viable solution
It is clear to any practitioner in the housing space that this policy will serve middle income customers and not EWS/LIG and that is fine! However, other solutions like employer-built housing, rental housing dormitories and family units, public housing projects as built by Housing Boards as well as regularization of illegal colonies are critical to addressing the issue of affordable housing in the larger context. Otherwise, the truly under-served section of the urban poor will continue to be denied quality housing or a right to improve their socio-economic conditions; surely, that is fundamental to planning the cities of the future?
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.