Millennium Post

Better land management for cities

Land is a vital resource in the process of urbanisation. We need to realise that there is absolutely no alternative other than using this precious resource sensibly. To do this, however, civic authorities need to be aware of where  land is located and to what use, besides ownership patterns. The law holds that the state owns all land and the resources below it. The unfortunate aspect, though, is that the owner neither knows this fact nor does anything to protect and regulate its usage. Ignorance and neglect of one’s own assets is unforgivable for the individual and the state. In our country, the sad reality is that the state has neglected its land and the consequent asset value. In the urban sphere, therefore, land remains largely under utilised. The story is the same across any Indian city.

Despite possessing geographic information systems (GIS) for mapping purposes, civic and State government authorities have been unable to keep tabs on the city’s geography. Unfortunately, this has led to disastrous consequences for the process of urbanisation in India. In city after city, a builder-led expansion has occurred with scant regard for planning, design and aesthetics. Urbanisation in India has been an outcome of the builder-politician- bureaucracy nexus with little regard for the city dweller.

We need to begin the process of improving our cities. This process includes the way cities are governed and managed. Inadequate city governance, allied with large scale migration, compounds the chaos we witness everyday. A starting point for better city management is greater awareness of its geography and residents. These are the basics from which all further governance unfolds. Every inch has to be mapped and documented. In this day and age of satellite graphics and information technology, it is a crying shame that a majority of our city governments have not documented the needful. The cost of compliance with laws should never be onerous. If it does become onerous, however, then either the law is bad or we have degenerated towards a state of anarchy.

After we map the city, the State must lay down a land use policy. What are the agricultural, forest, river and coastal zones? The laws that govern these areas must be simple, compliable and above all enforceable. Indeed, they must then be enforced. No city has defined the kind of urban envelopes it wants to create. Worst of all, however, the FAR (Floor Area Ratio) or FSI (Floor Space Index) has been an instrument of manipulation for those, who have the financial resources and leverage to do so. A simple design centre in every city needs to be established with powers to guide its design, general aesthetics and ethos. This will set all construction plans on the right path. The current capacity of urban local bodies is abysmal in this regard and the sooner we create empowered and transparent mechanisms to navigate urban development, the better.

The next step to regulate city life is the need to articulate and enforce a public space usage policy. The kind of chaos we witness in all major cities poses a serious  threat to the safety of all denizens. Why are colony roads in Delhi the preserve of residents? These people put their guards at various parking spots, as if they are its owners or lessees. The kind of revenue loss a city government incurs by not regulating these spaces runs into crores. These sums could have been used for the development and maintenance of civic infrastructure. Political representatives need to shed this mindset of doling out free public spaces just because such policies may endear them to their voters.
It is time to change this thought process.

Car owners certainly do not need support from state subsidised parking spaces. There is, therefore, an urgent need to get this policy in place for greater revenue, as well as a need to curb the growth of automobiles, before we all run out of open spaces.

The other important aspect of public spaces has to be the reclamation of pavements for pedestrians. How on earth can our civic agencies allow arcades to be built in front of shops, allow shopkeepers to spread their wares on the pavement and  have cars and motorcycles ply on them? This is nothing but rank dishonesty in regulating public spaces. The city can be no place for human beings if they cannot walk or ride their cycles. In fact they risk their lives if they at all venture to walk on our pavements or ride a bicycle. Now is the time to redeem our cities or else they will become unlivable for humans.

Cycle tracks are a vital dimension of urban life.  If we take ourselves back to the 1950s and 60s, the bulk of the working force used to cycle to office. It is not due to a show piece reason that we need to restore the freedom and safety for cyclists. It is to bring glory and happiness to the lives of young folk in the city. It recognises their right to use public spaces, which should be inviolable. We need to remember that urban development is not about building houses. While it is true that it is an important dimension, we need to map our cultural choices and create an ambience in a city that breeds joy and equity. Our cities cannot establish hierarchies among stakeholders, where the richest pay the least amount and enjoy maximum benefits, while the poor is left marginalised because of shoddy law enforcement, so as to make it unaffordable. Let us, therefore, prioritise land management and its smart use.
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