The Indian Economy Blog

October 18, 2005

Mumbai High Court Wrings the Chicken’s Neck

Filed under: Environment,Infrastructure — Ravikiran Rao @ 12:01 am
Mumbai Physical map- Click to see larger image

(Note: I had written this post more than a week back when the High Court had decided to block the development of mangroves. I didn’t post it because the IIPM fracas was consuming the blogosphere. Now that the High Court has gone and blocked the sale of mill lands too, I thought it would be the right time to post it. But I haven’t updated it to reflect some more thoughts that are flowing from the ruling. )
The Mumbai High Court has ruled that builders cannot construct on Mumbai’s mangroves. In fact, they aren’t allowed to venture within 50 meters of them. If you see the image to your right, you will realise the implications – the space for builders to construct houses has been constricted. If you read reports about this, you will find that the newspapers have framed this as a victory for the city. The environmentalist groups have won a long-fought and well-deserved battle against the builders’ lobby who were out to destroy the environment.

But I wonder. These builders weren’t going to build palaces for themselves on those mangroves. They were out to build apartment blocks, and they are planning to build them because there is a demand for them. If they can’t build on them, prices will go up and the lower income groups will get crowded out to far-flung areas. Personally, I don’t mind that. I own a house in one of those far-flung areas and I will be happy to see property prices appreciate. But is that the outcome you had in mind when you support the ruling which stops the “mindless destruction of mangroves”?

Personally, I like urban sprawl. I want good roads to connect the centre of the city with the suburbs and exurbs. This, according to me, is a good compromise. Those who can afford cars can drive down to the city centre and those who can’t can stay close to the city centre and use public transport. It seems to me that this is a better situation than one where the rich stay close to the centre while the poor stay far away because of land prices. The High Court’s decision will encourage urban sprawl, but if the government builds roads, we will still have the good urban sprawl, i.e. one where the rich stay away from the city centre. But I have a feeling you don’t like urban sprawl. So is this the outcome you had in mind when you supported the decision?

Bedroom Window

Personally, I love the environment. But I’d like the “environment” to be around me. I grew up in a concrete jungle in a Maharashtra Housing Board flat where the only thing I could see out of my window was the grey crumbling facade of another building. Now, when I look out of my bedroom window, I see trees. But by the very act of moving to this place, I have contributed to the destruction of a bit of this place. Where my building now stands, trees once stood. Only, I wouldn’t have cared because I didn’t get to see them out of my window. Now that I can, I and my fellow residents will act to stop further destruction. This is of course a hypocritical compromise. But this a workable compromise. Do you think of the tradeoffs involved when you say that you love the environment?

The alternative to developing the mangroves is to increase the Floor Space Index. (This is the ratio of the built-up area to the total area. Limiting the FSI effectively limits the number of floors you can add to the building.) Environmentalists are opposed to that too. The reason given is that constructing tall buildings will put a strain on the civic resources. But if you are a resident of some congested and crumbling chawl in Parel and you cannot afford to move to a better house because of FSI restrictions or if you are a low-income family and you have to stay in Kalyan and Ambernath where the infrastructure is even worse, “Don’t grant more FSI. It will strain the civic resources” sounds suspiciously like “Keep away. You are crowding this place.” Again, do you appreciate the tradeoffs involved?

Apparently mangroves help reduce flooding. True enough. But I’d like to hear this from someone whose imperative is to prevent flooding rather than protect mangroves. There could be many ways to prevent flooding. You could absolutely refuse to allow any construction on mangroves. Or you could construct, but provide an adequate stormwater drainage system. (I am told that the stormwater drainage system built by the British is still serving South Bombay well.) Or perhaps the building code should mandate a certain percentage of open spaces so that the impact of flooding is less. Of course, it should be some combination of the above. Now if you are an advocate of mangroves for their own sake, you are not the best person to tell me, the informed citizen, of the alternatives. So what we need is someone who will give us dispassionate advice rather than advocates of the two sides.

Now I think that the courts are a bad way to take such decisions. Courts are designed for adversarial processes. A typical court case deals with one question – and the question is designed to be answered with a yes or a no. They can decide the question “Did X commit the murder?” and not “Who among the many suspects committed the murder?” Similarly, they are best designed to answer questions like “Do the mangroves come under the definition of a ‘forest’ under Section X, Subsection Y of the such-and-such act?” They are not very good at managing tradeoffs among conflicting interests, all of which have some validity to them. Conflicts between builders and environmentalists, between residents and newcomers etc. should not be framed as some sort of fight for justice. If you do so, then you end up with sub-optimal, extremist decisions – and they may not always go your way. After all, this is not a conflict where the rules are likely to be clearly defined. If the outcome of a court case depends on the judge’s arbitrary interpretation of the law, then what stops a judge who is unsympathetic to the environmentalist cause from completely overturning the verdict sometime in the future?

I think the best way to handle these issues is to set up a process by which these questions can be negotiated at the local level. Actually, the really best way is to handle these through the market where possible. Instead of putting rigid restrictions on the FSI, why not charge builders for it? The money collected could be used to improve the infrastructure the FSI is putting a strain on. This charge has to be specified and collected at the local level so that citizens have a stake in ensuring that the money collected goes to the right place.

Similarly, about the problem of flooding, I’ve read somewhere that the way this is handled is by specifying in the building code.that the amount of drainage capacity of the land before and after the building should be the same. I am not sure I’ve got the technical details right, but the point is that we should try to localize the problem as much as possible. Now instead of some bureaucrat or judge coming up with grand plans on the subject, it becomes the responsibility of the individual builder to adhere to the rules. If he doesn’t, he can be sued by any local person for specific violations. By specifying the outcome rather than the technique, the builder retains the freedom to try out different approaches to fix the problem.

9 Comments »

  1. One thing that I’m curious about – why doesn’t Bombay reclaim land, like Hong Kong does? Have the limits of reclamation been crossed? Is it too costly? Is the geology of the area not conducive? Over a period of 20 years, the main coastline of Hong Kong, Kowloon and Lantau has changed drastically. Just wondering why that’s not possible here in Bombay?

    Comment by TTG — October 18, 2005 @ 2:53 am

  2. We did. We reclaimed land in Nariman point and it was one of the stupidest moves ever, because it only increased congestion in South Mumbai. We reclaimed land in Bandra-Kurla complex and it choked off the mouth of the Mithi river. Now Hafeez Contractor wants to reclaim land on the eastern shoreline – totally stupid move even if it is properly planned, because there is lot of land that can be released if the Bombay Port Trust releases it. That land is not being used. But they’ll never be able to agree on how much to release for commercial development and how much for infrastructure development. Personally, I agree that we need infrastructure and open spaces, but the government’s record on this is not good. They take land for infrastructure, open spaces and low-cost housing, and they don’t do any of those. So people encroach on it and slums develop.

    Comment by Ravikiran Rao — October 18, 2005 @ 4:05 am

  3. Whatever happened to that illegal structures demolition drive?

    That could have evicted many from the city and as a result, a lot of problems could have been avoided. Those who are poor and cannot afford to live far away because of poor public transport, would have been forced to leave the city. Quite a logical solution, I would think.

    Comment by Nilu — October 18, 2005 @ 9:53 pm

  4. [...] Court wrings the Chicken’s Neck? Patrix on 10.19.05 in City Lights The environment versus the city. Ravikiran loves [...]

    Pingback by DesiPundit » Mumbai High Court wrings the Chicken’s Neck? — October 19, 2005 @ 1:26 am

  5. So you steal maps from Google and Collate data from sources on web and USe it for free ! You dont pay !

    That what 10 billion Hindians are doing!

    Just like your head theirs are also turned 420 degrees , for Vasthu.

    I really love you, because you are so Bad!

    Comment by Giridhar — October 19, 2005 @ 7:11 am

  6. Ravikiran…..you *might* be interested in an older post of mine on the economics in conservation, here were I use two specific examples; mangrove forests and coffee plantations.

    Comment by sunil — October 19, 2005 @ 10:46 am

  7. Giridhar, whom do you expect me to pay for the privilege of taking a screenshot from Google Earth and saving it as a jpeg file?

    Sunil, I am pretty sure I’ve read that post. I might even have been “inspired” to write this from that.. :)

    Comment by Ravikiran — October 19, 2005 @ 1:34 pm

  8. Shaky Buildings in Mumbai

    I came across this clips sometime back my heart goes out to these poor people. Is there some one out there who can make a difference?? Before some disaster brings us down.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4216988.stm

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4727371.stm

    Most of the 19,000 buildings in Mumbai declared to be dangerous or dilapidated by the government were built before 1930 when India was ruled by the British. Some are anywhere between 80 and 100 years old.

    Comment by Mani Pulimood — October 19, 2005 @ 8:17 pm

  9. 1.its rather arrogant to think that the only purpose trees and mangroves serve is as visual displays, dont you think?
    they are important for the environment in ways other than beautifying the view from your window.

    2.this city cannot sustain endless low-cost (or even high-cost for that matter)housing.
    there has to be a full-stop somewhere.
    we can’t keep expanding a concrete jungle in the name of accomodating the poor.

    in any case, this rarely happens. what is built in the name of low-cost housing, ends up being posh housing for those who can afford it and the low-income group is pushed further and further away.

    i agree with you that we should go by market dynamics.
    but if the dynamics are that the city has no more space, and can accomodate only so many,lets accept that too.
    lets not make life hell for those who are already living here.

    Comment by maya — July 31, 2007 @ 11:00 am

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