(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?
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.