Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Town Planning in our cities

The Town Planning wing in any Municipal Corporation is like the perennial whipping dog, most often rightly so and many times for the not so right reasons. Nearly half the complaints received by the VMC through its 103 complaint redressal system relates to Town Planning. The commonest complaints include illegal and unregulated constructions, road and public space encroachments, hawkers menace, inadequate enforcement of zoning and usage regulations, irregular and unauthorised parking, and even property disputes between private individuals. The one common factor with all these violations is that they are so commonplace, and herein lies the problem.

Vijayawada has an area of 60 sqkm, population of 12-15 lakhs (depending on where you draw the stats from), and 1.75 lakh houses. There are exactly 8 Building Inspectors, or 1 per 7.5 sq km or 1 per 22,000 structures, supervising all the town planning activites on the field. The entire VMC Town Planning Division, including the City Planner and office staff, is only 23. The situation is no different elsewhere. And, this regulatory work is only a small proportion of their regular Town Planning work.

Now, given all these numbers, it does not require any great insight to conclude that it is impossible to enforce the kind of aforementioned complaints with such thin field presence. The major portion of such complaints are commonplace, routine and regular in nature and large in number, and can be controlled (if ever they can be) only by focussed personal inspections and vigilance. The problem is compounded by the exasperatingly tortuous bureaucratic and legal process/hurdles involved in rectifying such deviations or violations.

I will list out a few of the most commonly cited violations of town planning regulations.
1. Every (sic) construction in our cities have deviations. It has almost become the norm to extend cantilever and balconies beyond the permissible setbacks and illegally expand the floor area. Many owners deviate from the plans during construction and add more rooms. A smaller proportion of houses indulge in major deviations like converting a part of the authorised parking area into housing units, or adding an extra floor.

I am convinced that this happens because the house owners try to maximize their floor area by occupying beyond the permissible setbacks. The fantastically huge land values and building lease rents, means that individuals find the financial incentives for deviating too attractive to be given up. This is likley to remain so irrespective of the penalties imposed.

2. Many road side houses encroach into the road margins by either constructing walls or structures. This is a common practice, resorted to by more well off, and can be again traced back to the huge land values. In other areas, where the roads are at a lower level, the house owners construct ramps into the road, thereby encroaching on road space.

3. Most of the shops have no parking and their customers use the road margins for parking. Our policies do nothing to incentivize the shops, but transfers the parking costs to the customers. The same is true with smaller houses, where there is no strict requirement for parking space. The presence of small and fragmented plots, and the presence of multiple tenants in these houses, means that internal street roads get converted as parking lots.

4. With apartment fees being much higher than that for individual houses, many builders find it highly remunerative to take plans for G+2 or G+3 individual house and then illegally convert them into multi-unit house.

5. Most our internal roads have adequate width and support the Master Plan requirements. The problem arises from the presence of encroachments - hawkers, parking, and construction - that reduces the carriage way available for traffic.

6. Lip service is paid regarding enforcement of land use regulations. Commercial activities and shops spring up overnight in every location, without any required permissions, in total disregard for the areas' land use specifications. In fact, houses are constructed with the specific objective of converting some portion into a shop.

Surprisingly, there is a very high degree of tolerance for such activities among citizens. In many cases, it goes beyond tolerance and involves a tacit local accommodation among all the stakeholders. In fact, the overwhelmingly major proportion of town planning complaints come because of personal disputes between parties and rarely out of civic concerns. That very few complaints come due to genuine civic concerns is surprising since none of these activities can be done without the knowledge of the neighbours. This is not to underplay the regulatory duties and responsibilities of Town Planning wing and exonerate their lapses and corruption.

On the demand side, the incentives favoring deviations are substantial. This becomes especially so, in light of the rocketing land and rental values, which place a premium on utilizing every available vacant land and every possible floor space. A typical appartment can increase the floor space in each unit by a quarter, simply by extending the balcony projections to 4-6 ft beyond the pillars. The builder saves a significant amount by evading the building fees for this excess floor space, and pases on some share of this benefit to the buyer. The Town Planning Building Inspector, too gains his regular share of rent, for turning a blind eye to this deviation. Every individual stakeholder benefits in this arrangement, though the society collectively suffers the consequence.

All the aforementioned activities, that take place in violation of town planning regulations are classic examples of negative externalities. I have already written about them in previous posts. The incentives for such activities are very high because of the massive stakes and benefits gained by indulging in them. Such unauthorised activities take place because the individuals benefit substantially at a very small cost of being detected and punished, and share only a very small portion of the social costs inflicted by their actions.

These things cannot, repeat cannot, be physically policed without the presence of large field supervision. And I am not sure such supervision is the most desirable option, because it has other more debilitating dimensions and is not sustainable. For example, it is likely to increase the avenues for corruption. As long as demand side inclinations to deviate remains very strong, no amount of regulatory interventions can help.

We have a problem where practically everyone (and this is true) violates building rules, and many of these rules no longer have the sanctity. This is the surest indicator that there is something amiss with the rules. There is therefore a strong case in favor of simplifying and liberalizing these rules, so as to focus only on the important objectives of building regulation. Preventing negative externalities would be a good touchstone for filtering building rules - parking, inconveniencing neighbours, easier land use conversions etc. The more long term and sustainable way of addressing such deviations is to create a climate of civic intolerance for such violations and deviations. More on these in a later post.

But like the low voter turnouts in elections, such problems suffer from the "tragedy of commons". Every citizen thinks his neighbour will take the initiative and make the complaint and he can enjoy the free ride!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Gulzar,

I agree with your comments and wish to understand these ill that affect developed zones in our country.

I was in London for about a year and was amazed at their foresight and development plans of centuries ago.