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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Bhopal Notes :: 29 :: Changing the city's micro-climate

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A colony being developed by Bhopal Development Authority
Though the mercury has since come down but the other day it registered a high of 46.7 degrees Celsius in Bhopal. This was reported to be a record high for the town. Never for many years has the temperature been under discussion so much in newspapers as this year, more so in the vernacular ones. The reputed Hindi daily with a very large circulation even cited the reason for the mercury hitting an all time high – the relentless increase in urbanization (shaharikaran).

This is very largely true. Lately the urban sprawl has been spreading in all directions and everyone knows what happens when that happens. Farmlands, forests, even wetlands are gobbled up by the greedy builders. I do not know whether it happens elsewhere but in Bhopal the builders lobby have been allowed a free run all over. One cannot perhaps put the entire blame on the builders as they couldn’t have done what they have done without the back-up of their comrades-in-arms in the government. The builder-bureaucracy-politician nexus is all too well known. And, it has worked remarkably well in Bhopal without any let and hindrance.

But, it seems they over-did their thing. In a meeting at a media house not too long ago a participating politician happened to mention that there were as many as 55000 flats in the city for which there are no takers. Apparently, builders never could imagine a situation where flats would go abegging. They have always dealt with situations when you put up any structure and it would be lapped up. The Awaas Melas would attract huge crowds where people would be looking for a chance to own their ever-elusive dream homes. Unfortunately, the builders never reckoned that the times could change. And, they indeed did - for the worse resulting in built up flats lying unoccupied. Clearly, the builders put their money building huge complexes from where the returns seem to be drying up.
Once I happened to go to a hospital off the Kolar Road and I came across a large number of apartment blocks that appeared to be ready but not occupied. At night almost all the blocks were dark indicating there were no occupants. I was reminded of photographs of a Chinese town sent to me by e-mail by a friend showing a number of clusters of multistoried apartment blocks that were lying vacant. Something like this, perhaps in a smaller scale, seems to have happened in Bhopal. The surplus available with the builders became evident when Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association in India (CREDAI), Bhopal promptly offered two thousand-odd flats of various types to the government to relocate the residents of Shivaji Nagar and Tulsi Nagar for accommodating the proposed “Smart City”.

China can afford excess capacity (which, in fact, is a waste) because it has a massive $3.3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. It fell by more than $500 billion in 2015 and that made news. Ours is hovering around $340 billion and we seem to be pretty happy about it. No wonder, China can access natural resources from elsewhere (including distant continents like Africa and South America) and indulge in excesses like hundreds of high speed trains, Maglevs and so on. We just can’t emulate it.

Excess capacity in housing to a certain limited extent can be tolerated. But, excessive over-capacity has very high environmental costs. It is not only in land with its bio-diversity but also the natural resources that are required in construction. From sand to steel to cement, all have constituents that need to be mined, processed and then used. Take sand for instance. Till recently it was the most inexpensive material used in the business of construction. Today, it has become expensive and, what is more, it is getting scarcer and scarcer. River banks and beds are being denuded of sand, threatening the very flow of water in the rivers. Sand holds water in river beds and it helps in charging the underground aquifers. With uncontrolled sand mining – scrupulous or unscrupulous – many river-side towns have lost their subsoil waters. There was even a call for providing a substitute for sand which, unfortunately, is yet to be found.

The excess capacity in housing can probably be attributed to the failure of the control systems that we have. We have a town and country planning organization and a municipal corporation both of which could have restricted it and the expansion of the town. But, they haven’t and hence the building spree. Quite likely, many colonies on the fringes do not get any of the civic services that the municipality provides. The municipality, in any case, is stretched for human and financial resources which could be the reasons for its ineffectiveness in carrying out its functions. That is increasingly becoming obvious.

Now it seems even the Panchayats (the village councils) too have been given the authority to permit constructions within their respective jurisdictions. But, in all probability, the panchayats do not have the wherewithal to scrutinize each
Another view of a highrise complex in Bhopal
proposal from various angles including those of environment, sanitation, etc. Several colonies in Bhopal fall outside the jurisdiction of the municipal corporation and, no wonder, are faced up with problems of drainage, sewers and what have you.

We have a system of city development plans that are formulated for implementation every ten years. The last one was current up to 2005 and it has already been more than a decade that a new one has become due. The development plans largely deal with expansion of the city. A time, perhaps, has come to change the paradigm and stop any more expansion. Instead of further capturing virgin lands efforts need to be made to construct, if need be, only within the available land resources. What is required today seems to be planned consolidation and upgrade of the available assets, infrastructure, etc. The idea should be to enhance the experience the city offers to its denizens.

Umpteen times it has been repeated that satellite towns should also be brought within the planning processes of Bhopal. An upgrade for them would obviate the need for tackling in Bhopal the rural-urban migrations which have now become a fact of life. With the weather playing truant the migrations will surely increase. The rural folk will have only two alternatives in the event of crop failure, commit suicide or migrate. Instead of everyone from (what could be called Bhopal’s) catchments heading towards it the satellite towns falling on the way should be so developed as to be attractive enough for people on the move to head for them instead. They have to have jobs and possibly housing for those who come looking for succour.

The upshot is that the planning process needs to include not a further expansion but a wise mix of development and upgrades to offer better quality of life to the townsfolk the main elements of which will have to be greenery – on the fringes and within.. A city replete with trees, parks and urban forests will surely keep the temperatures down to bearable levels. Bhopal has to falsify the recent findings of Indian Institute Science, Bangalore, that by 2018 it will be left with only 11% greenery (which fell to 21% in 1992 from 66%). In 1977 the vegetation cover was 92% which is why the city used to be so pleasant and livable. A window of opportunity seems to have been opened by the chief minister’s plan to plant a crore of trees. Let the planners latch on to it and plan greening the town in right earnest in order to restore its salubruity. But before that mapping its current greenery would seem to be absolutely necessary.

*Photos from the internet
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