The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The city be damned! Passing the law by!

The great building bulge!
The city of Bangalore like many, many other cities and towns seem to be developing in spite of our bye-laws, shaping themselves arbitrarily, and in no reflection of any vision document or master plan. Land use zonation is violated as if it were our birthright, and mutation corridors seem to mean almost every other main, arterial or internal road. Setback, height and FAR stipulations seem to exist only as a guide, not as a stringent rule. Our cities be damned!

Just what exactly are Bye-laws for? If they don't translate to regulating urban form, usage, zonal differentiation, etc, then are they effective? It is pitiable that when you go down any street of Bangalore (I am guessing this applies to most other Indian cities and towns) something seems awfully wrong. A scant disregard for the written law is evident, but there seems to be no regard for the impacts of development on the neighbourhood, let alone the city.
All seem to participate in this desecration of the law (or Master Plan vision). While private forces reek mayhem by plonking far more built on land than envisaged, the law men (both administrators and keepers) reap the financial spillage that froths from this greed to grab. Govt institutions themselves seem to care less for the master planning vision document, by covering valley areas, occupying dry (or made to dry) tank beds  and providing transportation infrastructure at whatever cost (inefficient flyovers which still need traffic signals, vanishing pedestrian zones, flyovers that peek into your bedrooms, mowing down trees everywhere to justify easing traffic burdens),... the list is endless.They even are devising ways to absolve themselves of their fundamental responsibility by formulating government orders to regularise illegal construction. The measly fines instead of deterring anyone, might just seem like encouragement from the state!

The law is ambiguous when it comes to small plots. When it is impossible
to exercise the full FAR, why offer it? 
The bye-laws by themselves are a force to be reckoned with. They don't state things clearly, let alone make it easy to follow. For example, there is a 11.5 metre height vs setback relation. Below 11.5 metres, the setbacks are a percentage of your site depth and width, above 11.5 metres, it suddenly jumps to a minimum of 5 metres, increasing proportionately with the height of the building. When read along with FAR permissible for the same site, it is impossible to make a healthy building which utilises full FAR and confirms to these height and setback rules. The belief that real estate is wealth spurs people to maximise the built vs land ratio (not to be confused with FAR) even if it means a total violation of the laws and basic design health.  For example, floor to ceiling heights seem to be getting lower and lower.
There are many more such hard to understand elements of the building bye-laws. For example, the FAR permissible for smaller sites is ridiculous in high development zones by simply being unachievable.... unless you break (or bend) the law. Each stipulation of the set of bye-laws that apply to a particular site don't seem to work in tandem. Clearly, one would have at least expected a more precise set of limits, instead of vague guidelines that one cant relate to.A city's Master Plan should have also spelt out the vision for built form and how neighbourhoods are meant to cope with change into the future, but falls incredibly short limiting itself to a numbers game.with no context. What element of these bye-laws is specific to the city they were designed for? Building bye laws be damned!

This has been this way for a few decades now, and has lead to both a general apathy to the law, and some far reaching impacts on the ground... eventually borne by you and I. There are various fall-outs of these building bloats.
  1. Parking requirements are never met and therefore leak onto the roads. 
  2. Lower floors and interiors of building almost never get adequate light. 
  3. There is a greater energy demand for the same planned area.
  4. Can water be far behind? Great stress on water demand.
  5. Greater wastes from one site.... wet and dry.
  6. More building materials per site... meaning greater CO2 emissions per planned area.
  7. Wide spread building activity (illegal) leading to greater dust pollution.
I am sure you can think of a few more, specially if you consider cultural, and economic criteria, but you get the gist. But does anyone seem to care? What amazes me is that in the last couple of years alone we seem to have added far more visible building mass within our city limits, most of it far in excess of any element of the building bye-laws that apply, but the govt officials don't seem to notice. I would imagine that entire teams of demolition crews with dozers, trucks would be working round the clock to keep all this in check, and in time the economics of violation would start self-regulating. But alas, nothing! There doesn't seem to be an easily accessible report or set of statistics available on violations in Bangalore. If you search you will only come up with uninterested statements like 'half of Bangalore' and '90% of buildings in Bangalore' as having violations. Governance be damned!

I am sure that many of these violators get professional help. An ever-ready club of architects, engineers and contractors at their service. Espousing every devious mean to extract that extra square foot, listing examples of how they and others have gotten away with more, and incentivising the entrepreneur with rock-bottom fees and quotations. Professional ethics be damned!

It is said  that one can tell a lot about people and their culture by looking at their cities. I would say that the first to be deciphered would be its architecture and therefore the city's architects. What is evident that the  architecture is random and perhaps driven by poor quality architects or perhaps not architects at all. But how else do you get your plans sanctioned? Architects. The bunch of them seem to have lost (or given away) their souls. A reading of the current scenario shows aspirations no doubt, but in what direction, with what vision? As a profession, it seems like we don't believe in the bye-laws, let alone such design ideals. Architecture and Architects be damned!
Yes, it is true that our clients make most of the law-breaking decisions in the search for that extra golden square foot of built space, but what has been the role of us architects to check this. We have been meek by-standers, equally culpable in these gross violations, by our participation. Of course we have heard those lines from the fraternity stating 'what else can one do', and 'if you don't go play along then you can never play', and so on. Really? Is that how much faith we put in ourselves, and the profession?

I am sure that the 'powers that be' can see all this, anyone can. They MUST have a plan. They must! Some understanding that the future will be brighter, that we will somehow climb out of this cesspool of professional debauchery and unscrupulous meddling with urban form... (all for professional gain). Our prayers and wishes (apologies somehow don't seem adequate) go out to the grandchildren of our cities!