Blind Building laws; dumb law enforcers

The Indian government for the past 63 years have been blind and numb towards the construction of buildings. Without following its own rules the government has been blankly allowing any and every citizen to construct what he or she wants. All is done through few currency notes. This blindness of the government is going to infect the entire population and will paralyze the coming generations.

 

Gautam Bhatia writes in The Deccan Chronicle on 6 February 2010

 

Some years ago, a Delhi firm invested in a “smart” building for its new Gurgaon office. A 12-storey structure of beveled glass was designed by a Japanese architect, using American and French technologies and built under South Korean supervision. Surrounded by the dumb buildings of old India, this was supposedly user-friendly intelligent architecture at its best, technology’s answer to India’s future.

When I saw it on a sweltering June afternoon, a few days before its official opening, it stood shimmering silver grey in a black tar parking lot. Near the entrance, a remote sensor detected my approach and — through electronic identification — alerted the control centre inside, of my presence. Within seconds, the door opened. A complicated e-device worth `22 lakh had eliminated a Haryanvi guard at `6,000 per month. Further in, were more smart surprises. My weight on the lift lobby floor triggered six lifts into action; they all came racing down to pick me up. Activated by complicated circuitry that cost `28 lakh, the intelligent building had effectively done away with the need for a push button. Upstairs, the glass-shell of the building was surrounded by Japanese micro louvers and heat sensors at the ridiculously low summer discount rate of `2.8 crore. An elegant, electronically-activated “intelligent” device had happily eliminated the ordinary screen of reed chicks at `12 per square foot. Moreover, the smart structure, built at seven times the rate of a conventional building, had effectively done away with Indian skills and labour — still the cheapest in the world — and joined the ranks of world class architecture. Expensive, over-designed and completely oblivious to local conditions. But smart, nonetheless.

Like the intelligent building, can a smart city in the West be a stupid one in India? The Indian government’s sudden and erratic wish list for smart cities along the Delhi-Mumbai corridor is not only seriously misplaced, but is a harebrained view that cities can be produced on an assembly line, like cars and coke bottles. Certainly, taking Indian urban ideas to the next level should prompt the government to serious measures. But the proposal to build 24 cities when so far not a single new idea on urban living has been implemented is a despairing shot in the dark, a hope that extreme measures will yield results where smaller local initiatives have not even been tried.

Many perplexing questions need to be asked before the government embarks on a reckless real estate adventure. Does the physical structure of the city have any measurable impact on our lives? Can a city’s livability be measured like a gross national product? Can it be rated from one to 100 like an exam score? To say that Shanghai is better than Mumbai is as good as saying that an elm tree is better than neem. It is an entirely facile and inaccurate comparison. Certainly there are measurable barometers that can point to the health of towns; the quality and quantity of municipal services, provision of water, health care and sanitation, the availability of sidewalks, parks and roads, the proliferation of schools, institutes, places of recreation and commerce, all fall within the common understanding of daily human requirement. The nourishment needed to stay alive, like a daily vitamin pill. But at its core, the life breath of a town is a deeply guarded secret. Heard sometimes in sighs of its long time residents, but always hidden from those who seek only its cosmopolitan gratifications — the new French restaurant, the Formula One race track, the mall. Connection to places, links to family, past and present, and to some degree, future opportunity, the city’s physical environment has a direct correlation with personal lives.

In a country which offers a continually degrading form of life to its urban citizens, the importance of new and inventive solutions can hardly be underscored. Choked cities, grey murky rivers, brown skies, depleting energy, erratic services, the haves and the hope-to-haves are ready-to-wage battles over water, electricity, land and air rights. Before the present rage turns to all-out war, city living requires desperate resolution. Unfortunately, the thirst for a new idea in India almost always acts on hyperbolic dimensions: the highest building, the richest Indian, the second-largest dam — reducing public action to meaningless numbers and trivial hyped publicity rather than serious welfare. Somewhere on a foreign trip, a minister or a bureaucrat, sensed the possibility of an idea, and promoted the smart city as a quantum leap of faith.

In a country like China such leaps may be possible. The Chinese willingness to step outside of conventional urban thinking is prompted as much by its own rapid urbanisation, as its need to enlarge the scope of urban technology and experiment with new forms of city living. The new town of Dongtan, near Shanghai, is an altogether unprecedented mix of these lofty ideals. An eco-city of one million residents that promotes a lifestyle without cars, without streets, without conventional houses, is an optimistic sign that China is looking beyond the environmental and technical thresholds set by the West, to set a benchmark for itself. Though Dongtan is a quantum technological leap, its most generous attribute is its affinity to Chinese culture. And the insistence amongst its makers that future lies in promoting a Chinese way of life.

However, an incompetent government with barely a new urban idea to its name is hardly in a position to built 24 new cities from scratch. No one today has even defined in simple common terms a house that suits an Indian lifestyle. No builder has ever attempted — despite massive profits — to create self-sustaining neighborhoods, or clusters of housing that take on fresh ideas. No state or national housing programme has ventured outside the safety of building as anything but a form of fulfilling statistical requirements. A whole city needs to be carefully weighed in cultural terms for the value its residents attach to their lifestyle, and the potential for its growth as a living organism. A thoughtless, culturally unimaginative approach to the design of 24 new towns may yield another 24 Chandigarhs. The sheers numbers of such a disaster would be hard to dismiss as a bureaucratic folly, just another missing file in the ministry. But in 21st century India, so desperate to be counted as a world power, the smart city may just be another thrust to an expensive publicity venture.

 

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