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Friday, Aug 27, 2004

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To conserve land, go high rise

Bhanoji Rao

Land is conserved when high-rise structures are constructed. — Vino John

INDIA stands first for its people and then its land. Idealistically speaking, land (with the rivers and mountains inclusive) is a precious resource that all the people of India possess collectively. Given our very strong laws governing property rights, it is neither easy nor desirable to have draconian rules and regulations to achieve land conservation. Yet, if we keep the land as undisturbed as possible and preserve the agricultural and forest resources as much in tact as possible, in addition to passing on the resources to generations to come, chances are the rain Gods too will favour us and Earth will protect us.

An attempt at land conservation should include two prongs at the very least. One of them is land reform that would make the state the ultimate landowner and the efficient cultivator, the real leaseholder of land. Such a scheme of things is unthinkable now as there is no political constituency to fight for it, win a few elections, form governments at the Centre and the States, pass requisite laws and implement them strictly.

There is the other prong — going high-rise — that could help to some extent to conserve the precious land resources. However, there does not seem to be a strong and concerted policy in that regard.

For instance, it would seem that most functionaries in charge of urban development (notably, the chairmen of urban development authorities) consider that their job is to ensure the growth in the length and breadth of the urban landscape.

Furthermore, urban development policies and strategies today have no land conservation bias as can be seen from the excerpts from the Tenth Plan document.

Excerpts from Tenth Plan Document

Para 6.1.34: There is a need to take measures to ease the availability of land so that growth can take place through increased construction and housing activity, and land prices can be brought down ... Para 6.1.36: In urban areas, especially those with Master Plans, the needs of urbanization should have precedence over land revenue and land reforms legislations in which restrictions on land ownership, transfers, and land use are incorporated in order to prevent the conversion of agricultural land.

Para 6.1.53: The Working Group on Housing for the Tenth Plan has observed that around 90 per cent of housing shortage pertains to the weaker sections. There is a need to increase the supply of affordable housing to the economically weaker sections and the low-income category through a proper programme of allocation of land. The entire emphasis in the Plan document seems to be on providing land even if it means converting fertile agricultural land for non-agricultural uses. There is hardly any mention in the document about conservation of land. As for a preference for going high-rise, as a matter of policy and priority, its absence is conspicuous.

High-rise housing is indeed a very sharp instrument that can promote varied objectives: Visible equality, employment growth and poverty alleviation, land conservation, communal harmony and national integration. Visible equality is where families live in apartments, regardless of the different interiors and area. ("High-rise" need not mean 40 floors; it could be just three/four floors to avoid elevators and minimise energy use.)

Providing affordable housing for the poor too can be relatively easily accomplished via cross-subsidisation. Let us suppose that the government has decided to insist that 10 per cent of the flats in every new housing complex should be one-room type, comprising a room, kitchen and toilet; they should be constructed with simple flooring and fixtures; and they are to be allotted to the maintenance and security staff of the complex and other properly-identified poor families, as decided upon by the apartment owners association based on any information that the government might provide on the below-the-poverty-line (BPL) families in the neighbourhood.

The cost of the single-room flat can be around Rs 70,000-80,000. It implies that each apartment owner needs to pay Rs 8,000-9,000 for the construction of the single-room flat per nine normal flats of two/three bedrooms or more, costing no less than Rs 4-5 lakh .

None of the owners of the regular flats would grudge paying a mere Rs 8,000-9,000 (a miniscule fraction of their flat cost) towards housing the poor. Sacred and precious land is conserved when most new housing is in high-rise structures. Governments at all levels might even go as far as banning construction of independent houses.

Communal harmony and integration are the byproducts of good neighbourliness in apartment complexes. It is but natural that residents belonging to different communities and language and regional groups living in the apartment complexes become natural parties to maintaining a peaceful atmosphere.

Water supply on a metered basis, ensuring school attendance by children of poor families, immunisation, health screening, electoral registration, census and survey operations and any number of other facilities can be cost effectively carried out if majority of people are in high-rise units.

IT-connectivity too becomes easy if most people live in compact high-rise communities. Korea achieved very widespread broadband connectivity because of high-rise living communities. Singapore could `wire' the residences for set-top TV reception and CAS because some 90 per cent of the people live in high-rise apartments. All that has been said in favour of multi-storied residences equally applies to office and commercial complexes. With proper innovation and planning, even rural housing could be in three/four-floor houses with proper facilities for cattle and other assets.

The Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues could announce the policy of high-rise living and insist that States ask their urban development bodies to fine-tune their mission and change it from expanding the length and breadth of the cities to land conservation, promotion of high-rise buildings, and special programmes to include modest housing for the poor within multi-storied housing complexes.

(The author, formerly with the World Bank and the National University of Singapore, is Professor Emeritus, GITAM Institute of Foreign Trade, Visakhapatnam. He can be contacted at

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