To Build or Not to Build on Hills . . .

. . . And that is the classic question that Punekars have been asking since the last 10 years. Frankly, I have been unable to take either side. At one end I know that the remaining 'open' space will disappear surely if permissions are given to build on the hill tops and hill slopes. At the other end, I am not sure if Pune, via its municipal corporation, has the capacity to develop hill tops and hill slopes as natural preserves for biodiversity. Is there a middle way? I often ask myself. What is it that it prompting activists to react on one end, while the municipal government is pressured to act on the other end? Is it just the developers lobby seeking more core city land to build premium condos and earn money that is pressurizing action against biodiversity preservation or are their other forces at play too?
When in San Francisco, I had a chance to look at a hilly and completely contoured terrain of California being developed as breautiful city suburbs, which led me to thinking if developing hill tops and hill slopes is such as bad idea after all? My studies led me to the Building Code of these suburb cities along San Francisco and I found extremely stringent codes for building on designated hill tops and hill slopes. What these Building Codes have done is that the hill slopes have become unaffordable so that only the rich and affluent people can buy homes there. On the other hand, what the codes have also managed to do is that these rich and affluent people are the ones who have been asked to pay (through high taxes and environmental fees) to convert the entire hill slopes into beautiful spawling greens, refreshing the entire urban landscape. Essentially, the Building Codes restrict the height of development, the size of individual land holding, the type of housing, the widths of roads etc thereby controlling urban elements like density, development intensity etc. While large plots become the norm, rich people pay the price for the panoramic view that the homes offer. At the same time, the rich homeowners also pay for the development of the hills as natural preserves and biodiversity niches, thereby also making their own properties more valuable. Its a win-win situation!
While all this sounds very simplistic and offers a one sided view, I also wondered if this similar model was possible in Pune. Can the hill slopes be marginally opened up for development? Can a master plan emerge for the entire hillscape of Pune where ecologists, environmental planners, urban planners and engineers, with Pune's citizens and stakeholders sit together to chalk out an economically and environmentally feasible solution to Pune's hills?
Another argument that crops up in my mind is that, once the Master Plan is worked out, who will be responsible for its effective implementation? Will the implementing authority, the municipal body, be able to retain the intent of the masterplan in the coming 25-50 years? Or will opening up the hill tops and hill slopes mean complete disappearance of the hills, as most activists fear? Can there be a citizen watch group who can control implementation and ensure effective implementation of such areas?
Today there is a need for a fresh dialogue on this issue. While new hill slopes on Pune's fringe have the BDP Reservation, informal encroachment is already underway in this period of indecision and inaction, hoping to get mainstreamed as Pune waits for its comprehensive Development Plan. While BDP sounds great on paper, there are too many land aquisition and economically burdening issues, making the proposal economically unfit. I feel, while the well-intentioned environmental activism in Pune is holding its ground for BDP reservation, the resulting inaction is causing irreparable damage.
We all, as citizens of Pune, need to rethink and come to perhaps a mid way solution..Sometimes, losing some points is a safer way towards gaining the larger prize! In technical terms, it is also called as Conflict Resolution through stakeholder participation. It remains to be seen, if we, as citizens, choose to find the path towards ACTION or wait in the phase of INACTION, so much that any action then will be ineffective when it really comes!

Comments

  1. When dealing with a public authority that has good intentions, what is being suggested is ok. The PMC on the other hand has a long history of deceit and will go to any lengths, legal and illegal, to promote vested interests. In such a situation citizens concerned about having some open spaces and green lungs for the city, are also forced to take a hard stand. Building codes are routinely violated with impunity by the builders and sanctioned by the PMC. And in India the richer you are, the less the law applies to you. So control of the hills by such a class of people will lead to massive violations and creating of a concrete jungle. At least all that is happening now is that the hills are getting encroached by the urban poor. Better that than being encroached by MLAs, MPs and film stars!

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  2. Great blog – every time I come to Pune there is always a discussion about constructing on the hills, its side effects etc., so I was glad to read a balanced view point. I am no expert on this but still feel that Pune will lose its hills if construction is opened up, maybe because illegal construction, encroachments and flouting laws is so commonplace.

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  3. The way forward suggested by you on hill top constructions is possible and can be protected by stringent laws. Why one should be afraid of law benders. The citizen's watch committee can keep vigil. I we are afraid of laaw benders then no developement or betterment anywhere would be possible.

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