Price of urban sprawl

Urban sprawl has caused conditions of insecurity in the peri-urban areas.

By Darshini Mahadevia
Published: Saturday 23 November 2013

I live in Ahmedabad, the largest city of the state which is under national scrutiny on account of her Chief Executive Officer (CEO), who is on the national campaign trail to make the whole country as ‘developed’ as Gujarat! This is the story of Ahmedabad city’s development in the last one decade. However, this may not be a unique story of this city alone. With the change in the name of the city, specific details may change but not the essence of the following story.

During the Diwali vacation in Ahmedabad, a six year old girl was raped in our neighbourhood, which is an urban village named Shilaj, engulfed within the city in the last decade due to the urban sprawl. The close-knit village community has been opened up and in a sense invaded by the outsiders living in the newly developed gated enclaves on the village’s former agricultural lands. The independent bungalows in the gated enclaves cost around Rs. 6-8 crores and the apartments cost around Rs. 2 crores. There is no link between the village and the new colonies that have come up. It does not remain a neighbourhood any more. The development in Shilaj is still sparse and the village agriculture lands are lying fallow. Thus, traditional village periphery bubbling with activities has become dead. The girl had ventured out to the village’s boundary with her two elder brothers, who were tricked to go home and the girl was whisked away during the mid-day. The person belonged to the village. He was caught as the girl came back soon and narrated her experience.

While, the most heinous crime was committed on this child, another issue that has also bothered me is about the urban form that emerges on account of urban sprawl motivated by excessive land speculation. The builders have begun to decide the urban form since last decade and a half, since when the urban land ceiling act has been lifted and builders have ability to accumulate vast tracts of lands. New colonies, which in essence are the gated colonies, are set up way outside the city boundary. In case of Shilaj development, it was 8 kms outside the former boundary of the city. This forced the planning authority to lay roads and other infrastructure to connect the new gated colonies with the main city infrastructure. Once that happens, the land prices further increase. Ricardian theory of land rent tells us that as the city’s area expands by physical sprawl, the price of centrality increases and this has a ripple effect throughout the city, increasing the land prices everywhere. The builders who are able to accumulate lands, by purchasing from the farmers at low rates, are able to then reap bonanza profit. Shilaj is on such development in Ahmedabad that has caused sprawl of Ahmedabad City on the western periphery. Once this locality developed – I cannot call it a neighbourhood, as there is no neighbourly feelings and everyone is an alien in their own gated enclave – the city limits were extended to include the locality within it. Hence, today, Shilaj is part of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. The taxes paid by the residents of the gated enclaves are far less than the capital investment by the Municipal Corporation to extend network services to the residents. Urban sprawl is an outcome of excessive speculative greed of the land developers and the builders.

The residents of the gated enclaves have personal vehicles, mostly four wheelers, and often one household has more than one. True suburbia, a la the American suburbia experience! The gated enclaves are low density developments. No resident from among them walks, cycles or takes public transport. We do not therefore find walkable footpaths along the roads connecting the gated enclaves to the main city. Public transport is not viable due to low density and hence is not efficient. The roads are resurfaced periodically so that motor vehicle users are not inconvenienced and do not complaint. The lights are in the centre of the road to convenience motorised vehicle users. Hence, the footpaths do not have lights – in case there are footpaths. On most sections of the road, there are no footpaths. Thus, those walking are inconvenienced. In the night, the road sides or the footpaths do not have light and hence become very unsafe. Anyway, those walking and cycling are also not safe due to heavy motorised vehicle traffic. And now with the new cars, the walking and cycling have become more unsafe.

The gated complexes look inwards. Many of them are vacant, as many of the buyers of such real estate developments are the investors. Hence, the density further remains low. Almost, 50 per cent of the units are vacant. Such low densities do not support informal trade in the locality, neither in the form of small shops nor vendors. Hence, there are no eyes on the street for people to feel safe. This further pushes the residents to take motorised vehicles. A vicious cycle of insecurity sets in.

Urban sprawl, with low density, creates large tracts of areas as well as road segments that are desolate. Walking or cycling feels unsafe. One may therefore not venture out unless in a company. A single woman does not venture out on her own. If one has personal motorized vehicle, there is a fear lurking at the back of mind of possibilities in case of vehicle break-down. There is no public transport available at all times, as public transport frequency is very low in general and particularly in the late evening and night. Is it not the problem faced by ‘Nirbhaya’ in Delhi on December 16, 2012, resulting in the episode that shook the country? The auto rickshaws are also not available as low density development does not make them ply all the time. The ‘Nirbhaya’ incident is waiting to happen in all the cities across India, especially in the peri-urban areas, which have developed due to urban sprawl.

Let me describe the process through which Shilaj or any such peri-urban village experiences development and the type of urban form that is created. As mentioned, Shilaj is 8 km away from the previous boundary of the main city of Ahmedabad. That previous boundary was Sarkhej-Gandhinagar (SG) highway. Shilaj is now on the external ring road, which is called SP ring road. SG highway is also a ring road. Between the two ring roads are sporadic developments, with large parts that are unfilled and hence desolate. Because of ‘posh’ real estate developments in nodes like Shilaj, the prices of the lands in-between are very high. Low income housing, including, what is now called ‘affordable housing’, is not possible. If there are no low-income housing settlements, the density is always going to remain low and there are not going to be any street activities. Those living in the gated enclaves do not have much of linkage with the locality they live in. They are not much connected to the street activities, which therefore do not develop. The low income workers who come to these houses come from far. The desolate areas then get converted into ‘dens’ of illegal activities. In case of Ahmedabad, these become dens of alcohol drinking, which is prohibited in the state and hence is an illegal activity.

The law enforcement machinery is weak. It does not exist in adequate numbers. Many of the officials are busy with the security of the VIP. A common person on the road, including those in the four wheelers, are left to their own devices of security. Some may say that everyone is at the mercy of the ‘god’, if one believed in one. Hence, the whole experience of living in the peri-urban areas that have developed on account of urban sprawl is of insecurity.

Why has such an urban structure evolved? It is due to the greed for speculative profits from land. It is the greed of the troika, the land developers, the builders and the politicians/ bureaucrats investing in lands. These developments take place even before there is a city plan in place. Even if there were to be a plan then the planners do not have control to enforce the plan.

In situations of when morals break down, law enforcement machinery is weak or non-existing, as we see in most cities, even in Ahmedabad, which is in the ‘model state of India’, urban sprawl creates unsafe cities, particularly for women. ‘Nirbahaya’ incident is waiting to happen in all cities, even in Ahmedabad. Lack of safe public transport worsens the situation. The urban middle classes basking in the glory of wealth earned through the economic reforms, need to wake up to the reality of unsafe cities that have been created due to this greed. Anyone from their families can become Nirbhaya in any city of the country.


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