Construction boom will make cities unliveable: Centre for Science and Environment

Non-profit calls for support for green buildings programmes which should not be reduced to a sham to protect realty profits

Published: Friday 29 June 2012

The construction boom seen across India will make cities unliveable unless this growth is guided by the right development principles, says Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). These guiding principles relate to choice of location, architectural design, appropriate material and operational management. Considering that 70 per cent of the building stock proposed by 2030 is yet to be built, there is time to prevent the environmental debacle, says the research advocacy group.

The concern over regulating urban growth emerged at a media briefing on the theme, Build them green: deconstructing the building sector in India. The focus of the briefing was environmental challenges and solutions for the building construction sector.  CSE researchers pointed out that in India buildings are major water and electricity guzzlers and waste generators—they use up 40 per cent of the energy available and 30 per cent raw materials; they also account for 40 per cent carbon emissions, 30 per cent solid waste generation and 20 per cent water effluents. “Despite being a major resource predator, the building construction sector is poorly regulated,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy for CSE. “”Buildings cannot be treated as low-impact sector,” she stressed.

There is a potential for resource savings in buildings if appropriate policies are in place. With more efficient lighting, ventilation, air-conditioning and architectural design, it is possible to save energy up to 70 per cent. The 2010 Mckinsey report estimates confirm that the national power demand can be reduced by as much as 25 per cent in 2030 by improving energy efficiency of buildings and operations. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency has said that even existing buildings have the potential to save energy 30 to 50 per cent, it was pointed out. Similarly it is possible to reduce water demand also.

But the major problem in improving things is lack of information, say CSE researchers. There is barely any information or data in the public domain. Even in cases where green rating systems have been promoted with government back-up and incentives, there is no actual record of the performance of the buildings and the nature of resource efficiency measures applied, they said. Cities such as NOIDA in Uttar Pradesh are allowing extra built-up areas and giving tax concessions to incentivise green rating of buildings. But these incentives are not linked to actual performance of buildings, which makes evaluation of green rated buildings next to impossible, the researchers said. Without proper performance monitoring, green rated buildings can perform worse than standard building, as has happened in the US and other countries, they added.

At present, Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) rules—the only regulatory tool for holistic appraisal of overall impacts of buildings—cover only the high impact buildings with more than 20,000 sq metre of area. There are many loopholes in the system that weaken it further and need to be plugged, said Roychowdhury (see 'Plug the loopholes').

No integrated vision for townships in offing

More than half to 95 per cent of the new buildings will come up in resource stressed suburbs and new townships. IDFC’s India Infrastructure Report 2009 states that the size of private integrated townships ranges from 40 hectares (ha) to over 400 ha; more than 200 such townships covering more than 8,000 ha are under approval for planning and construction especially around the four metros. On the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), several private towns and cities are on the cards. Promoted as  'walk-to-work green towns', the new towns are sprouting without clear benchmarks, implementation strategies or strong regulatory safeguards.

Said Roychowdhury: “Green measures are needed not only to reduce resource impacts of rich peoples' homes but also to improve thermal comfort of poor people’s homes.”

CSE researchers called for building public support and acceptance of green building programmes.  Tell people what works and what doesn’t work in terms of energy-efficient and water-saving strategies for homes. Inform people about the rate of return on costs for energy-efficiency and water-conservation products and appliances, they said.

“Build support for green buildings. Not reduce it to a green coat and a sham to protect realty profits,” said Roychowdhury.

Plug the loopholes
  • Builders have found an easy route of dodging the requirement of EIA by showing smaller parcels of land than the minimum limit of 20,000 sq m. No clear benchmarking for assessing resource use, waste generation and mitigation strategies provided by the project proponents for approval. The EIA appraisal should work in synergy with the norms and standards in the relevant sectors.
  • Strengthen screening of sites for construction. A large number of projects have come up in the water stressed part of Haryana that has been marked by the Central Ground Water Board as a dark zone, as the groundwater table has dwindled drastically. EIA should assess boundaries of influence and sensitivity of sites before decisions on sites are taken.
  • In many cases it has been noticed that actual construction of buildings have progressed without getting the requisite consent from the authorities. This weakens their scrutiny.
  • Post-construction monitoring is the weakest link in the current EIA system for buildings. Project proponents are expected to submit bi-annual compliance report based on self monitoring. This is rarely done. Rapid review of projects in and around Delhi has shown deviation from the prescribed conditions.
  • In contrast to the EIA rules for mining and industry sector that requires formal public hearing, the simplified procedures for the building sector provide no scope of soliciting public comments on impact and mitigation. Citizens' perspectives are completely ignored. As a result, we are beginning to see strong public reaction and anger in cities against construction projects.
  • The expansion of high impact buildings, especially commercial and retail will induce heavy traffic in cities with serious pollution, public health and congestion impacts. Developers will have to provide area management plan for traffic mitigation in and around the project area.
  • The gamut of challenges that plague the environmental clearance process is staggering–regional offices do not have adequate authority for effective monitoring; resources and staff strength and capacity for appraisal and monitoring are very poor; institutional coordination for clearances is missing; the state environment appraisal committees are heavily burdened; there are errors in documentation; quality of data and information provided by the project proponents is of poor quality.

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