Regulating living environment for public safety

Published: Sunday 15 July 2007

it is unusual for the powerful real estate lobbies to be brought to their knees in India. But such a thing happened in Gujarat in 2002. The high court was hearing a petition on saving the lakes of Ahmedabad, and it came out that several of the new housing projects sponsored by 'promoters' had come up on the bed of what were once tanks that watered Gujarat's commercial capital. (The city suffers water scarcity every summer and flash floods every monsoon. That's because the new townships, passed by qualified city planners, do not take drainage into account--the old walled city of Ahmedabad never gets flooded because it's design accounted for drainage.) The court restricted all construction activity within a given perimeter around former tanks. Ahmedabad's all powerful real estate industry reeled for more than one year. Then, typically, the case petered out after the judges who had taken an active interest moved on.

Now, housing projects worth an estimated Rs 40,000 crore in Chandigarh's suburbs are stuck because of a two-year-old decision by the Punjab Pollution Control Board to have a 500-metre strip of land between factories and residential blocks. The board took this laudable step as part of its brief: regulating the living environment in the interest of public safety. What it did not anticipate was the cost of land. As Chandigarh's master plan does not allow private construction within the city, the real estate pressure is on suburban farmland. Farmers are willing to sell land to builders provided they get good rates. The builders are willing to pay for land that will earn them money from property buyers. But a half-kilometre strip of land that has to be kept green doesn't profit either the farmer or the builder. So, who pays for environmental safety?

Nobody. The board got pressured to ease the safe distance to a ridiculous 15 metres. And then precluded the possibility of residents of these housing blocks complaining against industrial pollution. Not only was this dereliction of duty, it violated the basic tenets of environmental regulation. It is hardly surprising that the real estate market does not value a clean environment. But a regulatory authority can creatively build in clauses that forces the market to value it--in public interest. Surely, people paying lakhs of rupees for a dream house wouldn't mind paying extra for better living conditions. But for the market to put a value on environmental safety, the regulator has to put a price on it. The Punjab board failed to do just that.

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