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Myopia of more built-up space
Planners see faults in urban policy

A ‘FAR’-reaching impact of urbanisation
A condemned but inhabited building with a portion of its roof missing near Tallah Park in north Calcutta. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Urban development minister Firhad Hakim spoke to Metro on Wednesday on the new urban policy. Excerpts

Bengal’s new urban policy unlocks restrictions on built-up space to the extent that town planners fear a civic catastrophe because of increased population pressure on infrastructure.

Several engineers of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation told Metro in private that the government should have thought about upgrading civic infrastructure before unveiling a policy that aims to create more dwelling units.

The policy, announced on Tuesday, provides for up to 100 per cent additional floor-area ratio (FAR) for buildings that are 50 years or older and partly or fully occupied by tenants. Sanction will be granted on the basis of the built-up area occupied by tenants.

If 1,000sq ft of built-up space is shared equally by the owner and his tenants, the new rules will entitle the owner to add another 1,000sq ft (double the size of the tenants’ portion).

The FAR will increase up to 20 per cent for buildings located within 500 metres on either side of the Metro corridor, provided the road in front is more than 24 metres wide. A 15 per cent addition to the FAR will be allowed across 500 metres on each side of the Metro corridor if the road in front is between 15 and 24 metres wide.

Civic planners warn of problems ranging from water scarcity and poor drainage to increased traffic snarls if the government doesn’t simultaneously upgrade infrastructure.

According to the report of the group of ministers that had worked on the new FAR policy, the population of urban Bengal will increase by 1.2 crore over the next 15 years. Hence the need to allow more dwelling units to be built, it argues.

But larger and taller buildings in narrow lanes that haven’t had an infrastructure upgrade would make firefighting more difficult, sewers will carry more waste than they are equipped to and fewer people will get filtered water, among other potential civic discrepancies.

Metro highlights the time bomb ticking under the veneer of development.

Water supply

The CMC currently supplies 320 million gallons of treated water every day but it doesn’t fulfil the needs of the city’s population. Going by the expected rise in population, another 40 million gallons of treated water daily would be required just for them.

“Where will the money come from to create the required infrastructure? The capacity of water treatment plants at Garden Reach and Palta has reached saturation point. Where will be set up new treatment plants?” a CMC engineer said.

Water treatment plants alone won’t solve the problem. The CMC would also need to build a network of supply lines. But given the state of utility lines underground — a maze of multiple pipes and cables without reliable maps of their location — finding space to lay new water pipes or increase the diameter of the existing ones is next to impossible.

Disputes over shifting underground utility lines have delayed several infrastructure projects in the city, the Parama-Park Circus flyover being the prime example.

“If we are unable to provide potable water the only other option would be to use groundwater, in which case our already depleted reserves will dip even lower,” a civic engineer said.

Drainage

Studies have shown that Calcuttans use only 20 per cent of the water supplied by the civic body every day. The rest is drained out.

So, if the CMC increases its supply of treated water by another 40 million gallons, it would mean an additional 32 million gallons of water flowing down the sewers. “During the monsoon, that will be an invitation to flooding,” a civic official said. “If there is no space, how will we create new sewer lines or expand the old ones?”

The city’s sewer system is equipped to drain out water only if it rains less than 6mm per hour. Anything more than that leads to waterlogging.

“The drainage system was designed by the British for a population of 32 lakh. We now have a daytime population of one crore. It will increase by another 1.2 crore. Imagine the impact on our sewers,” the official said.

Even if the civic body were to decide to expand its sewer network, some roads in north Calcutta are so narrow that they hardly have space for wider pipes to be laid underground. Balaram De Street and WC Bonerjee Road near Girish Park have many old, tenanted buildings that could see floors being added. But both roads are hardly 8-10 metres wide.

Aurobindo Sarani and Beadon Street, counted among the larger roads of north Calcutta, are hardly 15 metres in width.

Solid waste

Calcutta generates 3,200 tonnes of garbage daily, most of which is carried to the vats in handcarts. Compactor machines later collect the waste and dump it in Dhapa. In many neighbourhoods, it takes up to 10 hours for the vats to be cleared each day.

More people in the city would mean more waste being generated, a challenge the civic body is aware of. “We will need a much-improved waste management network, that is for certain,” an official said.

With Dhapa already filled to the brim, the CMC has been scouting for a location that will serve the city’s needs for the next two decades. “The plan to create more dwelling units is welcome. But the government must start building infrastructure for basic services right now if it doesn’t want the city to degenerate into a chaotic, dirty metropolis,” an engineer said.

Firefighting

An increase in the FAR means firefighting will get tougher in crammed pockets of north and central Calcutta that are already prone to fire hazards.

Fire-safety guidelines stipulate a driveway of seven metres or more in width to allow fire tenders to reach buildings higher than seven floors. “In order to douse the flames, fire tenders need to target the origin. In most localities across central and north Calcutta, the lanes are so narrow that even small engines cannot enter them,” said a senior officer of the fire services department.

The fire brigade’s fleet includes some smaller fire tenders that can make their way into narrow lanes but don’t hold much water.

“They are used for very small fires. Moreover, not all fire stations have them. If there is a big fire, we need larger fire engines and many of them together,” the officer said.

In the event of a fire on the tenth floor of a building, the fire brigade would need to use a hydraulic skylift to reach the origin of the flames. “The skylift is a mechanical device that requires space for operation. If the driveway is less than seven metres in width, a skylift cannot be used,” the officer said.

With an increase in the number of apartments and occupants, the capacity of the water reservoir would also need to be increased. Current fire-safety guidelines state that a residential building is required to have a water reservoir with a minimum capacity of one lakh litres.