SRINAGAR: Matter of life and death

Recently, in a conversation with a legal luminary, we discussed a developmental project. The advocate pleaded for the needs/rights of the owner/developer, and I emphasised laws/by-laws, and right of the city. He tried  to underline the delay by government in providing the service that forces the owners/developers to go for unauthorised constructions. Also applying laws/byelaws to projects that people would legally seek puts them at a disadvantage as compared to those who build without seeking permission and without applying the norms. While I was trying to point that unauthorised/illegal constructions are bad in law, carried out by law breaking citizens, but whatever case is presented before me, I would have to apply norms/standards as per by-laws and rules/regulations concerning the field. During the discussion, I would stress that keeping the developmental rights of the owner/developer  in mind, my job, being the custodian of the rights of the city, is to do justice to the city and also to its citizens. He went on to seek my understanding of justice system, particularly in the backdrop those who use the system to get additional benefits by not following the law as compared to those who are at a disadvantage by trying to follow the system. Is it not unjust and unfair?

As already said, the idea is to try to take care of the rights of the city, as city by itself is a living entity (without having its own voice) like the animal or botanical kingdom. On the other hand, the only natural species that grows on greed (beyond their need) is the human species. Therefore, all problems in the world are because of humans. It is because of the human intervention that the world has come to such a pass. There are unimaginable miseries found in many countries just because of the human behaviour. The environmental degradation, loss of flora & fauna, displacement of communities, not just because of natural disaster but due to cruel and unjust behaviour of fellow human beings. The desire to control other people, communities, groups, who do not belong to you or do not subscribe to your thought process are placed in the torture list, killed or displaced. The military and military hardware has one thing in common – how to suppress, exploit and marginalize the other. More budget for defence than education or healthcare makes it clear that what is the goal and vision of those countries and their rulers. This has been exposed by the corona pandemic at the global level.

So one can imagine the ugly side of human behaviour. It is here that the rights of the city need to be protected from those who could easily suppress them. The rights of the city are the collective rights of all the citizens. All amenities and infrastructural facilities like roads, water supply, drainage, electricity are for common good. The encroachments on roadside, misuse of water supply, theft of electricity and loss of power, clogging drainage system by dumping waste, is all wrong and anti-city. The protection of natural landscape/vistas, the waterbodies and wetlands, mountains, forests are all requisite essentials for our collective existence. These act as lung spaces in an ever growing urban sprawl. If these natural sponge areas are encroached upon and filled up, imagine the wrongs done to the city under the garb of development. Cities act as heat engines and it is these natural spaces in spatial canvass that balance the negative impact of heat. Do we need to preserve and conserve them? Yes, we should do that at any cost. If we do, then we in fact are protecting the right of city to live. Living city means liveable cities! And when cities become liveable, then human life flourishes and progresses. Citizens become happy and healthy.

Back to specific issue of developmental project viz-a-viz the right of the city or justice to the citizen. During the month of May, an unknown person walked into my office room and was enquiring about a work related to planning, development & monitoring. I told him that it does not pertain to me but the concerned office is just next door. However, before leaving he asked, “what do you do”? I thought for a moment, and replied that do you have any idea, “what is happening around?”. He said,  “off course , everyone is maintaining social distance and wearing mask.” I then told him, “I am doing the same but in my case, instead of human beings, the same is applied to buildings”. My basic job is to see buildings maintain social distance and wear a landscape mask. I have been doing this job from last two decades. He said, “Oh, that is great.” and left the  room.

Technically, the job is to give building permits. A building usually has a life span of 80-100 years. Once constructed, then it remains there for its life time and therefore it retains  a lifelong positive or negative impact. The main factor apart from use of the building  as per Master Plan is to see, how much density of population is generated by granting floor areas, what distance should be maintained with other surrounding structures through setback norms (a building placed is away from the edge/boundary of its plot). When two buildings maintain setbacks as per norms depending on the zone/FSI and use of building, then these basically have to maintain a physical distance ( social distance because people live or work inside the building). The idea behind maintaining social distance between building is to ensure fire gap during emergencies, evacuation during hazardous incidents, cross ventilation or free flow of air, right to natural light, easement rights, right to privacy and avoidance of noise. This at a larger scale allows air movement throughout city to keep the city cool. If the buildings do not maintain social distancing, then it is a slum in the making – cramped & congested. This has negative consequences not only for environment in general but also on human psyche. No body appreciates negative and dark areas. It impacts not only physical but mental development too. The congested cities have given rise to poverty and crime. Health wise, such areas can transmit contagious diseases quickly. Practically speaking, it is not buildings that matter, it is the human or living population that inhabit these buildings. It is an indirect way to maintain social distance throughout one’s life in an unintended manner. Further, congested areas give more chance to the city to become a heat engine. The heat absorbed and radiated from the building materials, the heat from electric lamps/blowers,  equipment and machinery, cooking gas/appliances etc., add to the overall climate of the city region. The more congested the area is, the more chances of heat production. The vehicular pollution, transport & technology, industrial areas burden more the city climate.

How can it be balanced? It is the mask of landscape around a building that compensates the impact of  heat generated and in totality reduces the negative effect. The landscape in the form of trees, shrubs, flowers, green lawns, pools, ponds, fountains, creepers, vegetable gardens act as mask that stops pollution to enter the interiors of the building, thereby safeguard the inhabitants and in the end providing filtered air to the citizens. The trees also absorb dust and reduce noise pollution. Certain trees like chinar, walnut and mulberry have been given right to exist and therefore cannot be removed/cut unless there is a written permission from a competent authority. Every plot, at an individual level, if it starts wearing the landscape mask shall finally help the city environment to be safer, cooler and eco-friendly. The tragedy these days is that everyone wants to consume 100% ground coverage leaving no scope for the landscape mask, reducing social distancing to such an extent  that even wearing a mask would not help.

Having said so, the other needs like parking in case of commercial projects is a nightmare in Srinagar. The parking needs in individual buildings as well as at collective level is a matter of concern. The easy access to car loan, the need to have personal cars in the absence of effective public transport system, car as a status symbol – all this has added to the woes of traffic congestion and parking requirements. The roads have not been widened enough and it takes a lot to widen the existing roads due to the obstruction of building which come under the right of ways. This is due to the fact that building lines have not been maintained over the years. Taking care of parking needs in the city is by itself taking the justice to another level and declaring it the right of the city.

So the right of the city to have good and barrier free roads, barrier free buildings with all the amenities, maintaining of setbacks around the buildings, making parking available to the inmates as well as visitors/customers, use of green technology, use of alternate energy like roof top solar technology, making use of water harvesting for all buildings including residential houses, construction of septic tanks/soakage pits at individual household/building level and not to connect sewerage directly to drains are all our collective rights or rights of the city. The indigenous birds, wild animals, aquatic life and endangered insects/bees do also have right to exist in a city that belongs to them. The city does not only belong to its citizens (humans). As of now, we need to understand that there is a symbiotic relationship between all living things/creatures and the surrounding environment. The less the open/green space and more of ground coverage in the form of built-up areas and paved/macadamized hard surfaces, the more chances of environmental degradation and ultimately loss of living organisms, thereby the death of a city.

In a nutshell, if a citizen constructs a building illegally, without  authorisation, by usurping the rights of the city, or a citizen constructs buildings by usurping the rights of the city under the garb of difficulty in getting permission, both fall in the same category. Both actions are abnormal. Both have violated the rights of the city. Srinagar is losing its life and death is at its doorstep, if the trend continues. It is turning to be  a city of careless citizens.

Finally let me tell you that there are two cities running parallel – one is called a Paper City (official records) and other is known as Practical City (ground situation). There is a need to formulate mechanism/policy to narrow this gap. The earlier we do, the better it is!

The writer is presently Joint Commissioner Planning, Srinagar Municipal Corporation. He has been awarded internationally by Ford Foundation, UN-Habitat and G20 Global Leadership program. He has studied City & Regional Planning from  USA with background education in architecture, disaster management, sustainable development and human rights.