Rashmi Paseband Writes a Letter to the Prime Minister

Dear PMji,

Our nation is considered a rich agricultural land with favourable environmental conditions… India leads the world in groundnut production. She enjoys monopoly in tea production in the world. India ranks as the second largest producer in the world in respect of jute, sugar, rice, rape seed, cotton, sesame.

It stands at third place in the production of millets in the world. India’s ranking in the production of above crop is entirely on account of acreage devoted to that particular crop in the country. However since the mid 90s, Indian and foreign companies, governments, trusts, and others have been rapidly building businesses colleges, factories, flats, offices, plants,etc. on land purchased primarily from poor farmers. Consequently, the farmland in India is vanishing at an alarming rate. The agricultural lands are today being used for non-agricultural purposes such as urbanization, roads and industries, and are being used for residential complexes. It’s time to give a thought to the fact that the land under cultivation is reducing day by day.

The country’s cultivable land has marginally fallen in 2005-06, mainly due to diversion of farm land for non-agricultural purposes. Total cultivable land has declined to 182.57 million hectares in 2005-06 from 185.09 million hectares in 1980-81. During the same period, land under non-agricultural purpose went up to 24.94 million hectares from 19.66 million hectares, resulting in a marginal fall in cultivable land.

The above results lead one to think that declining grain availability per day on a declining stock of farm lands could be one reason why we do not have enough food and why millions of Indians go hungry or remain malnourished. It could also be the reason why food prices have been rising for years.

Throughout the world, land-use decisions are affected by various forms of government intervention in real estate markets. Such interventions include U.S. style zoning regulations, which are meant to minimize externalities by separating different types of land uses, as well as greenbelt laws.

Sometimes, government intervention takes more drastic forms. For example, apartheid policies in South Africa dictated residential location patterns by race, pushing black households to remote locations far from the urban centers. In the command economies of the old Soviet bloc, rigid government control sometimes generated perverse land-use patterns, exemplified by Moscow’s inverted density contour, which put people far from their places of work.

Governments in most market economies also exert explicit control over the density of development. While minimum-lot-size rules and other regulations are designed to limit suburban development densities in the United States, a related regulatory tool is the building height restriction, which governs land-use in the central parts of many cities worldwide. The most obvious examples are Washington, D.C., where no building can be taller than the U.S. Capitol, and Paris, where height restrictions attempt to preserve the character of the central city.

Although the use of height restrictions in both of these cities is driven by aesthetic considerations, building height restrictions may also be imposed in an attempt to achieve other goals. A case in point is India, where city governments impose height limitations through restrictions on the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of buildings. The FAR is computed by dividing a building’s total floor area by the area of land parcel on which it sits, and an upper limit on this ratio effectively puts a limit on the building’s height. In controlling FAR, the goal of the Indian planners has been to indirectly limit both job and population densities. It is believed that excessive density results in a loss of environmental quality and increased traffic congestion. In addition, higher densities would place greater demands on urban infrastructure, which Indian cities, plagued by weak technical capacities and inadequate tax revenue, feel ill-equipped to provide at appropriate levels.

For example, while low water pressure and high leakage might be acceptable in a low density neighborhood, the same pressure and leakage performance might create unacceptable living conditions in higher density areas. A similar point applies to waste disposal, where an Indian municipality may succeed at removing only 25 percent of the refuse generated by the city. While this outcome might be unpleasant but survivable in a low-density neighborhood, it may entail grave health consequences at higher densities.

Thus, accepting high densities in central areas would have required a commitment by Indian cities to improve the productivity and performance of municipal services, requiring substantial investments in infrastructure. Faced with this trade-off and limited by their poor technical capacities, Indian municipalities chose to reduce densities via FAR restrictions in order to avoid central city infrastructure investments. In the last few years, the technical performance of many major municipal governments has greatly improved, but the policy of FAR restrictions has not been revised.

Thus it can be concluded that, by limiting population densities near the center, an FAR restriction causes the city to expand spatially. This spatial enlargement affects consumers both by raising their average commuting distance and by pushing up the housing prices they must pay.

It should be noted that this welfare-cost measure abstracts from the potential effects of the FAR restriction on infrastructure costs. While the restriction may reduce costs in the center, spatial expansion of the city also leads to higher costs by requiring a wider infrastructure network.

With density never larger and sometimes strictly smaller in the restricted city than in the unrestricted city, and with the restricted city having a spatial area no larger than the unrestricted city by assumption, it follows that the restricted city fits a smaller population than the unrestricted city.

The God who gave us life gave us land, water, and air; but policy makers in India are damaging both life and the three things that sustain it. Does it not make a sounder policy to provide clean water to grow food and quench thirst than to promote those industries that heavily pollute it? Does it not make a sounder policy to build small campuses rather than converting huge farms into sprawling college campuses? Although this has been done on such American campuses as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford, the U.S. can afford to build mega structures because she has nearly three times the landmass of India and has little more than one-fourth of India’s population.

Could India become an industrial giant and still not have enough food, water, and clean air to nourish more than one billion people?

Yes we can PM ji…The FAR in our country needs to be revised.

The world is developing at a fast pace and so are we. However our policies should not create hindrances in our development.

The building height restrictions should be reduced or rather removed. Instead of spatial expantion of the cities, if we allow the buildings to be taller we will save a lot of agricultural land encroachments.

Agriculture was the primary occupation in our country. Today the scenario has changed. However if all this continues and we continue to build posh urban cities, killing the agricultural lands, the day won’t be far when agriculture becomes extinct in our country.

We have rich and favorable conditions for agriculture however if this continues, someday we might need to import food grains; which would indeed be really shameful for our country.

It’s the need today that we promote agriculture because it hardly takes any time for things to become close to extinction, just like our Bengal tiger.

I understand that handling a country with such a huge population is not an easy task, however I think a small little contribution of mine might be useful.

Regards,

Rashmi Paseband

Image Courtesy: [The Viewspaper]

Disclaimer: The above article is the personal opinion of the author and not of the publication.