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Gurgaon: How not to Build a City | City which has no political backing

Gurgaon boasts of MNCs, swanky apartments, golf courses, and malls. Yet, water shortages and poor sewage disposal and public transport haunt the city

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Without a doubt, Gurgaon is the kind of city urban planners can learn from on how not to build a city. This, for various reasons: A private sector gone berserk because it was blindsided by greed, successive governments that abdicated responsibility, and apathy on part of the landed gentry.

Once upon a time, travelling to Gurgaon from Delhi was considered a trip to the boondocks. Car maker Maruti’s plant aside, there was nothing there worth writing about. Then something happened.

KP Singh, the chairman of DLF, invited Jack Welch of General Electric (GE) to visit India. In his biography, Singh talks of a meeting he organised between Welch and Sam Pitroda, Jairam Ramesh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Soon after the meeting, in 1996 Welch gave GE the green light to set up Genpact in Gurgaon. In turn, this lured other multinational companies. What was once known as Guru Gram started its transformation into Millenium City.

Gurgaon was attractive to them because of its proximity to New Delhi and the international airport.

“Gurgaon today has the highest number of professionals per square inch in the country,” points out Atal Kapoor, an architect and one of the founding members of I am Gurgaon, an association focused on improving the quality of life of its residents.

Today, Gurgaon houses practically every big name in the corporate world. Its buildings are designed by the best architects from across the world. Gurgaon has more than 20 outlets for luxury cars such as BMW, Audi and Volkswagen. Malls that stock practically every international brand dot the landscape.

The National Capital Region Planning Board, a body that overlooks planning for regions surrounding Delhi, had forecast that by 2021, Gurgaon would have a population of 16.5 lakh people. That number will be breached this year, nine years ahead of projection.

That explains why Ramaswamy R Aiyer, one of the most respected names in water management in the country, sounds acerbic. “Gurgaon is a disaster, a horror story of how urbanisation should not happen. It is not merely Gurgaon—little Gurgaons are emerging all over Delhi. When these monstrosities were being ‘developed’, did anyone think about where the water for them would come from, and where the waste generated by them would go? Now they exist and answers have to be found. I have nothing to say except to say that this isn’t development, but mal-development.”

His sentiments are echoed by Pramod Bhasin, non-executive vice-chairman of Genpact, India’s largest BPO. “There was a chance to build world class infrastructure and it wasn’t that difficult either. We could have built Singapore. But we didn’t.”

“The problems are clear if you sit here long enough. The roads here used to be dug up every six months…. I’ve seen buildings come up along with pastures where sheep grazed. It was inevitable our offices would collide with the lives of those who lived here in the villages,” he laments.

But research by PropEquity, a firm that researches property markets in India, throws up an interesting paradox. Between 2006 and 2011, as many as 35,353 new dwelling units were created. In the next three years, they predict almost one lakh units are being planned at an average price of Rs 4,500 per square foot.

The paradox is amplified by Bhasin’s sentiments. “An average Delhi resident sneezes at Gurgaon. But I look at them and say you live in a mess and pretend you’re better off because I’m far away from Delhi. But the quality of life is better here. The restaurants, the bars, the golf courses, the clubs are better here.” So much so that when a new expressway connecting Delhi with Gurgaon was opened, the concessionaire who built the road broke even within five years. Thanks to the projections, though, their concession period lasts all of 25 years.

Then, on the other hand, there are migrant labourers, domestic help and industrial workers who constitute Gurgaon’s poor. With no access to public transport, they resort to sharing auto rickshaws or comply with taxi drivers who flout norms and stuff as many as 10 people into a single cab. Their children often fall into bore-wells laid by citizens. These wells were dug because the government is in no position to guarantee water supplies.

The truth lies somewhere in between these extremes. People aren’t willing to let go of Gurgaon simply because there is no alternative. Gurgaon attracted them because property could be bought with money on which they had paid taxes and titles were clear. In Delhi, the costs were prohibitive and when affordable, the titles were disputed.

Who is in charge of Gurgaon,’ is a question that could qualify for Kaun Banega Crorepati,” says KC Sivaramakrishnan, an expert on urbanisation from the Centre of Policy Research. His question comes from the fact that there are multiple entities that hold responsibility to develop the city. There is the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), private builders and a newly set up Municipal Corporation. Each has its own zones to manage. The problem with this approach is that implementing a holistic plan for Gurgaon has become nearly impossible.

What exists now is a situation where only a third of Gurgaon is connected to a sewerage line. But residents who live in private colonies say HUDA officials turn their complaints down, arguing sewerage lines are the responsibility of private builders. Some builders have taken the onus of building sewage treatment plants and facilitating water supplies with private tankers.

But a World Bank official who does not wish to be identified says Gurgaon was nothing but a land grab operation by builders and politicians. A 2009 WWF Report on Indian Urbanisation quotes Arun Maira, member of the planning commission and part of a local NGO trying to revive Gurgaon. “The fundamental problem here is that urbanisation has been driven by bad planning and a thought process which doesn’t believe in devising viable urban spaces.” The philosophy, he says, seems to be to let people build residences and offices arbitrarily and as they get occupied, infrastructure and other economic activity will follow. This is a prime example of ad hoc and unsustainable urbanisation, he adds.

He points to the fact that huge tracts of land were given to private developers in Gurgaon. “These developers, over time, appropriated most designated green spaces and public spaces and extracted as much revenue as they could out of the land. So a city was created, but the opportunity of setting new benchmarks in civic life was lost.”

The pre-condition was that the developers would build the infrastructure to support these entities. Sensing potential, real estate firms like DLF, Unitech and Ansals moved in early. The builders allege development charges collected from them towards providing for infrastructure were diverted. “More than Rs 12,000 crore was collected and made available to the state government. But all this money has been used up by politicians in their constituencies. Nothing flows back into the city,” says a senior executive with a prominent real estate company who did not wish to be identified.

So how did things come to such a pass? Thirty-seven years ago, legislation was passed that allowed the private sector to play a major role in real estate development. The Haryana Development and Regulation of Urban Areas Act, 1975, encouraged the private sector to develop huge land parcels and build apartment blocks and office complexes.

- by K.P. Narayana Kumar, Udit Misra | Aug 2, 2012 Forbes India

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