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Vol. XXVIII No. 23, March 16-31, 2019

FSI necessary, but more is needed

by A Special Correspondent

There is an implicit expectation of grandeur when the increase in Floor Space Index (FSI) is spoken of as a changer of the City’s skyline. While it is a right step to utilise the spatial potential of land, a precious resource, FSI being only one of the components of modernising the City, it cannot work by itself.
Relaxed FSI allows more floor space to be built per unit of land. More residential space per unit of area increases housing supply in that locality and leads to a larger number of households living per unit of land – that is, expansion by densification. A rough averaging of the relaxed FSI norms shows an approximate 50 per cent increase in the number of residences in the locality that avail of the new rule fully. Theoretically and simplistically viewed, if 50 per cent more houses are built over existing buildings in a locality, two-thirds of the area itself will accommodate the present population leaving a third of the land free – till more families migrate into that locality, say, from mofussil areas, in search of jobs and/or driven by lack of facilities in their present habitat. Higher the FSI, more is the land becoming free. Migration from one locality of the City to another does not affect the overall land space released by the higher FSI in the City as a whole. Vertical expansion calls for plans for use of free land space for public purposes. The hi-rise concept offers scope for zoning for separate commercial, residential and open lung space areas. Thus, a holistic approach to modernising the City is needed with FSI as one component.

Densification caused by the new FSI calls for changes in the network for flow of water, electricity, stormwater, sewerage etc. to cope with heavier load on the existing system in the affected areas. Without major network revamping, piling of more households could seriously affect supply of basic facilities.
When the City area was expanded to 1,189 sq. km in 1975, the government envisioned that a large area was necessary for more employment opportunities, affordable housing and relocation of slums and for good connectivity. The vision did not translate into reality. Even today, there are complaints from residents in outlying areas that local roads have not been put in place nor has the expansion been integrated with mass mobility and public service access. The same fate should not befall the vertical expansion which the new FSI norms seek to promote. What are the government’s plans to meet the repercussions of large-scale adoption of the new norms?
It is not clear if the FSI fee is calculated to meet only the revenue costs of facilities or also the capital development cost. If FSI fees and development levy would increase the cost per square foot of the new floor space, rendering the additional FSI unattractive, other means must be found to fund the infrastructure plans.
Although it appears that no new land is needed for the additional floor space and that higher FSI would bring down residential prices, this expectation may not be realised. Owners of land, upon which higher FSI is availed, would naturally want not only a share of profit but also additional price for the land that is now being put to larger use. In this scramble, the relationship between developers and owners of undivided share of land in existing residential complexes is unlikely to be smooth. So that owners are not taken for a ride by developers, Government should recommend a model agreement setting out a fair division of profit on the enlarged floor space and including clauses protective of the interests of owners.
Constraints of topography of a locality opting for FSI may make infrastructure revamping either impractical or uneconomical. The new FSI should not be allowed in such areas. They should be identified and excluded from the relaxed norms. This implies that the authorities must identify areas that alone are suited for maintaining the effectiveness of the network for higher FSI.
Addition of floors to some of the existing buildings may not be possible if the foundation and structural features cannot take higher load. Strict technical scrutiny of plans would be necessary to ensure safety and to see that greedy developers do not take risks at the expense of occupants and owners.
Expanded norms may be adopted by different localities in an unregulated manner scattered over the vast expanse of the City. Already there is over supply of housing space fuelled by easier play of black money in earlier years. Even today, promoters are not able to sell flats ready for occupation. The initial response to FSI relaxation, for these reasons, may be lukewarm. Without knowing what the response would be, going in for infra structure upgrading over the entire area would dissipate effort and resources. It may be more practical to select certain localities that lend themselves to re-modelling of the existing infrastructure and allow the new FSI only in these areas, extended gradually locality by locality. A Master Plan for infrastructure must be the framework into which locale-wise can be fitted.
Higher FSI in cities has two opposing effects on agriculture. It may attract migration to cities from rural areas creating shortage of labour for time-sensitive agricultural operations like planting, weeding, spraying, harvesting and threshing. On the other hand, higher FSI avoids horizontal expansion involving encroachment of agricultural lands. To moderate urban crowding, decentralised facilities and opportunities are necessary to make living in rural areas acceptable. As Chennai gets saturated with FSI, there should be a planned promotion of decentralised verticals to encourage suburban residential culture. Extended mass transit connectivity would be an important factor to shift people’s preference to suburban living.
Promoting higher FSI and creating cluster communities like Residents’ Associations, has another advantage. In segregation of waste, rainwater harvesting, use of solar power and composting biological waste, a high degree of citizen cooperation is needed. Groups like Residents’ Associations are more likely to act collectively and pro-actively on such issues than individual households. It is also easier to enforce compliance on registered bodies than on multitudes of individual households.
The FSI range in Indian cities are still low compared to many Asian cities varying from 5 to 15. As higher FSI holds enormous potential to release land space it must be encouraged and incentivised. Policies that have an effect of increasing the cost of the newly created floor space would be inconsistent with raising the FSI index. Vertical growth must be a part of, and consistent with, a Master Plan for modernising Chennai. In fact, it could open possibilities for modernising the City and limiting horizontal expansion only to the extent necessary – and that, only when the full potential of the vertical expansion has been realised. In fact, the immediate suburbs should have higher FSI limits since these less populated areas can more easily accommodate basic infrastructure of enough capacity to cope with growth in the long term. The land space released by vertical expansion affords scope for schools, universities, hospitals, libraries, cultural centres, playing areas, parks, shopping areas, orderly pubic transport, parking areas and pedestrian friendly footpaths – in short, for a better quality of life. Care, however, must be taken to ensure that facilities are also within access of lower-income families and do not cater only to the needs of the affluent. Higher density, with efficient pubic services may be more environmentally protective than horizontal expansion invasive of open rural areas utilised for agriculture.
Last, not the least, exploiting vertical expansion must logically lead to a review of the need for the expansion of the CMDA area to 8,878 sq. km. from the 1975 delineation of 1,189 sq. km. Increasing FSI on the one hand and going for horizontal expansion in a big way seem incongruent.

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