A maze of procedures, inconsistent processes and lack of transparency have made the system of building approvals inefficient and corrupt. Many construction projects suffer inordinate delay and cost overruns because of this. It affects individual home builders and large promoters alike. Simplifying approvals without compromising the safety of a structure is a long overdue reform. The expert committee constituted by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA) has recently proposed solutions to streamline procedures and fast track construction approvals. Would these recommendations, coming as they do after previous unsuccessful attempts, bring about the much-needed change? A World Bank study in 2012 identified that a building permit in Indian cities on an average involves 34 procedures and takes about 196 days. In contrast, Singapore, which is a world leader in best construction practices, stipulates 11 procedures and takes only 26 days to sanction. Since 2006, various government committees have looked into this issue and recommended improvements, but to no avail.
The expert committee constituted by the MHUPA last year has now come up with three broad categories of reforms. The first set of recommendations concern procedures: government agencies have to lay down clear processes with firm time commitment; develop comprehensive building rules that would remove cumbersome requirements such as obtaining multiple clearances; and reduce the burden on local bodies by permitting qualified personnel to self-certify building plans. The second set of reforms aims at setting up a single window system using information technology for screening building permission applications. The last category is about improving capacities in local bodies. A few cities in India have implemented IT-based automated building approval procedures, but these still do not function as true single window systems as related departments cannot share the information. They also seem rudimentary when compared with intelligent systems used in places such as Singapore, where builders can get clearances from more than 10 departments by filing a single application. An efficient one-stop solution is possible only when e-governance is fully integrated across different government agencies. The emphasis must be on removing various discretionary powers vested with the government. Such provisions not only operate outside the streamlined and automated processes but are also often misused. Self-certification and other recommendations would be meaningful and effective only when there is strong enforcement and zero tolerance of violations. Speedy approval is necessary, but so is organised development.