Tamil Nadu

In Tamil Nadu, uniform building code a mixed bag

Following States such as Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, the government of Tamil Nadu recently notified the Combined Development and Building Rules for the entire State. With these rules in place, all constructions, irrespective of location — a village, small town or a big city — will follow the same procedures for getting approval, adopt similar rules, and meet identical safety and performance standards. The objective of this initiative is to foster more efficient use of land, ensure compliance, and promote ease of doing business. In short, build better cities.

The intentions are commendable, but the question is whether the new rules will achieve the objectives. The answer is yes, and no. The combined rules have noteworthy ideas such as simplified building categories, enhanced performance standards and provisions for affordable housing. However, they do not fully utilise the opportunity and completely overhaul the systems in place. Further, they also suffer from two significant conceptual flaws that are bound to limit effectiveness and even cause planning problems.

Since the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, the government of India has been insisting that all State governments draft common building rules with enhanced safety provisions and address environmental concerns. The first model of common building rules was circulated in 2004, but many states, including Tamil Nadu, did not adopt it. After more than a decade, another attempt was made with additional provisions to meet the Swachh Bharat mission ideas and the demand to improve ease of doing business. Finally, in 2016, the Central government circulated a revised model for common building rules to all States. While a few States have adopted it, many others are yet to.

The government of Tamil Nadu adopted the common rules circulated by the Central government, making a few changes to the provisions, adding new sections and altering the structure of the rules for the better.

Three sections

In the recently notified version, the rules organise the provisions into three broad categories: one deals with approval, another with development norms, and the final one with measures for building performance.

Some of the significant and welcome changes pertain to promoting affordable housing. Now, local bodies can designate special areas for economically weaker sections (EWS) and offer supporting rules. Second, people who own small plots or inherited fragmented properties with an area less than 80 sq. m within cities until now had difficulty getting approval for residential construction. Now, they don’t need to worry. There are no minimum plot size requirements.

Similarly, in greenfield areas, particularly for plotted development, the minimum plot size has been reduced to 32 sq. m for EWS housing and 72 sq. m for other purposes. This will allow planners and developers to generate many small plots and facilitate small housing units. However, the success of the measures is contingent on the uptake of the idea by developers and an efficient road layout in the periphery to generate small scale developments.

The government has also tweaked a few details of the rules for the better. This includes the rationalisation of building types and the revision of the definition of high-rise buildings.

Previous norms classified buildings more than 15 m in height as high-rises and demanded additional measures. This created problems for buildings that provided covered car parking on the ground floor beneath the apartments as they could build only four storeys, reducing the usable space. The new rules have increased the height to 18.3 m to accommodate stilt car parks.

Professionals to register

To improve enforcement of building rules and accountability, the new regulations require professionals such as architects and structural engineers to register with the local bodies and vouch for the safety of the buildings under construction. It also mandates that they inform the authorities of any violations. However, professionals have concerns as they find it cumbersome and challenging to keep tabs on developments at the site.

The intent behind making compliance a collective responsibility is a step in the right direction. Self-regulation has hardly worked and compliance with building rules has so far been weak. To expect that mere change in rules alone will significantly alter the situation is only a hope.

Unless governance issues are addressed and capacities of local bodies are improved, enforcement will still be elusive. Unfortunately, the government continues with a low-level use of technology for this purpose. They could learn from cities such as Singapore and go for a full-scale adoption of advanced online building compliance and approval system.

Response to these changes is mixed. The building industry views these changes positively, but the professionals are sceptical. P.S.J. Palanirajan, Honorary Secretary of the Greater Chennai Corporation Licensed Surveyors Association, and S.Sridharan, Vice President of CREDAI Chennai and Director of Newry Properties Pvt. Ltd., view the changes positively. Both think that the new rules will lead to better planning and open up further avenues for development. On the other hand, Pramod Balakrishnan, a senior architect based in Chennai, thinks that “though many rules have been simplified, a good number still remain ambiguous. This may create problems in implementation. Second, allowing more construction is good, but simultaneously, investment in infrastructure and addressing the impact are necessary”.

All about FSI

One of the critical changes in the rules is related to the floor space index (FSI). From its current average of 1.5, the new provisions increase FSI to 2. Higher FSI means one can build more in a given plot area. For instance, a developer or owner with a 1,000 sq. m plot could previously put up a building with a 1,500 sq. m area. Now she can build up to 2,000 sq. m. In the case of high-rise buildings on 18 m roads, the prescribed FSI is as high as 3.25. While some argue that land prices have increased and FSI could help better recover the cost, others point out that one cannot increase the buildable area without a commensurate improvement in infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the government often takes ad hoc decisions about FSI. It is hardly based on evidence or study. Cities such as Delhi and Ahmedabad with higher average FSI than Chennai have not produced cheap apartments. Similarly, Mumbai with lower FSI of 1.33 has not done better either. The new Tamil Nadu rules appear to have taken the easy route and raised FSI without a thorough study and consideration of issues. Had the government studied the issue carefully, it could have even made a case for increasing it in select areas to a level as high as 5.4, as in Ahmedabad’s central business district, or keep it as low as 1. Also, in this context and in the absence of an overall strategy, the idea that one can buy additional FSI over and above what is approved makes the important planning tool — FSI — appear as a mere fiscal tool.

Two conceptual flaws

The new rules also suffer from two major conceptual flaws. One, the new rules apply planning standards across the State irrespective of the size, complexity and market conditions of a place. The other is that they separate development rules from planning.

In terms of the first issue, villages and bigger cities have the same height restrictions, permissible FSI and imagine similar forms and densities, which is problematic. How to use land and what densities to achieve are related to the opportunities and challenges of a place. However, the new rules flatten the State. It presumes that Manapparai’s urban challenges are the same as that of Madurai.

However, S. Krishnan, Housing and Urban Development Secretary, says that this is not entirely correct. “Uniformity in application and simplification of rules is important for ease of doing business. It is not the same rules for the entire State. It is the same rule for similarly placed areas across the State. One must realise the new rules take note of the special character of a particular area. You can declare areas of special character. The law will enable that,” he explains.

Experiences in Maharashtra and Gujarat reiterate the need for separate rules for different places. Vidyadahar Phatak, former Chief Planner, Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, points out that Maharashtra has not promulgated common rules across the State. Instead, it has four types of development and building rules for municipalities, corporations, areas under regional plans which includes villages, and Mumbai city which is one of a kind. Mr. Phatak says that “the development norms have to be specific to each city. Even within a city, the much developed inner city cannot be treated the same as the expansion areas”.

With respect to the second issue, experience the world over has shown that planning and rules cannot be separated. For instance, planning tries to organise land use, identify strategic areas for development, link jobs with residential areas through a transport plan and so on. For the plan to be effective and implement the ideas, it requires suitable development rules. An innovative plan for Chennai may like to encourage high densities in the fast-growing suburbs and hence would want to have higher FSI and smaller plot layouts in those areas. The common rules, in the current form, do not acknowledge or provide for such possibilities.

It would be worthwhile to look at the experience of Gujarat in this context. Under the common development regulations, procedure and building performance regulations are common throughout the State, but the planning regulations have been further categorised, based on the type and scale of the place. However, even having separate rules for specific places within the combined rules has not been helpful. Jignesh Mehta, who is based in Ahmedabad and has extensively worked on the development regulations, remarked that "while it helps to simplify regulations and make them common, the planning regulations that directly influence the use of land, built form and urban character must be customised to suit the local context. It would be a mistake to delink the planning regulations from the development plans which have to be mandatorily revised every 10 years.”

Further, the new rules could address a few more issues such as implementing the long-pending Energy Conservation Building Code that insists on minimum energy performance standards for buildings. In this context, the government could look at efforts undertaken by States such as Punjab, which offer additional FSI free of charge for buildings that have better green ratings.

Other avenues for improvement are in the area of simplified approval processes that can do better with a single window system. Improvements can also begin by making the dense text of the new rules accessible to users through simplified illustrations. What is critical in the long run is to link rules and planning and build capacity of local bodies to manage cities better.

(With inputs from Sangeetha Kandavel and Aloysius Xavier Lopez in Chennai)

The author is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Opinions expressed here are personal.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 9:17:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/in-tamil-nadu-uniform-building-code-a-mixed-bag/article26293211.ece

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