Wednesday April 17, 2024

The tower cranes

By Nadeem Ul Haque
October 17, 2018

About 17 years ago, I lamented the sorry state of our cities in a series of articles in local newspapers with the title, ‘Where are the tower cranes?’

As usual nothing happened. Governments changed, and we continued to look for more taxes and more IMF programmes. We have much hope in Imran Khan and wish him success. He has the right slogan: 10 million jobs and five million houses. I have some association with this slogan. But then, this is not about getting credit. Let’s talk about how to achieve this goal.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, I had warned you in an article, titled ‘No, thank you’ published in these pages on August 16, that vested interests will involve you in useless meetings. Please don’t. Fix a big goal and watch the big picture, and stop chairing useless meetings.

In achieving this goal of five million houses and one million jobs, just say I want to see tower cranes in all major cities and then check every three months. It is as simple as that. Just think: wherever development is taking place, you see thousands of tower cranes. Why not here?

Our cities are spreading into large sprawls comprising single-family home buildings. Commissioners and deputy commissioners who run our cities can only see their GoRs as cities. They also maintain that we are rural people who like to hug the ground and will not live in flats. They argue that our culture is a kothi in a suburb.

From their government-awarded mansions, they overlook their servants’ quarters where families live in one room and a shared bathroom. Ask them: why can’t we build up? Why can’t people live in flats? Why can’t we have mixed-use development where there are flats, shops, schools, offices, gyms, entertainment and other amenities in a single neighbourhood? Why can’t we have proper dense city centres with high rises?

Dear Prime Minister Imran Khan, don’t fall for government-provided housing to meet your goal. You have neither the fiscal resources to do that nor the government machinery to prevent the massive corruption that will emerge through such a venture.

The best way to achieve your goal is to unleash the private sector. Every home in all cities is an investment opportunity. Let each owner build up and provide apartments on rent and otherwise to others. On each plot, let there be 20, 30 or 40 families instead of only one family.

If restrictions on heights are relaxed and apartment-living encouraged, there could be a building boom in the country. Let each housing unit in our cities (perhaps within a radius of 10 miles from the centre) be allowed to go to as many as 20 floors. In some cases, even more.

In such conversions, each owner will have to spend much more than a couple of crore or more. If a million such conversions took place (which is a low number) across our big cities, we could be looking at an investment potential of Rs20 trillion or $200 billion.

In addition, a few million additional jobs will be created. The boom will last many years and increase our annual growth rate easily by about two percent annually. Many additional benefits will also accrue. Large construction has been shown to kick off activity in many related industries – a cycle of long-term sustainable growth. This boom will also drive urban development; broaden the middle class; and develop a demand for consumer goods, entertainment and other urban services. There will be second-order effects as the new housing and neighbourhoods are populated and the new middle class generates further demand for services, such as schools, gyms, playgrounds, shopping malls and cinemas,.

If this is done, we can easily look for growth rates between seven percent and eight percent for the next 10 to 15 years. A few million jobs will be created over this period and investment rates could easily rise by a few percentage points of GDP.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, this is a simple rule: changes on all plots – high-rises and mixed-use building – is allowed with no caveats. No need for a meeting or useless taskforces or advisory councils. Just sign and notify it. It will also be an equalising reform as the rich won’t be the only ones to benefit. The middle class will mostly be the beneficiaries.

But please note that city managers (civil servants) will scare you from this by saying the following: this can only happen in rich areas like Gulberg or on big plots only. Please ask them why the middle-class owner in Baghbanpura or Sanda with a three-marla plot shouldn’t benefit from these changes.

They will also point to lack of sanitation and public services, the possibility of poor-quality construction, and the costs of congestion to preserve the current sprawl approach. The provision of public services and safety standards is their job and they should do it. It will take a few years to build these services and the market will decide where to build. They should be able to see where development is taking place and build the required services accordingly.

They will discourage you from implementing changes near VIP housings to protect the privacy of the rich. With millions of people rendered homeless and unemployment at massive rates, why put the privacy of rich people and the governor at a premium. Tell them to go to the suburbs.

They will point to the need for parking in all buildings. Don’t fall for that. We must also have a car policy. I will write on that next. The boom will facilitate the change. This reform is long overdue. Our city centres should also reach the stars populated by a rising middle class.

Once you do this, all you have to do to monitor performance is to ask in all cities you visit: where are the tower cranes? If they do not increase exponentially you know that city managers should be fired.

The writer is former deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.


Twitter: @nadeemhaque

Website: http://development20.blogs