How can policy and regulation help fix Bengaluru’s environment?

There are many laws that relate to greenery in Bengaluru, but they all need to talk the same language in order to actually protect greenery. Ambiguity in laws needs to be eliminated.

Heat, dust and pollution are characterising Bengaluru these days, as opposed to the calm cool heavenly weather that made it a “garden City.The city is slowly losing its green cover and is turning brown with concrete buildings and heat islands. There are efforts from NGOs and citizens to plant trees. But what should the government look at, explores Shashank Athreya of Vidhi Centre for Legal policy.

Among the biggest challenges cities face, securing the city’s environment is one of the most important. The definition of “environment” in an urban context is broader than its traditional meaning since it includes the ecology exclusive to an area. It also involves the process of maintaining sustainable interaction between humans and their surroundings. The interface between cities and urban development has a direct impact on environmental and ecology on several levels.

Browning of Bengaluru

The pressure of constant population growth and the need for better infrastructure has resulted in compromising Bengaluru’s greenery, beauty and the ethos it was built on. According to a study conducted by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board and the Indian Institute of Science, there has been about 584% growth in built-up area in the last four decades with a decline in vegetation by 66% and in water bodies by 74%.

A recent remote sensing data clubbed with field census reveals that there are only 1.5 million trees to support Bengaluru’s population of 9.5 million, indicating one tree for every seven persons in the City. This is below the standard prescribed by World Health Organisation (WHO) which ideally is set to be one tree per person.

According to the Chief Conservator of Forests, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) the city loses about 10,000 trees every year and a large number of trees are cut for developmental projects. Between the years 2011-2014, 9,281 trees in the city were felled for the Bengaluru Metro Rail and the road widening projects.

All these leave ample scope for government action, to help the city create and maintain a few green spaces, as well as protecting the existing ones.

What’s happening on the ground?

The obvious result of the fast-paced city growth is conversion of land use and the consequent challenge in implementation of land laws. Often land use laws are violated resulting in illegal constructions and the misuse of land. Both land use and land cover changing due to city expansion have serious ecological repercussions and pose a great deal of challenge to environmental sustainability.

The most common misuse is where land earmarked for residential purpose is used for commercial activities or permitting certain type of commercial activities which are prohibited. In case of conversion from residential to commercial, there is significant stress on resources. The traffic and increase in demand for parking space is just one of the items causing stress.

Rethinking the Master Plan

The Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act requires the planning authorities to prepare a city plan to provide directions for areas such as transport, energy and infrastructure. However, it excludes the requirement to develop a road map for securing and developing urban greenery in the city. In states such as Kerala, local authorities are required under law to provide directions for protection of environment and take into consideration the urban ecology while preparing plans on other subject matters.

Despite the absence of guidance in the master plan, Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) and Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) do take up initiatives to improve urban greenery. However these authorities function independently, leading to lack of coordination among themselves, ultimately resulting in making such initiatives hard to monitor. While BDA is in charge of infrastructure development and BBMP handles the maintenance, these authorities can work in unison and develop a common charter for the protection of environment. But this isn’t happening yet.

In the absence of a framework, there is no consistency in the efforts on securing the environment. There exists limited or no oversight over the efforts undertaken. To address this, Karnataka could borrow best practices from Maharashtra, where the Municipal Commissioner of the city is required to present the State of Environment report before the elected representatives. This method not only ensures a process on paper but also results in oversight framework.

Strengthening the Karnataka Tree Protection Act

In response to the threats of urbanisation as well as to facilitate a sustainable process of tree felling, the Karnataka Preservation of Tree Act (KTPA) 1976 was legislated. With the passage of time, this Act has been diluted and the list of exceptions from the Act has only grown.

A tree was felled in Malleshwaram to eliminate disturbance to electrical lines. Pic: Shree D N

The KTPA could become an excellent tool for guiding urban infrastructure projects to become environment-friendly. Under the Act, permission is required to be sought prior to the felling of trees and a tree officer has been appointed for this purpose.

The tree officer is however not guided by any factors while deciding on tree-felling requests. Factors such as the impact on air pollution, generation of urban heat, impact on biodiversity and the extent of carbon sequestration are critical for the sustenance of the urban environment; these should be incorporated while deciding on tree-felling.

A detailed order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) emphasised on moving beyond the generic environment impact assessment and adopting a localised approach which would recognise the concerns exclusive to an area. To achieve this and facilitate sustainable urban development, the role of the tree officer must be strengthened and made an integral part of the decision making process.

Problems and conflicts in regulation

Currently, the environmental and municipal laws governing infrastructure operate in silos. Environment norms are not considered at each stage of infrastructure development. For example, clearance from Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) is sought prior to the approval of building plan. Upon construction of the building, there is often deviation from the plan, which could have serious impact on the environment. But who is monitoring it?

Without the integration of environment norms at each stage, compliance to such norms also becomes impossible. With the urban sprawl and rapid growth, Bengaluru is at a crucial crossroad. To ensure holistic development, the city must undertake critical regulatory decisions, involving environment and urban governance.

The change in land use, in the absence of stringent regulations, places severe pressure on resources with potential impact on environment. In Bengaluru, the change of land use is regulated under the Karnataka Land Revenue Act (KLR Act), Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act (KTCP Act) and the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act (KMC Act). While the objectives of each Act are distinct, they run  contrary in the area of change of land use.

For instance, Section 304 of the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act states that sanction shall not be given to buildings for entertainment within 200 metre radius of residential areas, whereas the Revised Master Plan (RMP) which issued under the KTCP Act allows permissions to be granted to buildings with residential and commercial use, as part of its mixed land use regulations.

Laws should speak the same language

In addition to this, the permissions for change of land use are not stringent. When permission for change of use is sought under Section 14A of the KTCP, there is no requirement for the applicant to seek clearance from the State Pollution Control Board to check if the proposed change of land use causes stress on the resources such as groundwater, natural habitat and local ecology.

These instances indicate the urgent need for Bengaluru to correct its course on the manner it structures its urban development framework. The urban sprawl needs a solution, one which understands Bangalore’s unique ecology and strives for its protection. Legally, The KTCP, KMC and the KLR Acts must work in unison speaking similar language, in respect of improving urban environment.

City planning must keep up with the pace of urban growth in Bengaluru. Regulations that deal with urban development must become stringent and protection of environment must receive priority, and importantly become implementable.

***

The author thanks Alok Prasanna Kumar, Senior Resident Fellow –Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy for his comments.

Citizen Matters and Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Bengaluru have collaborated to organise a series of articles and panel discussions on urban governance. This article is first installment of the series, Bengaluru Solutions.


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