Why build so many ghost cities

It was a long time coming. Last week, the Punjab and Haryana High court barred the government from issuing fresh licences for construction in Gurgaon unless a developer gave an undertaking that no groundwater would be used for building purpose.

Originally a village, Gurgaon grew from a municipal town to a district headquarter to what is now a "Millennium City". The new Gurgaon rose from the fields in 1981 when the first construction licence was awarded to DLF Universal Limited, a private firm, for building DLF Qutub Enclave, now known as DLF City, the plushest neighbourhood in the area.

Following this, 400 construction licences were granted to develop 8,000 hectares of land, including the 800 high-rises and plotted bungalows. Consequently, Gurgaon saw a population boom. Nearly 6,50,000 of the city’s 1.5 million people were added during the last decade.

All this has come at a cost. Five years back, Gurgaon was declared a “dark zone” by the Central Groundwater Authority (CGWA) and digging of borewells was banned. Today, Gurgaon is extracting three times of what is naturally replenished. The CGWA warned in 2007 that if this rampant extraction was not stopped, Gurgaon would have no groundwater left by 2017.

According to petitioners who took the matter to high court, the city's daily water demand is 200 million gallons per day (MGD). While 50 MGD comes from the civic supply, the remaining 150 MGD is extracted from the ground through borewells. According to one estimate, there are at least 30,000 borewells in the district. The builders alone illegally extract 50 MGD for construction. And now they are eyeing Noida for water.

But Noida, another suburban town of Delhi, is already going the Gurgaon way with its groundwater table depleting by 66 cm every year. In Greater Noida, the rate of depletion is 27 cm a year. In 2004, the water table of the district was in the safe category.

In 2009, it slipped into semi-critical zone. If extraction continues at the current pace, the water level will reach the critical zone in the next four years.

Local environmentalists allege that property developers in Noida and Greater Noida have been “de-watering” the ground by pumping out groundwater to dry building foundations. In the process, precious groundwater is being dumped into Shahdara drain and other sewer lines. Worried that their city may soon become another Gurgaon, Noida’s farmers’ association has sought the Union water resource ministry’s intervention.

Rainwater harvesting is mandatory in Gurgaon to get a completion certificate to any property built on a plot of 250 square yards and above. But no survey has ever been done to check if these harvesting systems actually work. The Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon, which had got 270 rainwater harvesting structures designed by experts from Jamia Millia Islamia, has put only 50 to use.

Much of rainwater never reaches aquifers because of underground parking lots in the high-rises. In Ghaziabad, in the absence of any solid waste disposal plant, most storm water drains serve as pits for the 750 metric tonnes of domestic garbage the city generates every day. The Haryana government is yet to cover the present residents of Gurgaon in the master sewerage and drainage network.

Yet, it is developing another 22,000 hectares, mostly through private builders, projecting a 160% rise in population by 2025.

With half of the world already living in cities, there is no alternative to urbanisation. But if we continue to pursue what is effectively a scorched earth strategy to maximise growth with no regards for our own future, we may well be laying the foundations of necropolises.


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