Urban Agenda: Hill states move to check unregulated urban development (finally) - Hindustan Times
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Urban Agenda: Hill states move to check unregulated urban development in high tourist footfall areas (finally)

Feb 24, 2024 07:22 PM IST

Nine hilly states that failed to take up the Centre's incentives for urban planning-informed development get their act together after recent climate disasters

Hill cities across India are currently recording an exponential increase in the influx of people, especially the floating tourist population, which has led to unregulated development and land use — a phenomenon hitherto observed only in cities in the plains.

A picturesque view of Shimla town after the fresh spell of snowfall on Thursday. (Deepak Sansta/HT) PREMIUM
A picturesque view of Shimla town after the fresh spell of snowfall on Thursday. (Deepak Sansta/HT)

Unlike plains cities, the haphazard and unsustainable growth of hill cities has led to unfavourable terrain, fragility, and increased exposure to extreme weather events, say experts. This was witnessed, for instance, in Himachal Pradesh last year, when flash floods during the monsoon washed away at least 13,000 houses, amid dramatic images of houses and establishments sliding downhill in state capital Shimla, which is also one of India’s biggest hill tourism destinations. Learning from this and others in a series of tragedies in recent years, some hill states are now looking to place checks and measures in their planning and development process for urban areas.

The reforms have taken place in nine hill states in north and northeast India, nudged by a November 15, 2023 modification to the Scheme for Special Assistance to States for Capital Investment 2023-24-III, based on recommendations by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA). Through this special assistance, states are eligible for interest-free loans for 50 years, that they can apply to capital investments related to all reforms adopted in guidelines that were given effect in the current financial year. The nine states eligible for this special assistance are Uttarakhand, Tripura, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

Hilly areas outside the old notified municipal areas have always lacked proper planning mechanisms, Jignesh Mehta, programme chair of Master of Urban Planning at CEPT University in Ahmedabad and a special invitee to a high-level MoHUA committee, told Hindustan Times. The only way forward is for urban centres in the hills to have master planning with data on land use, transport, infrastructure, and green/open space integration, Mehta added.

“Until recently, Gangtok in Sikkim had no master plan, which is the most basic and broad-level planning mechanism. In Kohima, Nagaland, there is no master plan to regulate any development,” said Mehta, who works as an advisor to some northeastern states, both with CEPT and in his individual capacity.

Master plans to tame unregulated development endangering hill cities

Gangtok has a risk-informed master plan that identifies eco-sensitive zones — sinking zones, reserve forests, contour lines, etc — said Dinker Gurung, chief town planner, Sikkim. With this, he said, the haphazard development that catered to an ever-increasing tourist population can be streamlined.

In April 2023, Sikkim amendedf its building by-laws to prevent construction on slopes with a gradient of more than 70%, said Gurung. “Below that gradient, building regulations will vary on a graded model, based on the nature of slope, seismic risks, and geological surveys carried out by the mines and geology department,” he said.

In addition, Sikkim is overhauling its entire urban planning rules, as the state did not have any enforceable town planning rules outside the two municipal areas of Gangtok and Namchi. “We have framed the rules and have got approval from the legal and finance department. This now has to get the assent of the cabinet, and then be tabled in the state assembly,” said Gurung.

In the same vein, Himachal Pradesh is set to prepare risk-informed master plans for 12 urban local bodies in the three tourist districts of Shimla, Kullu and Kangra, said KC Nanta, state town planner. Work for preparing another eight master plans with risk components will be prepared under AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) 2.0 sub-scheme by the end of January, Nanta added.

As part of the move, all areas within 100m of four-lane national highways in Himachal Pradesh — Parwanoo-Shimla (NH-05), Kiratpur-Manali (NH-03), Shimla-Mataur (NH-88), and Pathankot-Mandi (NH-20) — have been notified as planned areas. “These areas serve as gateways and over time, have experienced rampant and unregulated development. The constitution of this four-lane planning area will ensure planned and regulated development,” Nanta explained.

Pedestrian-only paths, ropeways and lifts in mobility plans for hill urban areas

Hill states have been encouraged to prepare comprehensive mobility plans and improve public parking spaces. Incentives were also proposed to create new public transport infrastructure, including innovative systems such as ropeways, public lifts, and escalators. For hill cities with high tourist footfalls, states were asked to conduct congestion threshold studies and create zero-emission zones and pedestrian-only streets. In Uttarakhand, the state urban development department has conducted a comprehensive mobility report for the Haldwani-Kathgodam corridor.

“The volume of roads cannot be expanded (unlike in the plains), and the carrying capacity of cars is going to be limited, so there is a need to have vertical ramps and staircases for pedestrians. If cities can identify pedestrian networks, that is ideal,” said Mehta.

Along these lines, Sikkim is planning to create a pedestrian street at Indira Bypass in Gangtok, following the successful implementation of two such existing streets in Gangtok and Namchi, which serve as tourist attractions.

Similarly, Tripura is also aiming to make a 1-km approach path towards Tripura Sundari temple in Udaipur town a “no-vehicle zone”. The temple is among the revered 51 Shaktipeethas and sees a lot of tourist footfalls, said Rajat Pant, director of the urban development department. The city will also get a comprehensive mobility plan with estimates on congestion threshold and issue a draft notification to minimise traffic movement.

Natural drains should be identified and made free of encroachments, which will not only minimise the risks of flooding but also serve as a mode of mobility, said Mehta. “These natural drains should be used to build walkways along their path and along with that, separate designated space for sewage pipes can be laid along these drains to prevent mixing of sewage,” Mehta added.

Mehta said currently, a lot of pedestrian paths are organic routes that have been used by people traditionally, but this involves people walking through private property, or school children having to jump over compound walls or make their way through fences. Authorities need to acquire some land to create pedestrian networks, and if possible, provide railings where required that will reduce the need for cars.

“There are cities like Hong Kong which are also very hilly. Although the roads – primarily for cars – wind uphill gradually, there are perpendicular and thus shorter staircases and escalators. In hill cities, ropeways can be very helpful,” Mehta added.

Incidentally, Shillong in Meghalaya is planning to start a ropeway project connecting Madan Laban and the viewpoint of Shillong peak. The state is likely to float tenders for the project by the end of January 2024, a submission to MoHUA said.

Human-resource augmentation – getting the planners in place

“In Tripura, the two positions of urban planners in the state are filled by engineers,” said Pant. But now, the state is sanctioning three urban planner positions and has floated a tender on January 5 for preparation of a risk-informed master plan, he said. Additionally, Tripurae has also begun hiring private urban planners for three years to assist the state government. “We will soon draw up risk-informed master planning for all the urban local bodies in Tripura, starting with state capital Agartala. We have areas where its urban areas are in hills, valleys and plains. There are areas developed along the rivers and streams which are prone to floods. We have to identify such areas in our master plans and amend our building byelaws in those areas accordingly,” Pant said.

In Sikkim too, authorities are filling 18 of 32 vacant positions for assistant town planners. To improve the state’s planning capacity, the state has recently modified its recruitment rules to make it a mandatory requirement to have planning degrees, unlike in the past where even architecture graduates were eligible, said Gurung.

Hill states awake to dangers of unplanned urban development

An official at MoHUA said that in the financial year ending March 2023, 4,093 crore was given to 12 states as part of incentives. “But hilly or northeastern states failed to take advantage of this scheme. This time, all nine states identified under the modified scheme have applied with the roadmap of the works that they have taken up. We are assessing their submissions,” the officer said, declining to be named.

Incentives are the only way through which the cities will turn around, said Mehta. “The next step should be to do a thorough assessment on the quality of work that has been done and also ensure that these roadmaps integrate land ownership data, which is a more complex exercise,” he added.

Soumya Chatterjee is a member of the HT team with a brief to report on urban living. Once a week, the team will write a piece which will take a deep dive into city life and the life of cities

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