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Protect our hills at any cost, says urban planner Aneeta Gokhale Benninger

Professor of sustainable development planning and executive director, CDSA, says greed has created an unprecedented demand for biodiversity park lands.

pune Updated: Jul 04, 2018 17:03 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, Pune
Pune,Aneeta Gokhale Benninger,BDP
Urban planner Anita Benninger said cutting of hills will affect rainfall and may cause destruction of micro catchments of streams. (HT PHOTO)

The hills of Pune and the biodiversity park (BDP) reservation is instituted in the development plan (DP) to ensure protection of the hills. Urban planner Aneeta Gokhale Benninger, professor of sustainable development planning and executive director, Centre for Development Studies and Activities (CDSA) answers questions regarding the BDP reservation and help clarify why the BDP was proposed for protection and conservation of our hills and water bodies.

Why “save” the hills from construction?

Pune city, with a population of approximately four million people, is located partially in the foothills of Sahyadri mountains (western ghats) and partially on the Deccan plateau in western Maharashtra. These hills are rich in biodiversity and provide the citizens with beautiful natural surroundings, as well as clean and fresh air. They are also the watersheds, which ensure percolation of water to recharge the underground aquifers ensuring sustainability of our water supply. Punekars have always protected this natural heritage as a precious gift. The current legislation governing these lands does not allow construction on hills if the gradient is above 1:5. This is to ensure that the integrity of the hills is protected from destruction. Cutting the hills will destroy the watersheds and create surface flows which will cause soil erosion.

Greed, however, has created an unprecedented demand for these lands. This poses a serious threat to the natural heritage such as the hills, trees, riparian zones, water bodies and rights of ways of rivers and streams. Per capita about 100 square metres of “living” leaf surface is required to absorb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and purify air for humans to breathe. Forestry is an excellent option for absorbing/sequestering atmospheric carbon to help reduce ambient pollution. Forests are therefore known as “Carbon Sinks.”

The United nations educational, scientific and cultural organisation (Unesco), recommends a forest area of 10 to 15 square metres per person or an average of 12.5 square metres to ensure a supply of clean air. Given the fact that the population of Pune is fast approaching the four million mark, the current requirement of area under forest to sequester carbon emissions, absorb dust and other noxious gases from the atmosphere is four thousand and eight hundred (4,800) hectares. Considering an increase in the population, up to seven million (70 lakhs) by 2020, this requirement will increase up to 8,400 hectares. Until this DP proposed the destruction of hills by allowing construction, hills have been completely protected from construction to ensure that the requirement of micro water catchments, open space and green area to act as lungs for the city. This area came under the jurisdiction of the regional plan until it was merged with Pune city in 1997. The regional plan categorically states that “No construction will be allowed on the hills, not even a forest house” (page 16 of RP 1991-2011)

Why is BDP a reservation and not a zone?

Under the MR&TP Act 1966 Section 31, a zone is an area of land where restrictions are put on land use, but the government is not required to acquire land and pay compensation. This type of restriction is unfair for land owners and generally results in illegal use, spot zoning and lobbying for change of use. Reservation on the other hand means land acquisition and payment of compensation to the owner. Essentially the land is vested in the government and it is binding on the authorities to use it for the purpose for which it is acquired. Hills are proposed to be reserved for the BDP to ensure that they are used for creating a biodiversity park for Pune citizens to partially mitigate the ever-increasing carbon footprint. It is also fairer to the land owners as they are compensated properly and there is no ambiguity of user or tenure. The report of the planning committees categorically states that any legally allowed construction on the hills which was completed and occupied before December 31, 2002 should be regularised. Any layouts sanctioned or partially completed after this date should be disallowed and the development charges paid by them should be refunded to the owners with proper interest rate. It also says that the owners should be compensated by giving a cash compensation for the entire plot area at the ready reckoner rate.

What is wrong if 4% construction is allowed on the hills since 96% of the area will remain under trees?

Four per cent construction means construction of about 1,720 sq ft on a piece of land ad measuring one acre. This area does not include access roads, storm water drainage, area for water supply lines, electric street lights as well as light poles for giving electricity to these areas, sewage disposal etc. in short, all the civic amenities. They also require land. Since this is construction on hills, the roads will necessarily be winding and require far more land. This will require additional land of between 30% to 40%. This will mean demolition of the hills. Once hills are demolished the micro climate will change. The first factor to be affected will be rainfall. The second factor will be destruction of micro catchments of streams. Both will mean Punekars will face a progressively increasing water shortage. Temperatures and wind directions will also be affected. Cutting of hills will also induce mud slides and landslides increasing local disasters. (example: The landslide under which four persons died in October 2003 after cutting Chatuhshrungi hill for construction)

Why are the already sanctioned layouts on hills which amount to some 92 hectares illegal?

The land use in these villages was regulated by the regional plan (RP) for Pune. Under the regional plan this area was un-buildable even for farm houses and forest houses. (pg 16 RP valid up to 2011) Section 27 of the MR&TP Act 1966 categorically states that the provisions of the regional plan remain intact unless they are modified by applying Section 20 sub section (3) where the public participatory process of objections/suggestions must be followed. This has not taken place. In fact, the DP has reiterated the same regulation of no construction and creation of a forest. This means the layouts are illegal under the RP as well as the DP.

How will you stop slums from occupying these lands?

By using legal means. By stringently implementing the law of criminal liability of municipal officers and police officers for failing to prevent encroachments and other illegal land uses.

How will we raise the money required for land acquisition as well as protection and maintenance of BDP?

Green India Mission will fund protection and maintenance. The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) will fund 35% of the cost of acquisition, government of Maharashtra will fund 20% and we have to raise 45% on the same lines as Jawaharlal Nehru national urban renewal mission (JNNURM). This was the promise given by both the minister for environment and forests and the then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan on February 19, 2011. It is important to point out that Pune paid an annual direct tax of Rs 14,800 crores in the year 2009-2010. This is growing every year. A proposal has been given to the state government that compensation can be given by granting transfer of development rights (TDR) to the land owners.

BDP was proposed for protection and conservation of our hills and water bodies

The mission to save the hills started in 2002. It is very important to note that the plan, which was known as the Green DP (development plan) was passed by the general body of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) twice with progressively more support from the corporators. The Green Pune Movement is a coalition of over 350 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), corporate houses, IT companies, educational and research institutions, and Punekars from all walks of life who are mentoring the Green DP. This is an excellent example of a truly participatory process of decision making, as legally required under the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning (MR&TP) Act, 1966, and in letter and spirit of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act.

The development plan for the newly extended limits of Pune was published as draft development plan on December 31, 2002. This was done under Sections 21, 22 and 23 of the MR&TP Act, 1966. Under Section 26 of the same act, the draft development plan was made available for inspection by the public and under Section 26 sub section (1) objections and suggestions were invited from the citizens.

They were given 60 days as per the Act to register them in writing and get a stamped receipt for the same. This is a statutory process and not a signature campaign or a petition online. About 90,000 residents and NGOs participated in the statutory process and registered their objections and suggestions in writing. Last date for filing objections/suggestions was March 2, 2003. These objections essentially stated that no construction should be allowed on environmentally sensitive and significant areas such as hills, rivers, water bodies and open spaces and amenity spaces. These objections also stated that densities should be regulated and controlled according to availability of civic infrastructure, including water supply, sewage treatment and disposal and solid waste disposal.

A planning committee was appointed to hear the objections/suggestions of the public under Section 28 sub section (1). The panel consisted of three members of the standing committee of the planning authority and four members appointed by the state government “having special knowledge or practical experience of matters relating to town and country planning or environment or relating to both” (Section 28, sub section (2) point 6 MR&TP Act 1966 pg. 21). The planning committee was appointed in March 2003. The objections/suggestions were given to the planning committee for action by a resolution of the general body no.53, dated April 25, 2003. I was a member of this planning committee. Hearings started in May 2003 and were completed by October 2004. Apart from hearings, the planning committee also made on site inspections. The report of the panel was submitted to the general body of the planning authority on December 30, 2004.

The general body met on March 21, 2005 and accepted the report of the planning committee in toto and passed resolutions to that effect. The DP passed by the general body of the planning authority had made changes of a substantial nature in the form of the BDP reservation on hills prohibiting construction and density control rules. The new DP was thus republished on March 30, 2005 with modifications under Section 29 of the MR&TP Act inviting objections and suggestions.

A new planning committee was appointed on May 26, 2005, hearings were held, and report was submitted to the general body. The GB met on November 29, 2005 and rejected the report of the second planning committee in toto and reinstated the report of the first planning committee accepting all the changes and passing a resolution to that effect. This final DP was sent to the state government for ratification on December 31, 2005. It was ratified by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis by the notification issued on August 5, 2015 after ten years. The only decision yet to be made is the form and amount of compensation to be paid to the land owners.

First Published: Jul 04, 2018 17:02 IST