Can grey and green coexist on urban landscape?

As cities spread wide, grey infrastructure projects flout green norms to provide affordable housing for all.
Building bye-laws mandate that builders adhere to environmental norms and install energy-saving mechanisms like solar installations, water harvesting and waste recycling methods. Building bye-laws mandate that builders adhere to environmental norms and install energy-saving mechanisms like solar installations, water harvesting and waste recycling methods.

Far in the distance, towards the edge of Noida and Greater Noida flows the Hindon river amidst clusters of modern highrise buildings. A few years ago, the landscape here was more countrified and quite distinct from the low rise neghbourhoods of Delhi dotted with its numerous parks and abundant institutional spaces. 

The entrance to the area has the Hindon river, reduced to a constricted trickle, dividing Noida and Greater Noida West. The river has thinned down but the river channel is wide and deep and the land form around it is flat. This is just a few kilometers before the Hindon merges with the Yamuna.

Constructions continue unbridled in the river’s floodplains that had thick forest earlier. That forest has already been cleared. Sewage gets dumped into the river in an unauthorised manner. “The floodplains were acquired from farmers for construction projects. The farmers were cultivating them for decades,” says Rattan Singh, a resident of the area. This has posed a threat to the river.

Rapid incursion of people in the Noida-Greater Noida belt has led to an alarming growth in grey infrastructure--the massive concrete and steel constructions that characterise real estate development. In the last seven years, various residential and institutional projects have come up in Greater Noida West. All this development, however, comes at the cost of green spaces and water bodies. “In a small area that used to house about eight villages, we have planned a city of 25-30 lakh people. To have such densely packed housing and high floor area ratio is a disaster in the making,” says Vikrant Tongad, a Greater Noida-based environmentalist and activist.  

The area has seen a lot of litigation in the recent years from farmers claiming their lands or asking for higher compensation to locals and activists alleging a blatant violation of environmental norms and home buyers fighting builders for various reasons.

Builders are required by law to minimise dust emissions from their sites during construction but that is seldom followed. (Image: Earth Towne, Flickr Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Housing and water for all

On the policy front, the moves are at odds with each other. The Centre has been relaxing the need for environmental clearance to fast-track housing projects, especially affordable homes, that needs to be constructed to discharge the government’s agenda of “housing for all” by 2022. It has been alleged that this is a ploy to benefit the construction industry. As per a draft notification shared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in April 2016, most construction projects needn’t go for compulsory clearances under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 any longer. As per the previous norms, builders constructing structures of sizes above 20,000 square metres had to get a green signal from the MoEF. This norm has been relaxed and only projects occupying an area of over 1.5 lakh sq m will need MoEF’s clearance now.

“The residents living in various housing projects in Greater Noida West are dependent on groundwater supplied by the builders through tube wells. The water from the Ganga has not come to the area as yet and is not expected anytime soon,” says Tongad. The National Capital Region Planning Board, an interstate regional planning and development body, covering the entire National Capital Region (NCR) had approved a loan of Rs 200 crore for the Ganga water project to supply water from the Ganga but the project has got delayed.

Groundwater over extraction for construction continues

Moreover, the area has been categorised as “overexploited” by the central groundwater board (CGWB). A survey conducted by the Noida and Greater Noida Authority in 2013 states that “the water table in the area is steadily decreasing and steps need to be taken to ensure that both the quality and quantity of the water in the area can be sustained.” Hand pumps had dried up in the neighbouring villages a few years ago due to excessive use of groundwater for construction purposes. “This sort of over extraction is not ecologically sustainable. Considering this, we filed a case in the National Green Tribunal (NGT). In April 2013, the NGT banned the extraction of groundwater for all purposes,” says Tongad. The Supreme Court too had, through an order dated June 14, 2013, based on a civil appeal filed by Vikrant Tongad and others, pointed out that no builders in the area should be allowed to extract groundwater.

Tongad says, “Water is required in huge quantities for both construction and post construction work like curing of cement concrete work. In fact, the farmers of the area have made repeated representations to the Greater Noida Authority regarding the indiscriminate boring and dewatering in the area.”

River Hindon from the Hindon bridge. Reduced to a constricted trickle, the river divides Noida and Greater Noida West.

As per the norms, builders have to seek permission from the central ground water authority (CGWA) to draw groundwater at the time of the construction but this is not being followed. “In spite of the NGT order which bans any form of extraction, the Greater Noida Authority had given temporary permission to builders to extract groundwater for a period of two years,” says Tongad. Now that the period is over, developers have to self-certify that they are not extracting groundwater. The “self-certification by developers is usually false. But the authority does little about it. The civic bodies either do not have the wherewithal for the implementation of strong compliance systems or are complicit in the matter,” says Tongad.

Because the NGT has prohibited groundwater extraction for construction, builders have switched to other paid sources like tankers that bring water from sewage treatment plant provided by the Greater Noida Authority to avoid action from authorities, according to Akhilesh Singh, marketing officer of a project under construction in the area.

“Builders often give the excuse that they are removing the surface water which has seeped into the foundation while they are, in fact, using groundwater for construction,” says Tongad. Builders disagree. “There are no borewells under construction within the premises and the water being removed from the foundation of the buildings is not groundwater. This is mainly the water that has seeped into the foundation because the projects are adjacent to the Hindon where the water table rises during the monsoon. We are disposing it into water harvesting pits and artificial ponds and not wasting it by dumping in the open or in the Hindon river,” says Singh.

The authority is now providing builders with recycled water from sewage treatment plants for construction purposes. “Since not many builders are convinced about the suitability of treated water for construction, the actual use of this water is just 20 percent of what is being projected. But since it is mandatory to use sewage treatment water, builders produce fake bills to fool the authorities but continue with groundwater use,” says Tongad.

Green norms come at a cost

While builders continue to flout green norms, the courts have been suggesting stricter standards. Complying with green norms increases the price of the buildings which is not viable for the builders since buyers are choosy and price conscious. ”Green buying behaviour comes at a cost, which not many can afford,” says Madhu Varma, a buyer of a residential project in the area. “Efficient green planning could have mitigated the wastage of resources such as energy, soil, and water,” says Tongad discussing the projects that have come up in the area.

“The local authorities like the Greater Noida Authority, the CGWA, Uttar Pradesh pollution control board and the state departments are to blame for flouting green building standards. All said and done, faster approvals of any sort, be it environmental or otherwise, reduces project costs and home buyers stand to benefit,” says Rattan Singh.

From grey to green

City planners worldwide are embracing the idea of going green and real estate is being forced to accept a green code. The idea is to lessen the environmental impact of cities. While there are no classic green cities like Brazil’s Curitiba in India, some of our urban areas, too, are trying to lessen its environmental impact.

“In Delhi and other urban areas, some amount of work is being done on lessening waste, intensifying recycling, reducing emissions and increasing housing density while expanding open spaces,” says Mritunjay Kumar of the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation. “We are promoting water-sensitive urban design and planning. This approach can contribute to sustainability and livability. We have been trying hard that it becomes a part of the overall urban strategy and as an organisation, have been assisting practitioners from the field of water management as well as urban designing and planning,” Kumar says.

The real estate sector is responsible for 22 percent of the country’s annual CO2 emissions, global warming, and poor air quality. It’s high time that Indian cities adhere strictly to green norms so the cities become sustainable.

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