How will West Bengal’s Green City Mission really make a difference - CSE presents a blueprint

Green City Mission and incentive programmes for green buildings to curb resource guzzling and pollution can help only if resource-saving targets, norms and guidelines are adopted and monitoring is mandated 

Kolkata, March 10, 2018: The West Bengal government’s Green City Mission and other green building programmes offer an excellent opportunity for early action which can lead to resource savings and lesser environmental impacts, but only if it adapts sustainability guidelines and performance monitoring benchmarks – says Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the New Delhi-based research and advocacy think tank. CSE recently conducted a workshop in the city on this issue, in association with the Institute of Town Planners of India, West Bengal Regional Chapter.

“West Bengal has embarked on its Green City Mission and is offering incentive programmes for green-rated buildings. It is critical to ensure and monitor that these green initiatives are leading to real resource savings and minimizing environmental impacts,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director-research and advocacy, CSE, while addressing the workshop.

“Cities are high-growth areas and need robust urban planning principles and technical and administrative preparedness to curb the environmental fallouts of aggressive building construction and urban expansion. Cities will have to focus on compactness of urban form, architectural design and efficient technologies for energy efficiency, appropriate choices of building material, operational management, and strong monitoring. Otherwise, new habitats can become unliveable and environmentally unviable,” Roychowdhury added.

Titled Green Cities Mission: A Dialogue on Urban Sustainability,the workshop, held on March 10, had brought together a large body of stakeholders to deliberate on the sustainability norms, rules and guidelines for buildings and built areas to be integrated with the building clearance process as well as to look at specific issues and strategies of energy efficiency, water and waste management, construction and demolition (C&D) waste, and role of green areas in built environment.

Paradox of plenty amidst poverty
Real estate business booms. Demand grows.But amidst millions of vacant houses, West Bengal faces housing shortage 

Real estate is one of the fastest growing sectors in West Bengal. Back in 2012, the sector was anticipated to grow at a rate of 15-20 per cent. As per the Government of India’s estimates that year, the urban housing shortage in West Bengal was in the range of 1.33 million units. The industry estimates that urban housing demand in Kolkata is about 300 per cent more than the supply. 

Housing shortage is the most acute in the low-income group. LIG, or Low Income Group, housing demand is 25 times the supply, while in middle- and high-income groups, the demand is 1.5 and 2 times the supply, respectively. This means a significant increase is needed in the stock of affordable housing. Till 2017, the housing sanctioned nation-wide has taken care of about 11 per cent of the country’s total urban housing shortage (as estimated in 2012). West Bengal did better – it completed about 18 per cent of this sanctioned stock, and ranked eighth best among all states and UTs. 

“The state, though, has been more innovative with building typologies for the low-income category. It has adopted a rental housing policy that offers more affordable housing options for the poor. Affordable housing and poor people’s housing for resource efficiency and thermal comforts require guidelines,” said Roychowdhury. 

Ironically, while there is so much housing shortage,a large number of new houses in the state are lying vacant. According to the Economic Survey of India 2018, West Bengal has about 0.5 million vacant houses, which is about 8 per cent of the total census houses in the state. Similarly, Kolkata has about 90,000 vacant houses, which constituteabout 8 per cent of the total census housing in Kolkata. 

The crucial need is to ensure people get access to existing and new housing to lessen the burden of building newer units. This also means that if the incentive programme for the affordable housing is not designed and implemented well, it may further incite misuse of subsidy available for affordable housing for speculation and defeat the purpose of meeting the housing needs of all,especially the poor. This is extremely wasteful and may impose high environmental risks.

The environmental concerns
Huge impacts on the environment. Resource efficiency and sustainability guidelines are the need of the hour. 

Individually, together and cumulatively, buildings exerta substantial impact on the surrounding environment. In India, buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of energy use, 30 per cent of raw material use, 20 per cent of water use, and 20 per cent of land use. At the same time, buildings account for 40 per cent of carbon emissions, 30 per cent of solid waste generation, and 20 per cent of water effluents. 

Said Rajneesh Sareen, programme director of CSE’s sustainable habitat team: “Resource inefficiency in this sector can impose limits on further growth -- water will be one such limiting factor. In Kolkata, for instance, wetlands are the city’s crucial waste disposal systems.” According to a CSE study, these wetlands, handling 810 million litres a day (MLD) of wastewater, save the city an estimated Rs 400 crore a year in water treatment costs. In many places in the city and across the state,groundwater is contaminated with arsenic and has high concentration of iron. Excessive groundwater withdrawals have drawn in polluted water and saline water even in central and south-central Kolkata. This calls for water-sensitive urban design. 

Said Sareen: “All built areas will have to adopt water harvesting systems to save and store rainwater. In West Bengal, the focus will have to be more on preserving water bodies to store rainwater than only recharge groundwater, as the groundwater is shallow and contaminated in many places and the soil has poor recharge capacity. This will have to be supported by decentralized wastewater treatment to augment water supply.” 

Adopt sustainability norms and guidelines for Green City Mission and other green building initiatives: TheWest Bengal government has crafted several green programmes for buildings and townships. These include an incentive programme for green buildings, Green City Mission and policies to promote renewable energy, water and waste management etc. CSE researchers point out that the new built environment will require much more robust benchmarks for resource savings and efficiency. 

The Green City Mission provides for conservation of water resources, energy-positive city, sustainable public transport, greening plan, safety and security, among other things. Said Roychowdhury: “While this offers an opportunity for integrating the principles of sustainability, the experience of other cities shows the devil is in the detail. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the new reforms include guidance framework, legal mandate and rules for multifarious sectors including energy, water and sanitation, waste management, urban design and mobility access, and urban landscape and greens. Urban planning will have to be integrated with transit planning from the very beginning to discourage car-centric infrastructure. This initiative aims to integrate, harmonise and streamline all the key existing sectoral policies and regulations and find a unified and integrated framework for implementation and monitoring.” 

Need compact city design: Urban planning today is increasingly moving away from the compact city design towards urban sprawls. Examples are New Town Kolkata or Rajarhat: the new urban design is all about super-size blocks of mass housing, gated communities, poor public transport connectivity, etc. This is increasing distances, dependence on personal vehicles, travel and energy intensity, and pollution. 

The older compact urban form of the established city of Kolkata illustrates the legacy of a best practice in urban planning and design. As this reduces travel distances, it allows more walk and public transport trips. As much as 31 per cent of trips are in the distance range of 2-5 km; and 29 per cent in the 6-10 km range. In fact, about 22 per cent of the trips fall in the range of 0-1 km that can be easily covered by walking. This has enabled very high share of public transport usage and walking – as high as 89 per cent of all daily travel trips. More than 1/4th of the working population can commute to work on foot.A good walk and cycling infrastructure and public transport can transform the city and reduce pollution. But this template has not been adapted for the new and modern urban form.

Globally, cities are adopting mixed land-use in combination with public transport strategy for safety and sustainability: Whilenew urban planning in India and West Bengal increasingly moves towards segregated land-use and sprawl, advanced countries are reversing this policy. California, one of the most sprawled US states with car-centric urban design, has enacted the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375) in 2008. This requires integrated land-use and transportation plans, to focus development around transit. It has set targets for increasing density near transit lines and stations; mixed land use; improving walkability; reducing block size and enhancing access to job centers, among other things. As a result, 2/3rd households living near transit in Los Angeles (LA) now own one or fewer cars; nearly 1/4th of commuters living near transit in LA take transit, walk or bike, compared with just 8 per cent in the larger region; about 22 per cent of the jobs in LA County are within walking distance, increasing the number of people who live in the half-mile radius around transit stations that can reduce per-household vehicle miles traveled by 30 per cent.  

Link incentives with resource saving performance of buildings and monitor performance of buildings: Green building regulations may remain a non-starter if post-construction monitoring is absent or is weak. Even in cases where green rating systems have been promoted with government back-up and incentives, there is no record of the actual performance of the buildings and the nature of resource saving measures applied. West Bengal allows 10 per cent extra built-up area or floor area ratio if developers adopt a green rating system. But these incentives are not linked with actual performance of the buildings. Without proper performance monitoring, green-rated buildings can perform worse than standard buildings (as is evident in the US and other countries). 

It is important to link incentives with top performance and not with minimal improvement. There should be penalty for non-compliance. This also requires official oversight. Currently, compliance is based entirely on self-reporting by builders and rating agencies without independent official oversight. If not done effectively and transparently, this can lock in enormous inefficiencies and resource guzzling and negate the benefits of green rating at an enormous cost to the government and wastage of tax-payers money. The incentives should be used to push only the top line of performance and not to promote minimum green measures that should be obligatory for all buildings to meet. 

Need climate-sensitive, affordable and efficient solutions: “The climate of West Bengal allows very efficient use of passive architectural design including effective use of ventilation, shading and day-lighting to reduce the overall thermal load of the building. This can reduce the need for mechanical space coolingand can be complemented with energy-efficient electrical appliances” said Sareen. But often, the construction industry encourages use of materials and architecture that are not always appropriate for local climates. For instance, the craze for glass in a hot climate leads to unacceptable heat ingress that increasesthe use of energy-intensive air conditioning. Current approaches do not differentiate between different climate zones or between conditioned and non-conditioned buildings. Authorities should promote good energy efficiency practices (including renewable energy) and auditing of energy performance of buildings. 

Need climate-resilient urban planning and design to protect against extreme weather events: Protection of water bodies in urban design is crucial as our cities are becoming increasingly more vulnerable to extreme weather events, including flooding and drought. The city needs to manage its wetlands better to avoid flooding. According to a World Bank and University of Leeds study, Kolkata already stands third on the list of cities prone to flood risks and climate disasters. A recent study by the South Asian Forum for Environment pointed out that in a decade -- from 2005 to 2015 -- Kolkata has lost 53 per cent of its peri-urban wetlands; currently, 86 per cent of the stretch of Adi Ganga flows below the average environmental flow volume. Moreover, green space planning will also have to be linked with mitigation of heat island effect in built areas.

Manage and capitalise on construction and demolition (C&D) waste: With the construction boom,generation of C&D waste is on the rise in the Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA) but there is no scientific estimate of its quantum and the trend. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), in its 2017 Guidelines on Environmental Management of Construction & Demolition (C&D) Wastes report, mentions that Kolkata generates 1,600 tonnes of C&D waste annually.But accordingto the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), the quantity is only around 40-45 tonnes. C&D waste is inert in nature, but has a wide range of ecological fallouts. Its indiscriminate handling and disposal chokes water bodies, damages roads and footpaths, obstructs traffic, pollutes the air and renders composting of municipal solid waste difficult, apart from unnecessarily eating into a city’s landfill space. C&D waste can easily be recycled and brought back to substitute virgin building material (which are in short supply) for construction. The Government of India has notified the C&D Waste Rules in 2016; this requires immediate implementation. The KMC is setting up a recycling plant at Dhapa. New Town Kolkata Development Authority offers paid services for disposal of C&D waste at a rate of Rs 2,000 per metric tonne. Said Avikal Somvanshi of sustainable building programme of CSE: “These are important steps forward. A lot more is needed to establish a circular C&D waste economy as mandated by the new C&D Waste Rules.” 

Improve public acceptance of green buildings and build public support: CSE called for demystification of green building measures and building public support and acceptance of these programmes. Said Roychowdhury: “Tell people what “works” and what “doesn’t work” in terms of energy-efficient, water-saving and resource-saving strategies for homes. Inform people about the rate of return on costs for energy-efficiency and water conservation products and appliances. Build support for green buildings. People must know where to find information on options, prices and suppliers. Deepen understanding -- how individual decisions to conserve water and energy add up to overall savings that benefit the community. Resource efficient city development can happen without compromising economic growth.”

For more information on CSE’s work on sustainable urbanisation, please contact Vrinda Nagar of The CSE Media Resource Centre,, 9654106253.