Saturday, June 15, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

A new-look Chandigarh on anvil
Ajay Banerjee


Major changes have been brought about in the city’s building byelaws and they are likely to change its skyline for good. These ‘practical measures’ will benefit citizens and, as per the Administration’s claim, will help the city grow.

A family owning a popular fast food chain in Chandigarh opened a restaurant on the first floor of a showroom in Sector 17.The Chandigarh Administration cried foul, saying the eatery was unauthorised as it had been made by dividing a huge hall! The city’s archaic and inflexible building byelaws were cited and the threat of closure loomed large over the restaurant.

  • One of the country’s leading hotel chains wanted to open a hotel in Sector 34 but backed off when it realised that the building byelaws were unsuitable for a hotel. They could have built only in a standard design, as is the case with all buildings in Chandigarh. This meant that the prospective hotel would have looked like the UT Secretariat or any other government building.

  • In another case, a business family wanted to trifurcate the huge showroom it owned so that the three heirs could carry out their different businesses under one roof. They did so, only to face music from the Administration, which insisted that under the 50-year-old building byelaws, the partitions were illegal. They had no choice but to cough up a hefty fee up to Rs 20 lakh .

  • One M.S. Sawhney wanted to transfer a 500-square-yard (1 kanal) plot that he had purchased through an open auction in the early 1980s to his son. The babus showed him the dreaded rule book, saying that first he would have to deposit several lakhs as this was unearned income. Shocked, Sawhney deferred his decision as he saw no reason to pay the money.

  • A retired colonel residing in Sector 35 completed his house in 1971. In 1999, he wanted to settle abroad to be with his sons. The house could not be transferred in anyone else’s name due to a small hitch. The Army man had not applied for a completion certificate way back in 1971. The fine for this amounted to a couple of lakhs.

  • A multinational food chain wanted to open an outlet in Sector 17. They wanted additional space on the ground floor. None of the showrooms met the standards of the company. They opted out of the city; as the byelaws did not permit them to take two adjoining showrooms and knock down the dividing wall to make one large hall.

  • A young entrepreneur opened a computer-assembling unit in Sector 35. His fault: the showroom was meant for general trade category and computer business was not on the list that specified the general trades. The entrepreneur faced action.

Fortunately, all this is history. The cast-iron building byelaws, which had long outlived their utility, have been changed for good. And they have changed at a speed that was unimaginable. Now the restaurant on the first floor in Sector 17 can run; the hotel in Sector 34 can be of any shape or design; M.S. Sawhney can transfer his plot to his son; the Colonel can sell off his property and get it transferred without a fine; the multinational company can open the food outlet as two or more adjoining showrooms can be amalgamated into one unit. Also, the business family can partition its showroom, while the entrepreneur can run the computer business as it has been included in the list of businesses that constitute general trade. In some cases, the changes have been allowed as gratis, while in other cases a small fee will be charged.

It is not that the bureaucracy has suddenly realised the need for change. Behind all these changes is one man: The UT Administrator and Punjab Governor, Lt Gen J.F.R. Jacob (retd). He had promised radical changes in the byelaws and has delivered. Jacob, officials admit, was adamant about changing the byelaws as he saw this as inevitable for the growth of the city and felt that it would do away with needless legal hassles and paper work. All this was not going to affect the basic character of the city. At one point, the Architecture Department got a mouthful from the Governor for its slow progress, while another senior IAS official was asked to explain the changes in ‘simple English’ instead of spouting some technical jargon which could not be understood by anyone, recollects an IAS official in the UT Administration.

All these changes were long overdue but were never effected because the byelaws vested tremendous power and clout in the hands of clerks and the IAS lobby. It was a known fact that ‘monthly payments’ (read bribes) were fixed as an ‘incentive’ for the field staff to overlook violations. Thus, the field staff did not report against those who paid up, while others were harassed no end. The top officials did not know of the ground reality.

When the byelaws were originally framed, computers were hardly used. Also, financial services, call centres, telephone centres (PCOs), lodging houses, fitness centres, indoor gymnasiums, entertainment centres, video game parlours, computer training centres, academic coaching centres, photocopying and software services, consultancy services and medical laboratories did not exist. Carrying on these trades from general trade showrooms was not allowed and invited legal action till about the middle of May. Close to 80 per cent of the city’s commercial area is restricted for general trade.

One of the most important decisions of the Chandigarh Administration was that no fee would be charged in case residential, commercial or industrial property was transferred in the name of a family member. Till now, the Administration was charging a fee under a head classified as ‘‘unearned increase ’’ to enable the transfer of property which was on leasehold. The fee would amount to a few lakh rupees. This was resisted by those who inherited ancestral property. Now one can transfer property to one’s mother, father, wife, husband, brother, sister, son or daughter. Earlier, this was done at the discretion of the official concerned, who almost never waived the fee unless the person was well-connected. Now the rule will apply to all without prejudice.

A long-time Chandigarh resident, Amarjit Singh Sethi, feels that the Administration has never been so responsive to the needs and aspirations of people as it has been in the past six months. Today, with a little fine-tuning, the city can become more people-friendly, adds Sethi while praising the decision to accept electricity, water or sewerage connection as proof of date of completion. Earlier, this was a major source of harassment as no one had heard of a completion certificate when the city was coming up. So the decision to accept any other proof was logical.

Rules governing the misuse of a building have also been changed. According to the changed rules, a notice will be issued and monthly charges levied for the misuse of a building so as to give time to the allottee or occupier to remedy the misuse prior to commencement of resumption proceedings. Till now, resumption of a site was the only action taken while misuse carried on. "The decision to impose a fine is logical as it will make the Administration more people-friendly," says T.C. Kathuria, a resident of Sector 37. The old rules gave all powers to the field staff, thereby increasing the scope for corruption and harassment of owners.

Some modiifiications in the byelaws will change the city skyline forever. Grey sarkari-looking buildings may become a thing of the past as new designs take over. Allowing for amalgamation of two or more adjoining commercial or industrial sites means bigger showrooms or complexes.

A Sector 17 trader says it was absurd on the part of the Administration to charge a hefty fee for partitioning a building or not allowing restaurants and offices to run on first floors after partitioning big halls. The new changes will promote business activity, he feels.

On the seemingly endless list of changes is the decision to put shop-cum-offices and shop-cum-flats (SCOs and SCFs) to more optimum use as shopping plazzas and restaurants. However, the owner shall have to abide by the zoning plans and building byelaws. This had been a long-standing demand as almost no one lived in the flats provided above the commercial areas due to lack of privacy. It may be a good concept elsewhere, but is not suitable here, says Arvind Jain, a Sector 22 trader. He is of the view that more changes need to be allowed in commercial areas in keeping with the latest trends in business.

The changes seem have infused a fresh lease of life into business activity in the city, but one wonders whether such need-based changes will be incorporated from time to time on a larger scale. Residents are now demanding an updated booklet on the new building byelaws in simple language with examples and illustrations.

Now the question is: when will the Chandigarh Administration provide additional parking space, power supply and other facilities that will be needed as a result of the changes in the byelaws?

Recent changes in building byelaws

  • Buildings in the southern sectors of Chandigarh can have any design on the exterior. Thus, the drab grey-coloured buildings will give way to a more colourful skyline.

  • There is more flexibility with regard to the height of each storey of a building in commercial areas. The interiors are no longer governed by rigid rules and can be of any design that the owner chooses.

  • Partitioning of showrooms is allowed on the payment of a small fee. Partitioning of the first floor on payment of a fee has also been allowed.

  • The date on which power connection, sewerage connection or water supply is issued is accepted as proof of the completion of a house. There is no need to pay hefty fines.

  • There is no need to pay heavy fees running into lakhs when property is transferred within a family. For transfer of ownership outside the family, a fee has been fixed. The process will not involve cumbersome calculations not understood by anyone outside the estate office.

What the future holds...

  • This is not the end of it. The Chandigarh Administration will allow the construction of shopping malls each spread across 2 to 3 acres. This will forever change city skyline looks and the way its residents shop. Four sites have been identified for the purpose in Sectors 46 and 47 along the outer Dakshin Marg. The sites are slated to be auctioned at the end of the year.

  • These huge malls can house shops, offices, big stores, restaurants, basement parking or even penthouse-style apartments. The idea is to have ample parking, good facilities and lots of room, just like the malls in the metros.

  • The Administration will be floating countrywide advertisements to invite bidders. The most important factor is that the buildings will not necessarily have to be built in the drab grey colour on the pattern of other buildings in Chandigarh. The owner or the builder will have the freedom to build in whatever design and colour he wants. The Administration will only fix the area on which the builder can build a maximum of six storeys. Only the norms for proper lighting and ventilation have to be met. This means entrances can be bigger and the shops, showrooms or restaurants can be of any size. There will be no design constraint on the proposed malls and they will not be governed by internal and external building controls, says UT Finance Secretary, Karan Avtar Singh.