The Human Cost of Zoning in Indian Cities

Years ago, I worked for a magazine in Delhi. I wanted to live near the magazine office, but the rent was too damn high. In a low-rent area nearby, I rented a dingy room my girlfriend named “The Black Hole.” In buildings sitting across the street from mine, rents were many folds higher. This did not make sense. It took me years to realize that I was living in an “illegal colony.”

Nearly one-third of the people in Dehli live in illegal colonies.Nearly one-third of the people in Delhi live in illegal colonies where they do not have secure property titles. Illegal colonies violate zoning regulations and master plans. Water connections, sewer lines, electricity, and roads do not function very well because illegal colonies are not even supposed to exist. Some of them are more populous than many American cities.

Rents are low, but these properties are expensive because owners expect the government to legalize them. It is difficult to redevelop these dilapidated buildings because the threat of eviction is always there. Hundreds of thousands of people who migrate to Delhi every year settle in such colonies because formal housing is too expensive. Developable land is scarce, and complying with building codes is a luxury they cannot afford.

Land Everywhere, but Nowhere to Live

Land is not scarce in Delhi, as I learned in one of those days, when a friend drove me around the city. There is enough land for everybody to live in a mansion. Delhi has nearly 20,000 parks and gardens. Large tracts of land remain idle or underutilized, either because the government owns it, or because property titles are weak. Politicians and senior bureaucrats live in mansions with vast, manicured lawns in the core of the city. Some of these political eminentoes farm on valuable urban land while firms and households move to the periphery or satellite cities where real estate prices are lower. So the average commute is long, roads are too congested, and Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world.

In Delhi, the floor space-to-land ratio is usually 2. In Los Angeles it can be as high as 13, and in Singapore it can get as high as 25.Zoning regulations inflict great harm. But it is difficult for Americans to imagine the cost of zoning in Indian cities. Delhi is one of the most crowded cities in the world, and there is great demand for floor space. But real estate developers are not allowed to build tall buildings. In Delhi, for apartment buildings, the regulated Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is usually 2. FAR, an urban planning concept, is the ratio of built-out floor space to the area of the plot.

This means, in Delhi, developers are not allowed to build more than 2,000 square feet of floor space on a 1,000 square feet plot. If a building stands on the whole plot, this would be a two-storey building.

To understand the harm this inflicts on the world’s second-most populous city, remember that in Midtown Manhattan, FAR can go up to 15. In Los Angeles, it can get as high as 13, and in Chicago, up to 12. In Hong Kong’s downtown, the highest FAR is 12, in Bahrain it is 17, and in Singapore it can get as high as 25. Not surprisingly, office space in Delhi’s downtown is among the most expensive in the world. It is impossible to profitably redevelop these crumbling buildings in Delhi’s downtown because they are under rent control.

Delhi is by no means an exception. There are far worse urban planning tragedies among Indian cities. Floor Area Ratios are usually between 1 and 2 in most Indian cities, though some of these cities are more populated than most countries.

I have never lived in Mumbai, where the average person consumes less floor space than an American prisoner. Mumbai is India’s most prosperous city, but in 2009, the average floor space consumption in Mumbai was merely 48 square feet. There are instances of 10-12 people living in a tiny room. Over half the households have only one room. As early as 1978, a draft of the Department of Justice had accepted that prisons in United States should offer single rooms of at least 80 square feet per man.

The High Cost of Zoning

Every day, about nine people die while traveling in Mumbai’s overcrowded trains. Many of them would have survived if Mumbai had taller buildings and fewer people would have to commute into the city. Millions of migrants in Mumbai consider this a price worth paying. They live in squalid conditions, risk their lives, and squeeze themselves into congested spaces because migrating to Mumbai is their best bet to becoming far more productive overnight.

Indian wages are unusually low by global standards. It is possible to earn incomparably more by migrating to the first world. Low-skilled Indians find this almost impossible to do. It is much easier to migrate to Mumbai, where the per capita income is nearly twice the rest of India. Mumbai offers better living standards, though in many ways American prisoners are better off. Mumbai tries to prevent such migrants from coming in without so much as imposing migration restrictions. Building height regulations do not have quite the same effect, but it is close.

Nearly half the people in Mumbai live in slums, though they are not poor by Indian standards. In rent-controlled buildings, rents could be as low as 1/1000th of the market rent. Many live in crumbling rent-controlled buildings that may collapse anytime. Such buildings are redeveloped only when the government is willing to foot the bill.

The average person in Mumbai has less floor space than an American prisoner.The experience of Mumbai and Delhi with zoning regulations is merely illustrative. There is stark similarity in zoning regulations in Indian cities. In Mumbai, Delhi, and other Indian cities, the regulated FAR is nearly uniform even from commercial to residential areas. So labor markets in Mumbai are fragmented, and the average commute is close to an hour. In most cities, there is great variance between FARs of commercial and residential buildings.

In most cities, FARs are higher near mass-transit corridors. To allow redevelopment of buildings, regulated FARs are usually higher than FARs of existing buildings. Indian cities, however, do not conform to these norms. Floor area ratios in Indian cities bear little relationship to real estate prices.

Mumbai is the densest major city in the world, but in Mumbai’s downtown, FAR is 1.33. This is not true of any global city. In 1964, urban planners decided to decongest Mumbai by restricting real estate development in the center. Socialists believed they could decongest Mumbai by restricting real estate development in the best parts of the city.

Like all such grand plans, this too failed. Zoning regulations did not stop people from migrating to Mumbai. Instead, migrants responded by consuming less and less floor space. They settle down in congested spaces. They build informal settlements in slums. They live in buildings where floors crack, walls crumble, rats eat infants, and clean water is rationed. They occupy rent-controlled buildings where people live so close that petty squabbles lead to riots. It is a joke on planners that Mumbai is now the most crowded city in the world.

There are, of course, many other reasons. Mumbai is one of the most geographically challenged cities in the world. Land is scarce in a city built on the narrow tip of a peninsula. Two-third of the land at a 25-kilometer radius from Mumbai’s downtown is covered by water. Large tracts of publicly owned land remains idle in and around Mumbai’s downtown. Much of the land that belonged to Mumbai’s long-closed cotton mills remains idle too. Mumbai even has a national park that spreads over an area of 104 square kilometers.

People Are Not the Problem

Alain Bertaud, the world’s foremost expert on land-use regulations in developing countries, has long been pointing out how zoning regulations have ruined Mumbai. Mumbai does not have bridges that connect the mainland to docks. As Bertaud points out, such bridges built across San Francisco Bay and Pearl River Delta have turned topographical liabilities into assets. According to Bertaud, with coastal zone regulations as stringent as Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, San Francisco, and Rio de Janeiro would not even have been built.

Knight Frank once estimated that a luxury home in Mumbai costs 308 times the average annual income in India. In New York, a luxury home costs only 48.4 times the average income in the United States. Planners blame this on Mumbai’s rising population.

This is nonsense. In 1984, the average floor space consumption in Shanghai was 3.6 square meters. By allowing tall buildings, Shanghai raised average floor consumption to 34 square meters by 2010. Cities across the world have raised floor space consumption by allowing tall buildings. In 1910, 16 people lived on a typical floor of 920 square feet in Manhattan. In 2010, four people lived on a typical floor, because floor space consumption had risen four times.

In saner cities, when population rises, floor space consumption rises too. But this is an unpleasant truth planners do not want to hear.

This article was originally published on

I hope zoning in the third-world gets more attention with essays like this. I am glad that Financial TimesTyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, Orange County Register and economist Ajay Shah blogged about this article. Quartz shared it, and NYU Stern School Of Business’ Urbanization Project, Marron Institute, Urbanomics and Brandon Fuller tweeted it. 

Should Writers Read?

When I was in college, one of my prized possessions was a biography of Sachin with its margins filled by a school girl. Her email password was “Sachin”. The letters she wrote to me were beautiful, though she did not read. In her letters, there was not a single word that would send the reader to the dictionary. I rarely see such purity in literature. The truth is that there are eight year olds who write more clearly than virtually all editors in this city. Writers are born, not made. What separates a eight year old who writes clearly from a literary giant? Plenty of talent. Tens of thousands of hours of hard work. 

I read Jai Arjun Singh‘s article on young tycoons of mass market fiction a few weeks ago. He is surprised that many popular Indian writers are convinced that reading isn’t their thing. I don’t know what they are smoking. People have many misconceptions about writing, because they have never really gone through the process of being a writer. I know people who believe that you write from your “heart”. But, writing is an intellectual process. Great writing stems from a great mind. To think deeply, you should feel intensely. But, this does not change the issue.

Then, there are people who believe that you can learn how to write by reading style manuals. It is true that if you grow up reading a lot, you will acquire very valuable skills. If you write for many years, you will acquire skills that writers so need. But, this does not mean that the process can be reversed. It is not possible to become a great writer by acquiring verbal skills—or by learning where to place commas. As the great H.L. Mencken once said, They write badly simply because they cannot think clearly.

I don’t know where all these assumptions come from. To begin with, English grammar is too complex to be learned as a set of rules. Any good psycholinguist will tell you that a 3 year old’s understanding of English grammar will be far more sophisticated than any grammar text in the world—if she grew up in the US or the UK. Now, imagine the complexity of the mind of a Nabokov or a Faulkner. Language is mindbogglingly complex. It cannot be taught as a set of a finite number of rules. This is why “schoolma’ms, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudo-literates” fail so miserably at writing, despite their attempts to learn how to write and edit (!) from style manuals. This is also why such beliefs are often found at the lowest rungs of the society—and never in great writers.

As I said, great writers are born, not made. But, this does not mean that great writers were born with skills in English composition. They were born with an innate fluency with language. They were born with certain attitudes of mind. But, they acquired the skill to write beautiful, fully formed sentences. How? As Steven Pinker points out:

“No one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the writing of other writers. Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive “ear” of a skilled writer—the tacit sense of style which every honest stylebook, echoing Wilde, confesses cannot be explicitly taught. Biographers of great authors always try to track down the books their subjects read when they were young, because they know these sources hold the key to their development as writers.”

This cannot be explicitly taught because such skills are too complex to be explicitly taught. World class performers in many fields spend roughly 10,000 hours to acquire competence of the highest order. In writing and science, you need far more hours of practice. I am not even counting the tens of thousands of hours we spend reading. Of course, this is an oversimplification. The amount of practice you need varies from person to person. But, even the best writers work excruciatingly hard. Again, this does not mean you will become a great writer by working as hard as Naipaul, though it is true that Naipaul works really, really hard. You most probably will not. Not one in many millions is born with such enormous talent.

Talent is rare—rarer than people think. A few years ago, I read an article economist Jagdish Bhagwati wrote for Mint. It was badly written. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is abysmally read. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is lazy, stupid or inexperienced. He was 80 years old when he wrote this. Many believe that he is Nobel Prize material. There could be many reasons. He was not born with an innate fluency with language. English is not his mother tongue. Perhaps he did not read much in his formative years. He grew up in the 1930s when people did not read much. Most Indians were illiterate then. Asians generally have low verbal IQs. Academia does not punish bad writing. Academic journals place too many constraints on writers. They do not write because they are genuinely curious, or because they have a strong desire to speak their mind. They are forced to write. That is how the academia works. There are, of course, other reasons why academic writing stinks. Academics are not able to get outside their own heads. It doesn’t occur to them that what they write is beyond common folk. But, I doubt whether this is why Bhagwati writes so badly. 

Again, don’t be too quick to assume that all academics are lousy writers.Almost all my favorite economists and social scientists write well—-or at least, decently enough. Why? Like good writers, they are avid readers too. The best economists, for example, know other social sciences fairly well—at times, extraordinarily well. Some of them read more fiction than most literary critics do. 

But, Jagdish Bhagwati is not an exception. Most experienced academics and journalists write badly. The sad truth is that this is a very difficult skill to acquire. Somerset Maugham once said that there were only six writers in human history who knew how to write flawless English. I agree with him. All of us fail ourselves, to some degree, because it is such a difficult task. It is not at all surprising that many obscure Babbits fail miserably.

This is why I am surprised when I hear that it ain’t necessary that writers read. I even see people who believe that editing is very different from writing—and that it ain’t necessary that editors read.  Jai Arjun Singh is quite perceptive in such matters:

Being a reader is inseparable from the question of a writer’s abilities. When you start reading from an early age, not only do you develop certain standards, you also realise how much good work has already been done. And it makes you humble – it might even make you diffident about your own work, which can be a problem. But at least it prevents you from being cocky and overconfident and thinking “I think I have a great story to tell, and the world is just waiting for my book; literature begins with me.” During our session, I asked Singh the obvious question: if you don’t read yourself, on what basis do you expect others to read your books? I didn’t get a coherent response.

I’m not a literary snob: my favorite authors include many genre writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris, all of whom have reached very large readerships; as a film critic too, I constantly defend the value of good mainstream films, and my latest book is dedicated to viewers “who are smart enough to take popular cinema seriously”. But at the same time I’m also uncomfortable about some of the narratives that have grown around mass-market writing in India – such as the inverse snobbery on view when bestselling writers scoff at “pretentious” literary types and wonder why anyone would waste six or seven years writing a “heavy” book full of “complicated” words.

This is a view I completely agree with. I do not believe that popular cinema is less artistic. I never believed that popular literature is less artistic. I read many popular writers, and I am convinced that some of them are better than most great names in literature. It is obvious to me that people look down on popular literature because they have such poor judgment. They have such narrow minds. They do not know that Shakespeare was once considered a popular writer. Many great painters and musicians who are considered great today were profit-minded. Sales were very important to Ayn Rand, though she did not place money above the integrity of her work. 

I do not look down on popular Indian writers. One of the best things that happened to Indian literature is that there is a now a larger market for popular fiction. This does not mean that the Indian reader is reading more trash. This means that the Indian audience is now more mature. At last, there is a market for literature.  One of the greatest tributes you can pay a society is that people are now consuming literature like potato chips. Indian writers do not comprehend Chetan Bhagat because they do not have the brains to see marketing as an art. But, the anti-intellectualism in these self-styled writers is worse than annoying. They are immature, but they think they have the whole world figured out.

Why do people believe in such nonsense? My best guess is that people are mad. They have no sense of reality. They do not know where they stand. This makes me melancholy, because they are unskilled and unaware of it. Cognitive psychologists call this the Dunning-Kruger effect. They are not able to see this. If you are not fluent as a writer, it is hard to say how fluent you are. Nabokov once said that you can’t even give your phone number without giving something of yourself. They are probably fooling themselves, and their readers who are semi-literates. But, they are not fooling their betters. Now, it is obvious why hardly anyone outside India read the many young Indian writers who are tycoons of mass market fiction. The more sophisticated audience in the west is less tolerant.