Delhi redevelopment: How can govt treat public land as if it is the owner and do what it pleases?

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By Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli*

The plans for redeveloping the old government colonies of Netaji Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, Kasturba Nagar, Thyagraj Nagar, Sriniwaspuri and Mohammadpur in south Delhi have raised the hackles of several because it will result in the loss of over 14,000 trees. Delhi’s citizens have rightly opposed the ecological loss that goes beyond the tree count in a city with the worst air qualityin the world and just two more years of water supply left.

Even though many details related to these projects are still hidden from the public, residents are shocked to learn that an elaborate plan has been put into place to purportedly increase government housing in the city from 12,970 to 25,667. They wonder why the government could not have simply raised the existing structures to double their present levels. These new structures would have still been within the permissible floor area ratio (FAR) and with almost the entire tree cover intact. Instead, the plan involves reordering and building up a landscape of 571 acres.

Why would the government take such a convoluted route to double government housing? Moreover, why does this project – that was approved by the parliamentary standing committee on urban development headed by BJD MP Pinaki Mishra and comprising members of the Lok Sabha such as Meenakshi Lekhi, Ashok Chavan and Dharam Gandhi – appears to be a massive real estate development bonanza? The answers to these questions help in understanding how such urban projects promote the elite capture, privatisation and commercialisation of public assets such as government land.

Sale of public land

Eminent architect and retired professor of the School of Planning and Architecture, Ranjit Sabikhi notes that government land is public land; however, the government treats it as if it owns the land and can, therefore, do as it pleases to it. In a 1967 article titled ‘Government housing in Delhi’, Sabikhi observes that any area of land under government is seen as convenient for large-scale development.

The government colonies planned in Delhi during the 1960s were rows of identical buildings with little care for ventilation and vegetation. The photos of Sarojini Nagar from that time show a barren plot of land with uniform box-type structures on it. The residents who worked for the Central government moved in and turned the buildings into liveable homes without any claim to ownership of the structures or the land.

Can the government sell land or resources which it only holds in public trusteeship? In today’s times, privatisation and sale of public assets have become a routine matter. In other words, the government unilaterally decides on the sale of public assets such as government land whenever it is in need of funds. This is touted as a “self-financing model” of development. The present proposal of doubling government accommodation in Delhi is estimated to cost Rs 32,835 crore. As there will be no budgetary allocation for this, the government proposes to create saleable premium value real estate to raise funds for its project.

Government use of public property

Even if the government’s objective of creating government housing were taken at face value, their mismanagement of public assets can be seen through the example of New Moti Bagh that the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) has itself called a successful model.

This colony of over 110 acres contains 14 type VIII houses for ministers covering over half an acre in plots of 2500 sq m. There are 102 type VII houses of 900 sq m each, and multi-storeyed apartment accommodations of type VI. The land value here was nearly 7.5 lakhs per sq m as per the notification of the Revenue Department of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi in September 2014.

Professor Sabikhi, also a member of Citizen’s Alliance, states that on such a site where a FAR of 300 is permitted and over 7,500 dwelling units could have been built as per the Master Plan rules, only 492 residences for ministers and senior government officials have been built. Since the ground coverage is only 15%, there is ample room for large trees and green areas here. He refers to this housing as “status symbols” that have been built for the government, by the government.

This is at huge cost to the public not only in terms of the wasteful use of public resources but is also a continued drain on taxes and maintenance costs. If this project does not seem indulgent enough, its funding mechanism is more telling. This project was made possible by the sale of prime government land in Diplomatic Enclave to the Leela hotel for Rs 611 crore.

Promotion of commercialisation

Through public protest over the last few weeks over these projects, numerous government staff who once resided in these areas have stated anonymously that the government housing narrative is a façade for something bigger. This seems true if the plans are anything to go by.

Over 8 lakh sq m of commercial space will be created in the areas of Nauroji Nagar and Sarojini Nagar as per the MoU between the builder NBCC and the MoUD. Nauroji Nagar will be a fully saleable commercial estate and close to 6 lakh sq m in Sarojini Nagar will house commercial infrastructure including service apartments. The MOU further states that “surplus shops built as a part of social infrastructure in seven GPRA colonies” after allotting the required number to existing shopkeepers, will also be sold as freehold commercial properties.

Additionally, government offices covering 2.4 lakh sq m is proposed to be built in Netaji Nagar which will include a new building for the Ministry of Finance as well as a “South Asia Regional Training and Technical Assistance Centre”.

Such commercialisation of residential areas violates the principle of Master Plan 2021 as per its clause 15.1:

“Mixed-use, (including small shops as per para 15.6.3.) shall not be permitted in the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone, Civil Lines bungalow zone, government housing, institutional / staff housing of public and private agencies and buildings / precincts listed by the Heritage Conservation Committee.”

This intention is elaborated in clause 2.5 on page nine of the MoU between NBCC and MoUD that states:

“MoUD will facilitate the change of land use as per MPD 2012 to facilitate construction of GPOA in Netaji Nagar and saleable commercial space in Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and in social infrastructure to be developed in all seven colonies, if required”.

It is rather ironic that traders of Delhi bore the brunt of the ceiling drive on account of over-commercialisation when the government willingly promotes this in the plans that it has passed.

Privatised enclaves?

While the count of dwelling units to be constructed as per the plans add up to a total of nearly 25,000, the type of residential units being built point in a different direction. In most of the seven areas, the existing units of type I, II and III are being replaced by type IV, V and VI indicating that there is a shifting out of a class of government staff from these premium areas through this housing project.

In addition, private real estate companies are looking to turn this redevelopment project into a profit-making opportunity, News reports state that they are looking to occupy at least 20% of the houses being built. In support of their ambition, page five of the MoU also states “if the amount realised from sale (of commercial space) is not enough to meet the cost of construction… Then up to 10% of residential BUA is to be sold by NBCC on freehold basis for further revenue generation.” NBCC’s chairman is quoted to have recommended to the urban development ministry that the private sector should be allowed to bid for residential flats.

Behind the veil of government housing, this project seems to give legal approval to grab public property to those who can afford to buy the newly-created commercial and residential space in Delhi’s premium area.

In addition to the commercial and residential units, the entire landscape itself is privatised through the creation of numerous securitised gated enclaves. These seven areas, Lodhi colony and many others are presently open public areas that citizens can access even though they don’t live there. But New Moti Bagh and East Kidwai Nagar have been gated despite being on government land.

Cumulative impacts

On reading the available project documents such as the EIA reports, the MOU and the parliamentary report it is difficult to conclude if these are one, two or seven projects. This region is one of Delhi’s best-kept landscapes. It would have been useful if the government engaged competent agencies to conduct a full geospatial survey and develop a detailed plan for the region keeping in mind the multiple priorities of housing, hospitability and heritage in a growing city. This would have helped to generate an integrated urban design before embarking on construction.

But to present this as a singular project would have also meant revealing the cumulative impacts that this project may have, especially the burdens on ecology and the city’s water, transport and public services. So the project has been broken up into seven component projects and handed over to two government contractors, the CPWD and NBCC.

Sabikhi laments that by allowing the fragmented development of 600 acres of contiguous land, the government has approved the wasteful use of prime value public land, unsustainable structures and loss of valuable green cover. The creation of gated colonies will add to our traffic woes as automobiles spill out from these into the arterial roads everyday. Walkers, usually the large community of domestic service providers, will have no or few access routes and thoroughfares.

Maintaining green spaces and long tree corridors will be next to impossible between tall, uniform structures. They block sunlight preventing the growth of plants. Block type dwelling units also do not take into account light and air circulation meaning internal environments could be as bad or worse than the outdoors. The minutes of the expert appraisal committee meeting that recommended environmental approval to these projects do not reflect any of the above concerns.

Public outrage

The citizens of Delhi have been campaigning against this project for over three weeks now. The anger against this form of unimaginative urban development is only matched by their disbelief and outrage over the privilege that the government has given itself to take such decisions. There is very little accessible information about these projects. Citizens have been denied any opportunity for public participation in these decisions and now that they are asking questions, they are being seen as “obstructionist”.

It remains to be seen if all the citizen efforts through campaigns and litigation will change the course of these projects and the city. But what is clear at this stage is that we are witnessing more than just the creation of government housing. This project legalises the sale of assets that the government only holds in public trusteeship.

*Environmental researchers at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

This article first appeared in The Wire


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