By Manju Menon, Ashutosh Dixit, Rajeev Suri, Kanchi Kohli*
The new “redevelopment” projects for Delhi sanctioned by the central government threaten to test the ecological limits of the city.
The projects propose to increase the houses, cars and commercial offices in the greenest parts of the city. In this context, urban designers rightly point out that the centre of the city, serviced by the Metro, roads, water and other amenities, cannot remain as lightly populated as it presently is, given the extreme shortage of affordable housing and commercial space in Delhi.
Secondly, urban activists state that the ecological impact of creating a denser city centre should be compared with the social and environmental costs of an expanding metropolis that involves land acquisition and infrastructure provision.
These are very well-placed arguments and as rational urban residents, we must aim to strike a balance between housing needs and public services as well as the fast disappearing urban biodiversity.
Can we have both? The answer may be a yes, no or maybe — depending on whom you ask. But with the Delhi Development Authority, or DDA, at the helm of land use planning in Delhi, “redevelopment” projects are a lose-lose proposition because they will severely affect the capital’s environment without meeting the genuine demands of a growing city.
The DDA, set up by a bill passed by Parliament in 1957, is the agency in charge of planning the city’s land use. It is headed by the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and the vice chairman is appointed by the Centre. It also is legally required to have an Advisory Council to assist it in urban planning and development questions. It is legally permitted to “constitute as many committees” for purposes it feels is necessary. The composition of the Authority, Council and Committees have several positions for central government bureaucrats or technical members nominated by them.
The DDA has a prestigious past of having developed residential colonies, commercial centres and official complexes. Its main function is to “provide for the development of Delhi according to plan”. For this, it prepares Delhi’s Master Plan, the primary document that governs land use in the city, and the zonal development plan that contain site plans and use plans for specific zones based on population and building density. The zonal plans ought to show roads, open spaces, public buildings, markets and private use areas.
Since any land use change is permitted only if it adheres to the Master Plan and Zonal Plans, the DDA is the master of all land use in Delhi. This is a huge responsibility on a singular organisation but it has also put the DDA in a position of great privilege and power over the years. Today, the state of Delhi’s environment and the challenges facing all residents are tied to DDA’s Plans.
It is crucial to understand that Delhi’s crisis is a manufactured one and the DDA’s role in this deserves in-depth investigation. Delhi’s land use regulations foster extreme differentiation between public land, private areas and free zones or “unauthorised colonies”. The public land is under the central government’s control. Its contractors like the NBCC or comprehensive construction management departments like CPWD carry out their development under near-monopolistic conditions.
The private areas contain housing, commercial spaces, open areas and green cover and relatively suitable public amenities. The free zones are characterised by unregulated building, inadequate amenities and poor environment.
DDA was primarily in charge of providing affordable housing for Delhi’s residents but its failure to supply against the growing demand has pushed residents into the congested unregulated zones or “lal dora” areas. As the noted architect, Prof Ranjit Sabikhi, notes, this has been the source of inequity and segregation in the city. Two-thirds of the city’s residents live in 15 per cent of the city’s total built up area.
To make matters worse, DDA norms are also used as a weapon against the middle and lower income groups. The lack of adequate residential and commercial units has forced traders to maximise the flexibility in land use in certain areas. But every now and then legal strictures are passed or laws amended to make these arrangements illegal. Social activist Dunu Roy calls attention to this double whammy. He says the DDA won’t provide for us and won’t let us provide for ourselves.
Even as residents and traders battle out the tight control of the DDA over Delhi’s land, the Authority itself seems unaccountable for any legal violations. The DDA has been implicated in several transgressions of the Master Plan. For example, the redevelopment of New Moti Bagh and East Kidwai Nagar have been permitted despite deviations from the stipulated FAR and ground cover and compromised EWS housing and social amenities.
Secondly, it has introduced innumerable legal ambiguities and confusion in the plans over years. For example, since 2007, Delhi’s Master Plan 2021 has been notified over 125 times and introduced nearly 180 amendments. In the context of the “redevelopment” of government housing colonies in Sarojini Nagar and other areas sanctioned by the central government, it is hard to tell how these have been permitted.
The Zone D Zonal Plan of these areas approved in 1999 and another updated draft put up for public comments in February 2017 carries a large “X” on the areas of Netaji Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Kidwai Nagar, Kotla Mubarakpur, Lajpat Nagar, Pant Nagar, Lodhi Colony and Aliganj, indicating that they are for “redevelopment”. With such zonal plans it is impossible to tell which constructions are legally permitted and which are illegal. Allowing this kind of ambiguity to endure in the plans is in the interests of those in power to do as they please.
Thirdly, the Urban Development Ministry and the DDA have deliberately stifled public consultations on the amendments to the Master Plan. On January 31 this year, the ministry amended the Delhi Development Rules to reduce the period of public consultation from 45 days to three! Within three days, the DDA published its notice seeking public comments on its proposal to amend the Master Plan to modify the FAR for community centres and local shopping areas, the registration and payment for mixed use premises and the layout of commercial streets and areas.
It is no surprise then that the members of Citizens Alliance, who resisted the conversion of the Alaknanda community land into a mall, say that the DDA has turned into a “hoarder and manipulator” of land in Delhi. They have written about these issues to the Housing and Urban Affairs Minister and look forward to a response.
With land use plans and regulations firmly under the DDA’s unilateral control, Delhi’s housing, transport and environmental crises are not likely to reduce. If we are to truly improve governance, Delhi’s environment and life for all residents, it must begin with democratising urban land regulation. The DDA should not act as the landlord of Delhi. It must be reformed to prevent such harmful actions, which now go by the term “redevelopment”.
A version of this article was first published in the Business Standard