By Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli*
On January 17, 2017, an MoU was signed between V. Srinivas, the deputy director of AIIMS, and the NBCC at an event called the “signing ceremony”. The then director of AIIMS, professor M.C. Misra, invited the AIIMS community to this event. Also present were Venkaiah Naidu (then Union urban development minister) and Shri J.P. Nadda, the Union health minister.
But some staff members of AIIMS decided to mark their protest at this event. The previous day, the Resident Doctors Association of AIIMS had written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying they would observe this event as a “black day”.
Why did the doctors of AIIMS to protest? And why should it matter to the people of Delhi?
For those who have been closely following the two cases in the Delhi high court on East Kidwai Nagar (EKN) and the seven government housing colonies, “redevelopment” would suffice as the one-word answer to the aforementioned questions. This word has come to signify the worst of environmental and urban planning and governance and public loot by government agencies.
It strikes fear and anger in the hearts of citizens who deal with the air, water, housing and traffic crises in Delhi on a daily basis. The projects involve the commercialisation and privatisation of high-value public lands, the loss of urban ecology and heritage and an increased burden on public infrastructures like roads and groundwater.
Project documents such as the MoU, the cabinet papers and approval letters reveal the extent of collusion between NBCC – the project proponent of EKN – and 7 GPRA and Central government agencies, expert bodies, consultants and senior MPs in pushing through these projects. Both projects, costing over Rs 37,000 crore, are now stuck in courts.
Redevelopment at AIIMS
The proposed “redevelopment” of AIIMS purportedly aims at the “augmentation of AIIMS Housing pool”. It involves two parcels of land belonging to the institute: 28.3 acres in West Ansari Nagar and 49.4 acres in Ayur Vigyan Nagar. These are residential colonies of AIIMS containing 1,444 single or two-storeyed houses of type I to type IV.
The MoU for the project states that these and other structures in the sites such as garages, Dharamshalas, schools and temples are to be demolished to make way for 4,505 houses of type II to VI and “other infrastructure”. Once constructed Ayur Vigyan Nagar next to Ansal Plaza and opposite Uday Park will have towers of 67 metres and West Ansari Nagar – opposite AIIMS and adjoining Safdarjung Hospital – will get structures 39 metres high. In comparison, the East Kidwai Nagar complex, which is already partially constructed, has towers 46 metres high.
But riding on this genuine need to increase housing for the AIIMS staff is the more contentious objective of “optimum utilisation of land, a scarce resource”. As per official documents, the built-up area (BAU) in West Ansari Nagar is proposed to increase from 28,550 sq. m to 3,31,371 sq. m and, in Ayur Vigyan Nagar, it will go up from 72,766 sq. m to 5,99,810 sq. m.
In redevelopment vocabulary, optimisation of land is synonymous with the monetisation of public assets through clause 3.3.2 (x) of the MPD 2021. This clause allows redevelopment projects to commercialise upto 10% of the permissible floor are ratio (FAR). NBCC, the project proponent, eyes the construction and sale of high rise towers on AIIMS land by maximising the FAR norms and the commercialisation clause allowed by the Delhi Masterplan.
The AIIMS expenditure finance committee gave an in-principle approval in October 2015 to increase residential housing at AIIMS through this form of “self-financing”. The cabinet secretariat approved it on October 13, 2016. But strangely, this decision undid earlier decisions of the institute.
Clause 1.6 of the MoU between AIIMS and NBCC states “CPWD would be asked to stop tendering work of 352 housing of Type IV to Type VI at Ayur Vigyan Nagar”. NBCC offered to reimburse the expenditure incurred by AIIMS towards the cost of engaging an architect as well as the costs borne by CPWD to wrap up the work it had initiated and leave the site on an “as is where is” basis.
If indeed the decision to pursue the project in this form and shape was taken independently by the highest officials of the Institute, then the question that begs asking is why this decision is so unfavourable to AIIMS. The project involves large-scale commercialisation.
As per NBCC’s own admission at least 1,17,756 sq. metres of high-value commercial apartments are proposed to be built. 63% of this to come up at Ayur Vigyan Nagar. In addition 37, 530.908 sq. meters will be built as a “transit hostel” in place of the existing modest 3784 sq. metres of Dharamshala in West Ansari Nagar.
The proceeds from the sale of the commercial components are meant to cover the cost of the housing construction for AIIMS. In addition, it will also service the NBCC’s costs in the form of 12% return on its investment of Rs 200 crores, 8% project management costs and 1% marketing expenses for its role as a sale agent.
The remainder would go to the Consolidated Fund of India as revenue. Thus, for the project proponent and the central government, AIIMS redevelopment is a revenue generator.
At its end of the bargain, AIIMS may no doubt have the housing it presently needs, but it would lose the opportunity to use the available land for its future needs, the commercial exploitation of the newly created space could lead to congestion, water scarcity and other problems and soon this premier medical institute servicing large populations may have the move out of this area altogether.
Approval authorities misled
In January 2019, the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) recommended the environment clearance for both Ayur Vigyan Nagar and West Ansari Nagar projects. These projects were approved by the Central ministry only because the Delhi State Environment Impact Assessment (SEIAA) authority’s term had expired in April 2018. Since then neither the Centre nor the GNCTD has pushed for its reconstitution.
These projects have been approved based on incomplete assessments, “copy-paste” EIA reports and assurances of future approvals for critical resources such as water. The EIA reports of both the sites carry an identical description of the study area and population estimates listed in Table 3.21.
They state that West Ansari Nagar is located in “Ayur Vigyan Nagar Tehsil –Hauz Khas, of South Delhi District”, which is actually the location for the Ayur Vigyan Nagar project. A wrong description of the study area is not just a gross legal violation but would also lead to an improper assessment of impacts. As per law, such false and misleading data can make projects liable for rejection, and clearances, if granted, could be recalled.
As in the case of 7GPRA, there is also a major question regarding the legality of these approvals, which treat the AIIMS housing project as two separate ones for the purpose of environmental approvals showing reduced impacts and consider them as one to maximise the commercialisation clause of the MPD. These projects should have been treated as one integrated project with a combined EIA as is required by the Office Memorandum dated No. J-11013/41/2006-IA.II (I) dated 24 December 2010.
As per the information available on the DUAC website, in September 2018, the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC) rejected approval to the Ayur Vigyan project on grounds of the loss of tree cover in these colonies. The application submitted to the DUAC mentions only 1,687 trees in this colony out of which 700 would need to be cut.
However, the tree numbers disclosed in the applications for environment approval give different figures. It says that the total trees in question are 325 out of which 217 are to be cut and 108 to be translocated. These contradictory numbers also appear to a major underestimation. The Delhi forest department has not carried out a mandatory tree census for at least four years, and the public data on the department’s website is incomplete.
It would be a gross injustice to take the NBCC’s numbers of tree cover in these colonies at face value. Both West Ansari Nagar and Ayur Vigyan Nagar are very green residential areas with well laid internal roads lined by shade-giving and flowering trees, large playgrounds and parks that provide open space for community interactions of children, women and the aged.
Flowerbeds and well-tended kitchen gardens with fruit trees surround many houses. Both these green areas provide much needed ecological services not only to the residents but also to those living and working in nearby congested areas like South Extension and Sadiq Nagar.
The DUAC has also asked for details related to the overall traffic management around the site. These are missing in the project EIA documents. The traffic burden is one of the major questions in the East Kidwai Nagar and the 7 GPRA citizen’s protests and court cases. This issue has a very limited reference in the EIA reports of the AIIMS projects based on which environment clearances have been granted.
The EIA report for West Ansari Nagar calls the site “a highly traffic intensive area because three National Highways; NH- 24, NH-2, NH-8 are located in 6 km range and more than 11 roads.” But the environment clearances granted to both the projects in February 2019 state that “Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) shall be carried out engaging services of an organisation”, establishing that these approvals have been granted without this study or any management measures being in place.
Dissent against commercialisation
A note by the institute states that the decision to go with this proposal was “firmed up after wide consultations and deliberations by a broad-based committee of faculty whereafter consensus was arrived (at) in a meeting chaired by the director, AIIMS in the presence of heads of departments, faculty association, the officers’ union, the nursing union and the karmachari union.”
However, this claim by the institute flies in the face of open dissent and protests by doctors and administrative staff. Their concern has been that this decision to commercialise AIIMS campuses would worsen their space and infrastructure shortages rather than solve them.
The AIIMS OPD, for example, is built to cater to less than 2,500 patients per day but in reality, it attends to over 30,000 patients every day. The roads surrounding AIIMS are already heavily congested with traffic.
The institute issued show cause notices to these doctors who have questioned this decision of the administration and there are reported threats of termination of their jobs. The doctors have continued their efforts to bring the attention of parliamentarians to this major issue of turning AIIMS land into commercial establishments.
They have suggested alternatives such as using government budgets to build staff housing rather than this form of “self-financing”, providing housing at East Kidwai Nagar as well as easing the pressure on AIIMS land by relocating other administrative bodies such as Indian Council of Medical Research and National Board of Examination from the campus.
These solutions are proposed with the aim of protecting the assets of AIIMS so that it may continue to provide public health and medical facilities to the poorest patients and conduct state of the art medical research that benefits the nation. These letters have gone unanswered.
The MPD clauses that permit monetisation and privatisation of public lands is socially and ecologically indefensible. The AIIMS redevelopment is the latest in the line of projects that grab the public lands of Delhi. These resources are important for the public purposes they serve today and in the future such as housing, accessibility, ecology and heritage. But the Centre seems bent on approving these projects one by one.
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* With the Centre for Policy Research. This article was first published in The Wire