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Whose City Do We Live In?

November 4, 2006

On September 18, 2004, newspapers carried a mandatory Public Notice issued by the DDA, inviting objections and suggestions to a proposal to modify the Delhi Master Plan (2001). The DDA wanted to change the classification of six hectares of land that lay right by the Yamuna — just south of the erstwhile Yamuna Pushta slums — from “riverbed” to “commercial”. The change was needed to accommodate an it Park as part of the collaboration between the Delhi government and the Delhi Metro.

At first sight, the notice appears much like any other of the dozens one skips rapidly past every morning. What makes this notice different, however, is that, at the time of issue, the it park had already been under construction for over a year despite a 2003 Supreme Court order to clear all riverbed encroachments, and to stop all construction on the Yamuna banks. The DDA’s “proposal” was, in effect, simply a de-facto regularisation of what planners argue is an illegal encroachment. Just a few kilometres away, accused of violating the same Master Plan, and under the directive of the very same Supreme Court verdict, another kind of “encroachment” had no public notice in its defence, as tens of thousands of people were forcibly evicted from the slums of Yamuna Pushta — home to some of them for twenty-five years.

The vastly different experiences of the slum dwellers of Yamuna Pushta and the builders of the it park raise unsettling questions. The Master Plan and the DDA are ostensibly working towards a city that is more prepared and able to provide a better quality of life for all its citizens. But are all citizens — rich and poor — truly considered equally entitled to live in this city?

In 1957, under the Delhi Development Act, the DDA was charged with the task of preparing a Master Plan for Delhi and also designated as the sole developer of land to be acquired for urbanisation. Private builders and real estate developers were deliberately left out. In 2003, the DDA commissioned a study by the Association of Management and Development Authorities to assess its track record. The findings in the report are startling. For low-income housing, the DDA was to develop 27,487 hectares of land in the 20-year period of the first master plan. Of this only 15,540 was acquired. Similarly, in 1962, the total existing urban residential land was 4,694 hectares. The plan proposed to add another 14,479 hectares by 1981. But the land actually developed was only 7,316 hectares. Roughly half the projected residential land was not developed.

Yet the DDA did not fail to meet all its targets. During the same period, the High Income Group (HIG) received more (29 percent) than their share of 20 percent of DDA developed housing, while the Low Income Group and Middle Income Group received 44.44 percent and 17.63 percent — less than their share of 50 percent and 30 percent respectively. In the next plan period, of the 5,007 hectares acquired between 1990 and 1998 to extend Delhi’s urban areas, 93 percent was in Dwarka and Rohini. The fact that the cheapest houses built in these areas cost Rs 20 lakh shows that, even in this phase of Delhi’s urban development, the DDA does not seem to have been concerned with making space for the poor. Meanwhile, the same Supreme Court that is so concerned with unauthorised construction doesn’t seem to view the failure to provide adequate housing on the DDA’s part as a violation of the Master Plan that merits correction.

Are the poor paying for violating a Master Plan that the DDA itself repeatedly violates, and whose provisions have been far from fulfilled? The Tejender Khanna Committee set up earlier this year by the Ministry of Urban Development to examine unauthorised construction and misuse of land found that nearly 75 percent of the city lives in unauthorised colonies, out of which nearly 40 percent lives in a combination of resettlement colonies and unauthorised slums. The report directly links this to DDA’s “failure to build adequate housing units and land area for low-income communities.”

Rafiya, in her early twenties and the mother of two children, now lives in Bawana jj Colony, and is a living example of this failure. Her eyes turn fiery when she speaks of her struggle to get a pink slip of paper that would entitle her to a small plot of land on the other side of the city, far away from all she knew. The sole provider for her children, mother and husband, she was born and raised in the colony in Pushta. “People tell you to go back where you came from, to the village. What village? I was born in this city. I can live nowhere else. Doesn’t anyone care that I have no place here?”

Rafiya’s case is the norm rather than the exception. Even when some resettlement has been undertaken, it is woefully inadequate. The size of the plots in resettlement colonies have reduced from 25 square metre in the 2001 Master Plan, to the 18 and 12.5 square metre plots allotted today. In addition, the peripheral location of the resettlement colonies significantly and negatively impact employment opportunities, and distances the poor from the already limited public services they had access to, argues Kalyani Menon-Sen, co-ordinator of Jagori, an ngo working in Bawana.

Most Bawana residents came from Yamuna Pushta, where they were accused of encroaching on public land in violation of the Master Plan. But the land where Rafiya’s house stood is on the same prohibited riverbank that is home to the Metro it park, as well as the new Commonwealth Games Village and the Akshardham temple, none of which were in the original land-use plan for the area but were subsequently ‘regularised’. Why is it then, asks Menon-Sen, that the option of regularising the colonies of Pushta was never considered?

There are issues beyond the limited and literal sense of physical space for housing that the poor are denied. The recent debates on sealing highlight an important added layer to any debate on land use — space is intimately linked to economic and social productivity. The underlying issue here is the right to livelihood, argues Lalit Batra, an activist on housing rights formerly with the Hazards Centre, New Delhi. Activists like Madhu Kishwar, long working with informal sector workers and hawkers, point out that every inch on the city is regulated, and the poor’s right to live and work are given scant attention. Unofficial estimates suggest that there are anywhere between 3-5 lakh hawkers selling goods on the streets in Delhi, yet only about 4,000 have licenses, making nearly 98 percent of them illegal and open to exploitation. These same illegal hawkers pay nearly Rs 500 crore annually in bribes and payments to keep their temporary hawking stations from being destroyed, and, according to estimates by Kishwar, generate nearly Rs 3,000 crore of sales and revenue in Delhi alone.

The on-going sealing debate is about a similar point — are ordinary people, and especially those belonging to the middle and upper classes, being penalised for the failed implementation of the Master Plan? The All India Traders Conference (AITC) cites the DDA’s own reports that show that it has developed only 16 percent of the commercial space it was meant to since 1961. AITC secretary Praveen Khandelwal says, “If they haven’t made space for us, how can they penalise us for making some space for ourselves?”

Who then are the voices behind the Metro it Parks and the sealing drives? The Khanna committee outlines a telling story about representations made to it by various actors during its recent enquiry: “Barring representatives of some rwas from well-to-do colonies, who expressed serious apprehensions about commercialisation in their colonies making them unlivable, the view projected by a large majority of other interlocutors was that they were quite comfortable with their pattern of mixed land use, and they shouldn’t be made victims of an impractical, segregated land-use policy, having little correlation with socio-economic ground realities.”

Beyond Category a and b colonies, the voices of Delhi’s citizens seem to be going unheard even as the government ignores other flagrant violations at its own whim. Urban Planner Gita Dewan Verma has called the Master Plan a “penal code to punish citizens rather than a document of citizens’ entitlements and city solutions.” What we need to recognise is that only certain citizens seem to be bearing the brunt of the drive to make an efficient, beautiful city for the government and the rich, but not for a majority of those who live within it.

This piece originally appeared in Tehelka, Oct 07, 2006.

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