A state of siege

Published : Dec 09, 2000 00:00 IST

How four decades of official apathy, corruption and distorted plan implementation have resulted in a royal mess in Delhi.

FOR the two million-odd workers who lived on the industries of Delhi, the current crisis is nothing short of a state of siege. The system has declared war on their workplace and pushed them beyond the line of legality. For the first time, the real politi cal import of the Master Plan of Delhi (MPD) has finally come out in the open: from the rarefied realms of technicalities into the contested public domain. In the complex terrain of Delhi's development, the stakes are high, the players are big and the co nsequences are disastrous, seemingly only for the urban poor. The current crisis, though unprecedented, is the second assault on the poor - now in their place of work after the demolition drive on their homes. The Master Plan as a legal document is once again here, redefined in the background of the new aspirations of the Indian middle class for a higher quality of life of international standards, to create "beautiful" cities that can attract global capital. Four decades of urban planning in Delhi, whic h progressively marginalised both the urban environment and the poor, is now faking an encounter between the two. Shooting from the shoulders of the judiciary, the liberalised mindset that is benumbed by the visions of "the city beautiful" is somehow lon ging to relive the idealised image of suburbia as conceived in the Master Plan. For this, "The New Vision" is willing to cleanse the city of the poor and the polluting, while the real maladies lie outside - in the many daggers that are drawn in Delhi's p olitical arena, in the commissions and omissions by the multiple implementing authorities, in the deeply corrupted markets of the city's commodified public spaces and in the Master Plan mode of development itself.

Back in 1962, the first Master Plan for Delhi was brought out with the help of Ford Foundation-sponsored experts from the United States and a group of young Indian planners trained in England and the U.S. The Nehruvian brand of socialism was the politica l backdrop with industrialised urbanisation as the chosen mode. The Master Plan was a trendsetter in that it became the model instrument for negotiating the growth of cities all over India. After 38 years, in the light of today's crisis, some of the prim ary underpinnings of that Master Plan need to be re-evaluated for their legitimacy.

The maladies of the Master Plan

As a direct derivative of the industrial logic, the Master Plan assumes that a healthy environment can be achieved only through strict zoning of functions. Using a two-dimensional mode of representation as a land use plan, it assumes that the complex fac tors that make up for the vibrant economy of an ever-expanding, changing Indian city can be contained and controlled by this feeble instrument, albeit its legal sanctity. Small industrial towns and suburbs may be successful in isolating its industry and production centres from housing, institutional and commercial areas. But that is not the stuff the Indian metropolis is made of. Its morphological structure is a reflection of its multi-ethnic population base, complex functional structure, the power play that determines its institutional disposition, the historic layering of its urban fabric and above all its economic propensity poised to change direction at any moment. The often repeated expression that cities are "the engines of growth" of our economy , recognises this characteristic, while planned development through the 100-odd Master Plans in currency today in India refuse to provide the rudimentary structure necessary to facilitate them.

Large industrial estates zoned in the plan normally generate a scurry of auxiliary production units that churn out from slums and other non-conforming areas, products that are monetarily cheap (in spite of the high borrowing rates of private finance), bu t at great social cost to its labour. In other words, most products we have in the Indian markets are affordable because they are subsidised by the poor. Besides the support to the large, formal sector industries, the informal sector provides for almost the entire consumer needs of the urban poor and to a large extent, of the middle classes, through production and distribution networks that entirely depend on the non-conforming areas and public spaces like footpaths. The evasion of excise duty and sales tax merely help offset the 40 per cent inherent slush money that is drained out by the politico-bureaucratic networks, put-ting back squarely the real cost of a soft production location and the subsidy by the workers. And let us face facts, the mainstre am planned production process can never meet these needs of the majority in the city, and therefore has no right to subvert deliberately the informal sector.

The lessons from the traditional urban centres of India such as Banaras (now Varanasi), Kancheepuram, Ajmer and Old Delhi are most evidently of the richness of mixed use. More significantly, it is through function-specific building typology that old citi es of India salvage the dignity of the multiple functions that the residential neighbourhoods accommodated. Through strict mono-functional zoning and the absence of follow-up urban design of building typology, the Master Plan failed to protect the reside ntial quality as well as criminalise the small entrepreneurs who are priced out of the market and are left with no option but to operate from their already overcrowded homes. Strict zoning, as prescribed in the Master Plan, to start with, is a violation of the lifestyle of Indian people and the economic propensities of our metropolitan cities.

Compounding the ill-effects of an unimaginative mono-functional zoning is the failure of the plan implementation agencies to produce almost 30,000 industrial units of various hues it provided for in the two Master Plans. Consequently, with a highly buoya nt monetary environment and the support from a well entrenched land mafia-politician-bureaucracy nexus, the polluting industries and the informal sector have invaded the soft areas of the city: the unauthorised settlements and the environmentally sensiti ve areas left out of the development plan. In the face of the failure of the state and the industrial apparatus to provide basic housing to the labour, slums and other vulnerable, high-density, low-income settlements, the urban villages and even the fact ory sheds often provide cheap, overcrowded housing for the labour employed by both the formal and informal sectors. Thus both at their place of work and home, the working people of Delhi are kept out of the mainstream planning process.

However, it is indisputable that the polluting industries must be moved out of the residential areas to places where pollution can be contained and treated. The resettlement policy for this is yet to take any formal shape with the two parties in power in Delhi squabbling over amendments to the Master Plan for land-use change to provide for the relocation. Besides, the relocation plan prepared for the Bawana area in the west of Delhi also suffers from the same pitfall of mono-functional zoning, without a ny provision for workers' housing. And the plan expects them to commute 30 to 40 km by the proposed Metro Rail scheme to their places of work! This new industrial area, as planned, also has a half-baked pollution control and treatment provision and a min imum size of 100 square metre plots, which would be clearly out of the reach of the majority of the industries that need relocation. The villages around the new industrial sites have meanwhile staged political protests against the waste disposal system p roposed in the plan. Altogether, it is a royal mess, resulting from four decades of apathy, corruption and distorted plan implementation.

At the same time, the very agencies that demand strict zoning in housing areas to save the environment are continually amending the Master Plan (more than 220 times till date) to accommodate the powerful land mafia, the banks and the newly empowered reli gious groups. Comm-unity centre sites legally zoned as such in the Master Plan are amended to put up hotels and commercial centres of international standards (a euphemism for consumption centres for imported products and foods). Multiple five-star hotel sites and fly-overs are eating into the city's Ridge. The Yamuna river bed, which is the main recharge zone for Delhi's groundwater sources, is today dumped with millions of tonnes of fly ash that leech toxic chemicals into the aquifer, for reclaiming la nd for globalised investments in the transport sector and to achieve the vision of a new Manhattan on the river front. And all these by amending the Master Plan and against the recommendations of, or in the absence of a proper, environmental impact asses sment. Clearly the planning and implementation authorities in Delhi have lost the moral authority to lament the loss of environmental quality in residential areas, when their proactive role is leading to such deep damage to the city's environment.

The Master Plan, once notified in the Gazette, is a legal document, or the Master Plan becomes the legally acceptable framework laid down for the regulative as well as generative systems in the development of the city. As such, every citizen within the d esignated area of the city and for the time span of 20 years as prescribed in the plan, is obliged by law to abide by the plan. Any deviation from this prescription then becomes "non-conforming" and therefore illegal.

If the citizens are legally bound by the Master Plan, does it not stand to logic that the authority that prepares the plan is also bound by its provisions? Is it not then a violation of law when the governmental agency does not implement large parts of i ts own stipulations to develop Special Areas for mixed use (MPD 2001) and thousands of industrial units within the plan period? Is there one law for the citizens and another for the law-makers? The irony of it is that those who did not implement the lega l provisions in the Master Plan are now waging war on those who fulfilled the large gap in industrial provisions made by the Master Plan.

Lack of public participation

The genesis of the problem can also be traced to the poor provisions for public participation in the Master Plan process. As practised in the first two plans for Delhi (or for that matter every plan in the country), a Draft Master Plan is published, invi ting public objections within a certain period. Any citizen can write in to register objections and the planning authority collates and discusses the objections. Subsequently, the plan is presented to the elected body, in the case of Delhi to the Central government. As representatives of the people, the elected body is expected to express the people's will. Once the Cabinet approves the Plan, it is gazetted. In this system, the authority is not obliged to react to or accommodate all or any of the object ions. In other words, it can put out the plans for approval pretty much the way it wants. The elected body is often unable to comprehend the full import of the plan, as the plan relies heavily on charts, maps and other technical data as well as on some u nderlying assumptions. The fact that 40 per cent of the city is living in slums and the present crisis of industries make it abundantly clear that people's participation has not been structural to the decision-making process in the city.

The Nagar Palika Bill or the Constitution 74th Amendment, passed by an Act of Parliament is the law of this land since 1994. This Bill lays down a clear-cut structure for physical development, defines the composition of the bodies that are to prepare the Physical Plan (Master Plan) and prescribes a bottom-up system, where the needs of people are articulated at the lowest level, by the ward committees. Planning being a State subject in India, the 74th Amendment, delineates responsibility for the State an d the elected municipalities. In this disposition it is the responsibilities of the municipality to prepare the Master Plan, taking into consideration the ward committee requirements as well as the needs of other bodies above it in the hierarchy.

In the light of this, when one looks at Delhi, a number of ambiguities emerge. As the nation's capital, Delhi has two elected governments - the Centre and the State, both with legitimate stakes in its development. Land and police are with the Centre and the Delhi Development Authority that prepares the Master Plan works directly under the Centre. Besides these, the National Capital Region Planning Board is also involved indirectly in the development of Delhi. The State government controls the industrial sector, while the two elected municipalities, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), along with the DDA implement the Master Plan. The power lines cross here, and short circuits are aplenty. Delhi today is a contested territory, with many masters and many hitmen. The electoral mandate that backed different parties at the Centre and the State has further confounded the confusion. And now we also have the judiciary playing an active role, bringing all the stakeholders into direct confrontation. Sadly, the victims of this political and administrative charade are once again the city's poor.

If the MPD were truly a product of people's participation as prescribed in the 74th Amendment, the situation would have been very different. The accountability of elected representatives would have been far more clearly etched out and the plan implementa tion could not have taken such a brutal turn against the very people who willed it. Why is there such an inertia in implementing the six-year-old 74th Amendment? If the citizens of Delhi are made party to the decisions that affect their lives, the homes of the poor can be spared from being the battlefield of the titans of this country.

K.T. Ravindran is Professor and Head of the Department of Urban Design, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

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