Some home truths

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

The Delhi government begins another exercise to regularise unauthorised colonies, and questions are raised about its timing.

The Delhi government begins another exercise to regularise unauthorised colonies, and questions are raised about its timing.

RAVINDER SINGH CHOWDHARY is adamant that Delhi should be understood as a city of farmers. Sitting on the edge of lush fields of brinjal, rice and spinach in Madanpur Khadar village in the National Capital Territorys Badarpur constituency, Chowdhary explains the paradox: From Kilokri and Kotla Mubarakpur in the south-east, to Karol Bagh in the north-west, almost every new colony post-Partition has been settled on farmland. Those settled by the government were given water, electricity and drainage and became proper colonies; those settled by private individuals were denied these basic amenities and termed illegal or unauthorised.

In a recent, and controversial, policy announcement, the Delhi government and the Union Ministry of Urban Development seem to have taken cognisance of Chowdharys understanding of the citys settlements. And they have begun issuing provisional regularisation certificates to about 1,500 unauthorised colonies that are mostly settled on agricultural land, a move that they claim will benefit approximately 40 lakh residents.

With the Assembly elections due in November, questions have been raised regarding the timing of the move. But Ajay Maken, Union Minister of State for Urban Development, told Frontline that the announcement came as the logical culmination of a process that began in February 2007 with the announcement of the New Master Plan 2021, which contained the basic provisions for authorisation. He stated that the process began two and a half years before the elections and so should not be seen as a sudden decision or a knee-jerk reaction. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party in the Delhi Assembly and in Parliament, remains unconvinced; it termed the move an election stunt.

Perhaps one reason to believe Maken when he denies any link between the regularisations and the upcoming elections is the fact that nothing he does at this stage appears likely to give the Congress a third term in the Delhi government. The court-ordained sealing and demolition drives, the sharply rising prices of essential commodities, and the much-touted anti-incumbency factor suggest that the BJP is set to win Delhi after a decade in opposition. In the 2003 elections, Sheila Dikshits government was able to divert electoral anger to the BJP government at the Centre, points out a source close to the party. But the same strategy cannot work with the Congress in power in the State and at the Centre. The ruling partys chances have also been hurt by the factionalism that has been characteristic of the Congress second term. However, election stunt or sober city planning, the regularisation drive offers a fascinating insight into the settlement of the countrys most populous city.

The earliest decision to regularise colonies was taken in 1961, when 103 colonies were regularised between 1959 and 1962. In 1969, through another notification, the Union government took a decision to regularise another 51 colonies. The first major, and mildly controversial, regularisation wave came during 1977 during the regime of Indira Gandhi wherein the government sought to regularise another 567 colonies. However, sustained opposition from a variety of groups forced the government to lay down a series of guidelines that stated that severe action would be taken against any official in whose jurisdiction any unauthorised construction took place. But by 1993, the city was preparing for another round of regularisation this time for another 1,071 colonies. The government hit its first legal roadblock.

On October 31, 1993, Common Cause, an organisation ventilating common problems of people, filed a civil writ petition in the Delhi High Court urging the judiciary to restrain the government from implementing the policy, on the grounds that regularisation inevitably led to the provision of civic services to these colonies, stretching the resources of the municipal authorities, beyond what was originally planned, to the limit of the breakdown of these services.

In its petition, Common Cause claimed that ... in the process of sponsoring, motivating and encouraging the setting up of these unauthorised, and subsequently, regularised colonies, the interests of the underprivileged persons do not really get served; they are encouraged to act illegally and to gain from such illegal acts; their moral fabric gets undermined; they get encouraged to dispose of the illegally secured gains and move over to other areas for creating new unauthorised colonies; and these measures inevitably generate an atmosphere of crime as well as develop a nexus between property dealers and land grabbers, the operation of the land mafia and a general lowering of the standards of morals.

Common Cause essentially argued that regularisation posed what legal experts call a moral hazard; that is, a precedent that would encourage people to act extra-legally. The High Court found the societys arguments persuasive enough to appoint a high-powered committee, pending whose recommendations no regularisation could take place.

However, in 1994, the Delhi government approached the High Court asking for permission to provide basic amenities to these colonies. The court in its reply clarified that the amenities could be provided but that would not imply regularisation. The most recent judgment came in April 2008 when the High Court finally permitted the government to provide sewerage facilities to these colonies, again noting that by giving this permission [on the provision of sewerage facilities] this court has not expressed any opinion about the regularisation of such unauthorised colonies.

The courts may have reserved judgment for now, but Ajay Maken is reasonably confident that the drive will pass muster. He points out that almost 90 per cent of these colonies are built either on private land or on land that has been earmarked for acquisition but has not been formally taken over. Those living in such colonies are neither encroachers nor land-grabbers in fact, most residents have paid for their land. Pursuant to the 1994 and the 2008 orders, unauthorised colonies now enjoy the same facilities in respect of water, electricity and sewerage as authorised ones.

The provisions for regularisation incorporated in Master Plan 2021 also imply that while the 1993 regularisation was contrary to the Master Plan, the new round in 2008 carries more legal heft. The government has also earmarked a fund of Rs.2,800 crore, of which Rs.743 crore has been allocated for 2008-09. Hence, fears that regularisation of these colonies will create additional stress on the infrastructure, to the detriment of authorised colonies, appear misplaced.

Regularisation in fact benefits all residents. At present, most unauthorised colonies are forced to rely on groundwater for their daily needs resulting in the dipping of the water table. By providing water and electricity legally, the government may be able to reduce groundwater usage and power theft and improve the performance of the water and electricity grids.

The government is also at pains to illustrate that development work is under way. A look at government figures indicates that the Delhi Jal Board has already laid water pipelines for 407 colonies while proposals have been submitted for another 417; as many as 1,093 colonies have been electrified and work is in progress in another 47.

A visit to Badarpur constituency illustrates how such in situ upgradation is possible. Home to some of Delhis largest unauthorised colonies, such as Aali Extension, Madanpur Khadar Extension and Jagdamba Colony, Badarpur has benefited from the vigorous efforts of its Nationalist Congress Party Member of the Legislative Assembly Ram Vir Singh Bidhuri.

Tall, imposing and energetic, Bidhuri is not one to be needlessly modest about his initiatives: large signboards inform the constituents of the pucca roads, drains, handpumps and electricity connections provided by their MLA. Large sections of the residents are pleased with the development the area has witnessed in the past four years. We have metalled almost all the roads in our constituency, says Bidhuri, and hope to provide sewerage as soon as possible.

However, even Maken and Bidhuris enthusiasm does not absolve the government of what is essentially a rear-guard action coming at a time when the consequences of decades of poorly conceived city planning have become apparent.

Delhi as a city is so wracked by uncertainties that even the size of its population is open to question. The 2001 Census actually places the Delhi urban agglomerations (UA) population of 12.9 million in the third place behind the Greater Mumbai UAs 15.4 million and the Kolkata UAs 13.2 million. However, a recent paper published by the Population Reference Bureau a United States-based population think thank suggests that Delhi might actually be the largest urban agglomeration, after all.

Authored by O.P. Sharma, a former Deputy Director of Census Operations in India, the paper points out that in India a UA is defined as a continuous urban spread constituting the urban population of a town or city and its adjoining urban outgrowths (OGs), or two or more physically contiguous towns together with their OGs... India defines its urban agglomerations in a quirky way: They cannot cross State boundaries. This has no effect upon the population size of Kolkata and Greater Mumbai UA, which are located far from their state borders. But it does affect Delhi. Sharmas paper estimates that if Delhis population is measured by the same yardstick as Mumbais or Kolkatas, the redefined population for 2001 jumps to 16.4 million, 0.2 million greater than Mumbais, and adjusting for constant growth, Delhis population in 2007 is estimated at a whopping 21.5 million.

While this may seem to characterise the quibbling so typical of statisticians, this adjusted figure has considerable policy implications regarding the size of the populations taken into account while planning civic infrastructure. This mismatch between reported and actual populations might explain why Delhis infrastructure routinely appears overburdened.

A further examination of Sharmas figures reveals that in the decade from 1991, Delhis adjusted population increased by a staggering 60 per cent; official Census figures peg the growth at almost 52 per cent. Housing, however, has not kept pace. While Delhi Development Authority (DDA) figures are not easily available, a presentation made by Sajha Manch a non-governmental organisation concerned with urban issues on Master Plan 2021 states that in the period of the second Master Plan (1981-2001), the DDA estimated that new housing of 16 lakhs would be required. In fact, the DDA was able to provide land and housing for only 5.5 lakh dwelling units (DUs), roughly 34 per cent of the target. Even within this greatly reduced number, there was a bias against the poor. Seventy per cent of the housing to be built was supposed to cater to the economically weaker sections (40 per cent), and low income group (30 per cent). However, only 58 per cent of the housing actually built was allotted to poorer groups, while for the rich the target was over-achieved by more than three times.

The DDA website states that in the 30 years from 1967 to January 2007, the organisation allotted a total of 3,67,724 flats, or a paltry 0.3 million houses in a city of 21.5 million. This severe housing crunch has forced working class populations to seek alternative means of accommodation.

Even government documents acknowledge this failure. An October 1996 letter from the Ministry of Urban Affairs and Employment to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi notes that the colonies have come up primarily due to the skyrocketing land prices in the national capital and the inability of the large majority of migrant as well as local population to afford shelter ....

The regularisation drive is only the latest development in a long-running feud over the future shape of Delhi, a conflict that has been played out on many fronts such as the closure of industrial units and wholesale markets, the outright assault on working class homes, and the demolition of polluting slums. The role of the courts has been remarkable in the blatant effort to ensure that an elite crust of Delhis population continues to enjoy its monopoly over resources such as land, water, electricity and public spaces.

The regularisation drive is a step towards recognising the rights of the working class to proper housing. It is now acceptable in public discourse to bemoan the rise of vote-bank politics at the cost of the rule of law; at such instances, it is useful to remember vote banks comprise the basis of a constituency-based system of democracy.

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