• September 30, 2020 1:16 am

Reporting From Delhi

‘Same old false promise’

ByMihir Srivastava

Nov 1, 2019

This time again, a few months before the Delhi Assembly elections, the government announces it will regularise 1,797 unauthorised colonies. The public is sceptical, not hopeful

Last week, a few months before the Delhi Assembly elections, the Modi government made the announcement it will regularise all unauthorised colonies. Out of them, 69 are affluent with big bungalows and farmhouses, like Sainik Farms. The announcement was welcomed by Delhi’s Aam Aadami Party (AAP) government but the people at large, are neither happy or sad. They don’t know what to expect. They have reconciled to their fate of living in illegal settlements. Their experience has been, the show of intent doesn’t necessarily transform into action.

A joint secretary in the Ministry of Urban Development – in charge of Delhi Development Authority and Master Plan — an erudite man with strong views, who doesn’t want to identified, explained over a cup of coffee, sitting across a round table of a restaurant in Khan Market, “Delhi should not be so pessimistic. Things happen in the Capital, things have happened in the Capital,” he says, listing the example of introduction of CNG, which, he was reminded, was done on the behest of the court.

“(Narendra) Modi government has done improbable things, without going into the debate whether it’s good or bad, like demonetisation or abrogation of Article 370,” he says. Having made that assertion, he says that the path to regularisation of unauthorised colonies is paved with hundreds of legislative hurdles. Nevertheless, “Given the kind of support it enjoys in both Houses of Parliament, it’s only the Modi government that deliver on these promises,” he asserts.

The rich, the middle class and the poorer sections of society residing in these unauthorised colonies are sceptical, and don’t share the joint secretary’s enthusiasm. Bhupendra Singh Rawat, leader of the Jan Sangharsh Vahini, has been fighting for the regularisation of unauthorised colonies for three decades now, and calls this move another political bluff played out on the people of Delhi before the elections. “If the Modi government is serious, they should convene a two-day session of Parliament and make necessary amendments in the existing laws to fulfill their promises.” There are slews of amendments required for these colonies to be regularised.

Rawat lists a few. Many of these colonies are located on land earmarked for agriculture, or as per the Master Plan of Delhi have the designated uses like forest, river bed, roads, parks, schools. Some of these illegal houses have sprung up in and around historical monuments and therefore the land belongs to Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Then some of the provisions in the environment laws will have to be relaxed or made compatible.

“Delhi’s Master Plan can only be amended by Parliament,” Rawat clarifies. Not only this, the guidelines required to regularise a colony will have to be amended, like the mandatory provision that roads should at least be 30 feet wide.

The very fact that one-third of the population in the city resides in these unauthorised colonies and shanties is a testimony of failed planning. The DDA and other agencies failed to provide housing to middle and lower income groups as the burgeoning populations grew in the past few decades. A great example is a cluster of 250 shanties called JJ Tughlak Lane Camp just behind Rahul Gandhi’s bungalow, 12 Tughlak Lane on a road. Three decades ago, some labourers, after the construction was over, decided to keep living here.

Now there are two rows of shanties facing each other, with walls made of hardboard and tarpaulin sheets acting as the only demarcation where Brahmins, Yadavs, Valmikis and Muslims reside. They are now bona fide residents with ration cards, formal electricity connections and voter cards. “We want proper housing as a compensation or else we have no choice but to live here,” says Ram Kishan Vasora, Pradhan of the camp.

On the contrary, Ranjit Grewal who resides in a bungalow in the most affluent unauthorised colony — Sainik Farms — has been actively campaigning for regularisation of the poorer localities like Sangam Vihar adjoining his own, as a part of a comprehensive solution, calls this move by the government as a “lollipop before elections”. They have made similar promises in the past and have not delivered, “that’s why we are so behind”

“Zoning issues were part of city planning some 200 years ago in the US,” he draws the distinction. Town planners should be roped to give a holistic solution, as piecemeal measures only compound the problem. BRT corridor was a disaster as it was not based on the needs of the city, he gives an example.

Mala Saxena is one of the owners in Vasant Kunj Enclave, which started in 1989 on farmland and even got its RWA registered that very year. “Some of the unauthorised colonies are on government land and the rest on agricultural land, like Sainik Farms, which is being kept out of the ambit of regularisation,” she explains. Vasant Kunj Enclave is a typical unauthorised colony built on farmland as the “farmer’s children were not interested in farming, as is true of most outlying areas of Delhi, where even a decade ago you could see mustard crop swaying in the breeze.” The farmer and a property developer made proper layouts and started selling plots of 200-300 square yards one by one. By 2008, the prices had reached Rs 30,000 per square foot and a lot of houses started being built despite a Supreme Court stay on construction.

Soon, builders started constructing apartments going up four storeys with parking space in the basement. “Ten years ago, when we bought a plot of land, there were wide open spaces and very few houses,” says Saxena and adds, “now there is even a home for orphans, a residential facility for handicapped people, and a hostel for nurses. From one or two shops for provisions it has a Mother Dairy, an ATM, 2-3 beauty parlours and doctor’s clinics.” Even the MLA from AAP has opened his office there.

She claims that residents have very little expectation from regularisation except the possibility of property prices shooting up. They have built roads by pooling money together and buying interlocking tiles used by the municipality for pavements. There is private piped water supply and every building has its own soakage pit. BSES and MTNL have given connections and IGL is digging roads to provide piped natural gas. Five years ago, MCD took over from DDA. Soon after that, there was a construction boom as the Kejriwal government came in and assured people there would be no demolitions.

Saxena and Grewal fail to understand why the government is unable to draw up boundaries of the unauthorised colonies. It would not take more than a day to do a physical survey. Rawat points out that if these colonies are regularised, many high rises will come up, commercial activities will boom as all hindrances will go, and these colonies will be able to accommodate more than four times the current population. Then neighbouring cities like Noida and Gurugram will lose their appeal. He smells a rat: that the powerful builder lobby doesn’t want regularisation of these colonies. He alleges that this explains the government’s inaction.