Poll promises, political will and Delhi’s ever-growing numbers

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 02, 2015 10:00 IST

The Congress released its manifesto two weeks back, AAP came out with one last Saturday. For reasons best known to its leaders, BJP has decided to ditch a formal manifesto and will release a vision document instead. In his rallies, Prime Minister Modi has, however, given a preview of what to expect. The party’s chief ministerial candidate Kiran Bedi has been tweeting furiously her blueprint for those active on the social media.

Besides the tried and tested pledges of free water, cut in utility bills, and curbing corruption; fighting poverty, securing women’s safety, creating jobs, regularising unauthorized colonies and housing for all have been the common promises. But how many of these promises are really deliverable?

For one, regularisation of unauthorized colonies has been the oldest poll promise in Delhi. The issue resonates with one third of Delhi’s population that lives in these areas. In the run-up to 2008 elections, Congress distributed provisional regularisation certificates to residents of 1,218 colonies, claiming it kept its 2003 poll promise.

Four years on, facing elections again, the Congress promised to bring these settlements on the city’s civic map, giving ownership rights to its residents, setting up connections for sewerage, water and power supply, paving roads and building parks, schools, fire-stations and such other components that go into making planned townships.

But nothing much changed on the ground. Last year, the BJP government passed an ordinance to regularize these illegal settlements and the party leaders never fail to point this out in election rallies. AAP, meanwhile, has promised to provide them facilities similar to those available in DDA colonies.

While basic water and power connections can be provided in these areas, augmenting infrastructure is difficult due to lack of space. Just walk down one of these neighbourhoods and you’ll see how utility poles and power lines pass through balconies which nearly touch one another across narrow lanes. Structural safety is the biggest concern. House collapse kills more people than any other disaster in Delhi. In 2010, 71 people died in Lalita Park, an unauthorised colony. Even authorities admit that houses are so tightly packed that one can’t provide any public space without bringing down some buildings.

For more proof, check the conditions in the 567 colonies that were made legal in the last such drive in 1977 under the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Three and a half decades later, they still resemble shanty towns.

The prime minister’s slogan of Jahan jhuggi, wahan maakan, AAP’s pledge to provide affordable, legal housing to most citizens and Congress’ Right-to-Shelter are all great promises but past records do not make Delhi very hopeful. According to one estimate, the city is short of 1.13 million housing units. To woo migrants, the Congress government had promised 10 lakh houses for weaker sections in its 2008 manifesto. In five years, it could construct only 15,000 units. With no idea where to find land to construct more, it scaled down the target to four lakh houses last election.

AAP, though, claims that there is at least 200 acres of vacant land in Delhi that was earmarked for housing but was not used. It promises to build low-cost housing for the poor here and other places in sufficiently large numbers so that in the future, slums will not need to exist.

But it is easier said than done. Even the best horizon planning fails to keep pace with the growing population. According to the economic survey, the national capital receives at least 75,000 migrants every year. By 2030, Delhi’s population will surpass even that of Australia’s.

We cannot control internal migration like China does by granting “hukou” (a residency permit) to those entering its cities. Yet, more and more people packing in Delhi keep stretching its insufficient resources and infrastructure.

Shortage of affordable housing has forced the working class to seek alternatives illegally. With such huge numbers involved, demolition was never an option. The regularisation drive is a step towards recognising the rights of the economically backward to proper housing. Ownership rights will also open up a huge legal housing stock for sale and rental. Beyond that, it will take real political will — and not just poll promises — to make Delhi’s slums and colonies liveable and safe by urban planning standards.

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