Last month, an art school lecturer in London started a project to understand why people were migrating into, out of, and around the British capital. Responses were displayed on digital billboards in Central London. Turned out, most of those who took part in the survey were leaving rather than arriving.
“I can’t afford to stay in a city I was born in,” wrote an information security consultant planning to relocate from Hackney (northeast London) to Cambridgeshire. “My wife and I have decent jobs and yet we can’t afford to live in the city we work in,” wrote an executive who recently moved from Wandsworth (southwest London) to Surrey.
As house prices and rentals soar, many residents are getting priced out of London. It is the same story in Delhi. According to one estimate, Delhi is short of 1.13 million housing units because the Delhi Development Authority has failed to keep its promises. As a result, the working class has had no choice but to seek alternatives illegally. Onethird of Delhi’s population has found homes in slums or unauthorised settlements with poor provisions. Those looking for affordable, better designed homes with legitimate addresses have moved to the suburban NCR towns. There are many who are leaving Delhi to live in gated communities in the NCR because they offer a better quality of life.
Most middle-class residential neighbourhoods of Delhi that came up in the 1950s to resettle families displaced due to Partition, and those developed by private developers, have changed in character with new builder flats coming up. But their supporting infrastructure is crying for an upgrade.
Open spaces have been gobbled up for parking cars. The air is heavily polluted due to the growing traffic and dust from constant, mostly illegal, home renovations to stretch one’s living space. Structural safety remains a big concern even in posh areas.
Even in New Delhi, the century-old segment of this 2,000-year-old city, the infrastructure is about to expire. The sewage lines laid by the British have not been changed since. In the rest of the city, the last overhauling exercise happened in the 1980s. There is little difference between Sangam Vihar and Greater Kailash when it comes to chronic sewage back flow.
Last year, a parliamentary panel pointed out how 40% of Delhi’s housing needs could be met through redevelopment of existing areas. In fact, the 1962 Delhi Master Plan projected “urban renewal as a strategy of redevelopment, rehabilitation and conservation” for Shahjahanabad and the extension of the Walled City. The plans that followed included other conservation zones and special areas such as Karol Bagh. The first Master Plan gave authorities 20 years to redevelop the Walled City. It’s been five decades and not a brick has moved.
But that hasn’t stopped the authorities from promising more. The current plan authorises redevelopment of newer areas that are in “poor urban form”. It calls for a complete civic overhaul, increasing the floor area ratio to allow taller buildings, possibly in cluster courts or group housing, to be developed by private parties. This may or may not be the right way to regenerate. But the idea can only be thrashed out if it gains political currency.
All Delhi has seen so far in the name of urban renewal is the restoration of Connaught Place. Otherwise, the focus has been on greenfield development by unlocking new areas on the fringes of the city for residential and commercial use, triggering a land rush.
By allowing owners to pool their farmlands and sell, the DDA may successfully open a huge housing stock and even rationalise realty rates. But it doesn’t address the liveability concerns of the existing areas.
Also, suburbanisation can be problematic if most residents are commuting long distances for work and education. That demands heavy investments in flyovers, expressways and masstransit modes. Besides, gated suburban neighbourhoods may be safe but they are sterile and impersonal.
It may not be as exciting or lucrative as building spanking new townships, but cities need to be renewed where they already exist. Given a choice, many Delhiites may anyway shift to NCR towns but it should never become a compulsion.