Metro Matters: A long way to fixing this civic mess that is Delhi
Misuse of municipal norms is more than a book-keeping problem in Delhi. Our markets are a mess, even potential death traps, as serious violations that can cause loss or damages to life or property go unchecked.delhi Updated: Dec 25, 2017 08:14 IST
Delhi got a shocker last week when the Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee, mandated to check misuse of municipal norms, locked up 51 properties in upscale Defence Colony market.
The committee, which after five years was restored with powers to seal violating units, found that many shop owners who had turned the upper floors of their buildings meant for residential use into commercial enterprises had not paid a conversion charge. But Defence Colony traders are not the only defaulters as such evasions are common across Delhi.
The conversion charge, a one-time payment that goes into an escrow account, was to pay for the city’s infrastructure projects. The funds would have helped the cash-strapped municipalities. But would the city’s markets be any safer or less chaotic had the traders made the payment? The answer is, no.
Misuse of municipal norms is more than a book-keeping problem in Delhi. Our markets are a mess, even potential death traps, as serious violations that can cause loss or damages to life or property go unchecked.
The initial urban planning in the national capital discouraged mixed zones, where commercial and residential spaces coexist. But rules were violated and haphazard commercialisation took place nevertheless by illegally converting residential units into shops, offices, restaurants, showrooms. Upper floors, which were meant to house people, were also used up.
Once such violations gained critical mass, it was impossible to have shut them down. The government passed amnesty laws and the court allowed these businesses with the promise that they would follow all regulations.
Today, safety is the biggest concern in most of these areas. Describing the Khan Market restaurants as “a disaster waiting to happen”, the Delhi high court in October last year blamed “the public-private partnership of municipal and police authorities, flat and restaurant owners” for the mess.
Khan Market is not an exception. Many commercial set-ups – the busiest of restaurants and pubs included – in Delhi do not have fire exits but only a narrow flight of stairs connecting floors above floors. The fire department relaxes rules for eateries with seating capacity less than 50 persons. Unsurprisingly, many of Delhi’s bustling hangouts are 40-something-seaters.
Parking is another mess. Under the amended Master Plan, any plot approved for mixed land use has to “unconditionally surrender” the front setback, which means that they cannot have a boundary and the open space has to be only used for parking.
But in most markets, these front setbacks are covered and used commercially or barricaded by chain and ropes for exclusive use.
Delhi’s traditional markets have also worked up their own chaos in the last few decades. Once a laid-back shopping arcade, Connaught Place is now full of restaurants and pubs operating from what were once residential flats, warehouses and office spaces.
These high-decibel establishments, with their giant water tanks and generator sets, are overloading the aged structures.
Many vacant properties have decayed with neglect and remain under the radar of authorities.
Two back-to-back cases of roof collapse early this year exposed the fragile state of buildings in this eight-decade-old commercial district.
The civic violations in Hauz Khas Village were unnoticed until a petition was filed in the National Green Tribunal in 2013. Three dozen restaurants were found illegally extracting groundwater and throwing oil and kitchen waste directly into the drains in what is Delhi’s most gentrified urban village.
Three months ago, 21 eateries were sealed again for flouting the same green norms.
Exempt from municipal bylaws, the narrow alleys framed by frail multi-storey constructions here still remain a civic threat. According to Delhi Police, the market sees a footfall of at least 5,000 on weekdays and over 15,000 on weekends.
The world over, repurposing buildings for uses other than which they were built or designed for is a preferred strategy for urban renewal. In Delhi, we have made it synonymous with chaos, congestion, corruption and poor quality of life.
It may or may not be the mandate of the monitoring committee to look into every aspect of this mess. But this is certainly a good opportunity for the authorities to do their bit and even push for a single agency, which could draw expertise from all the departments concerned to force a turnaround.
Every megacity is an untamed force and their apparent madness is also a celebration of that energy. But the more successful ones have a method to it.