Within three days of Delhi government announcing its decision to legalise 917 unauthorised colonies, the under-construction portion of a building collapsed like a house of cards in east Delhi's Gandhi Nagar.
Three persons, including a rickshaw puller on the road, were killed because the owner of the building was adding two floors to a barely stable structure.
Like all houses in the illegal settlements of Delhi, this card-house too was built without government sanction. But with the assembly elections due next year, it made political sense to grant amnesty to such colonies. It now awaits the final clearance from the lieutenant governor.
The Congress government can claim to have kept its promise to residents of these colonies who were granted provisional regularisation certificates in the run-up to the 2008 polls. Now, of course, the government has promised to bring these settlements on the city's civic map. It is talking about 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 look at those 567 colonies that were made legal in the last such drive in 1977 under the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. After three and a half decades, they still resemble shanty towns.
Basic water and power connections have been provided but augmenting infrastructure has been difficult due to lack of space. Utility poles pass through balconies. Toxic sewage flows in open drains because sewerage system is still non-existent. Narrow lanes separate rows of houses, leaving no room for building a decent road. Even authorities admit houses are so tightly packed that one can't provide any public space without bringing down some buildings.
The biggest concern is structural safety. Delhi is third on the list of the world's 10 most vulnerable cities, after Kathmandu and Istanbul, says a GeoHazards International study based on variables such as earthquake of magnitude 6.0 and above, building frailty, potential for fire and landslides, and the life-saving abilities of local authorities
Most buildings in Delhi's unauthorised colonies are built on weak foundations with extremely poor load-bearing capacity. It is not unusual to see four to six storey wafer-thin structures come up in less than two months. Little wonder then that house collapses kill more people than any other disaster in Delhi. Two years ago, 71 died in Lalita Park, an "unauthorised regularised" colony.
According to one estimate, Delhi is short of 1.13 million housing units. This has forced the working class to seek alternatives illegally. For 50% of Delhi population, it means living in slums or poorly provisioned illegal settlements like these unauthorised colonies.
With such huge numbers involved, demolition was anyway not an option. The regularisation drive is a step towards recognising the rights of the working class to proper housing. Ownership rights to residents will also open up a huge housing stock for sale and rentals. But will this move be able to make these colonies liveable and safe by urban planning standards?
More importantly, will construction of illegal buildings continue as the government keeps regularising more colonies? The authorities have warned of strict action against anyone encroaching land and officials who allow it to happen. It is easier to check unauthorised construction at the initial stages. But this requires political will.
While chalking up a better enforcement strategy to control illegal construction, the government must also come up with a plan for beefing up its housing stock.
Delhi is not only India's most populous city but it also experiences the highest level of urbanisation. The fact that four decades of so-called planned development have been able to provide decent housing for only half of the city's population should be considered a wake-up call. Or Delhi will have to regularise 'regularisation'.