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A capital mess

The pathetic condition that Delhi finds itself in is the result of years of corruption in public office and callousness in planning.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2006 02:07 IST

Cities are the spiritual workshops of the nation. They mirror the people’s mind and motivation. Cultural fault-lines get imprinted on the faces of cities. The civic and moral chaos presently prevails in Delhi consequent to the spate of unauthorised constructions and illegal conversion of residential properties into commercial establishments, court orders thereon and the reaction of political parties, the government and civic authorities. These are all manifestations of the poor value system that we currently practise as a nation.

Weak is our attachment to the rule of law; hypocritical our resolve to fight corruption; and a wide gap exists between what we say about good governance and what we actually do about it. Of late, Delhi has seen a massive onslaught of predatory forces. Wound after wound has been inflicted upon its defenceless landscape. Between 2001 and 2005, about 18,000 illegal constructions, now under the scanner of Delhi High Court, were carried out besides thousands of encroachments. The unkindest cut of all, however, has been the recent notification on mixed land-use, which the government issued to nullify the orders of the Supreme Court against conversion of residential properties into commercial ones.

At one stroke, hundreds of residential houses on more than 200 roads have been allowed to become commercial. No one’s cared to prepare any environmental-impact statement or calculate the extra burden that would devolve upon the municipal services. Nor has anyone paused to consider that Delhi is already the noisiest city in the world and has the highest rate of road accidents per thousand vehicles. No thought has been given to the fact that Delhi’s daily shortage of electricity is to the tune of 1,000 MW — and that this shortage will mount steeply because every commercial establishment that replaces a residential unit would, on an average, consume about ten times more electricity.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with the concept of ‘mixed land-use’. But it implies that the area, where it is intended to be invoked, should be planned in advance and infrastructure in keeping with such use be provided before-hand. An area which has been developed and serviced for residential use can’t be efficiently converted into residential-cum-commercial use without a comprehensive redevelopment plan.

In fact, the section of the draft Master Plan, 2021, that refers to mixed land-use and of which advantage has been taken to issue the notification in question, appears under the heading : Re-development. It implies that drawing up of re-development plan is an essential prerequisite to sanction change of land-use. If an exercise to work out such a plan is undertaken, it would be found that practically no land is available for providing spaces for parking or setting up other services in areas where changes are being allowed. Fortunately, the Supreme Court is still seized of the matter. It is hoped that it will ask the government to produce re-development plans. If it does so, the cat will be out of the bag. The tactic that is being resorted to now will stand exposed.

What is no less unfortunate is that spurious arguments are frequently advanced to waylay public opinion. For example, when residential construction over and above permissible limits is objected to, it is said, in justification of the illegal act, that the public authorities have not provided sufficient housing. No one bothers to ask that if there is shortage, then why are thousands of houses being converted into commercial establishments, particularly when adequate commercial space has been provided in convenient and local shopping centres as well as in community and district centres like Rohini’s Twin City Centres? The city is being driven by greed and exploitative forces embedded in the diseased womb of our democracy where winning elections has become an end in itself.

Corruption in public life is a serious aspect of this case. Politicians cry themselves hoarse on anti-corruption, but help in covering up corrupt deeds. Had the orders of the SC been allowed to be implemented, it would have led to an exposure of corrupt practices. The notification in question will send the contrary signal: the corrupt are rewarded and the law-abiding penalised.

With intention to circumvent SC orders, a single-item agenda was placed before the DDA. Views of the Special Board set up earlier to hear public objections against the provisions of the draft Master Plan were not considered. A predetermined resolution was passed, and a predetermined government notification was issued. The apex court is likely to strike it down. But the damage has been done. The relations between the executive and judiciary have been undermined. The latter would not have come into the picture had the former implemented laws and discharged its constitutional obligations faithfully.

What is the way-out? I’d suggest four measures. First, the government should withdraw its notification. Second, the SC may consider keeping in abeyance its order for sealing of commercial establishments on the ground floor and allow them time to shift to conforming areas. Third, the government should prepare a comprehensive ‘salvage plan’ and obtain the SC’s approval before making it operative. Finally, no new residential unit, irrespective of location, should be allowed to become commercial. The concept of ‘mixed land-use’ should be invoked only in colonies yet to be developed.

But the above ‘way-out’ would only be temporary. The real and lasting ‘way-out’ has to be found in reforming our cultural ethos and building a healthy civilisational base.

The writer is former Minister of Urban Development