A city is a living organism. Like a human entity, it has both a structure and a soul. Congenial, creative and constructive living requires that while a city’s soul must reflect its inner urges for peace, progress, justice and order, its structure must provide for the physical, social and cultural needs of man — his need for shelter, work, institutions, community living, civic amenities etc.
A good Master Plan for a city is one that elevates its life and attempts to create a healthy structure and a healthy soul. It is a blueprint for the future, a vision document that reflects the longings of a community for a better tomorrow. It rejects what is clumsy and cruel in the past, and preserves and protects what is beautiful and inspiring. It assesses the current trends and corrects them if they are undermining either the ecosystem or the general environment of the city. It ensures that present needs are met without closing the options for an improved future. A holistic approach constitutes its inner core, and sustainable development serves as its guiding star. Its ultimate aim is to attain higher quality of life and build a more prosperous, just, secure and value-oriented city, rooted in honesty, non-acquisitiveness and nobility of mind.
Against these requirements, what does the Delhi Master Plan 2001-2021 do? It treats the city like a lifeless entity, with no soul, no higher sense of purpose and direction. It makes no attempt to collect the dismembered threads and weave them into a coherent pattern. It merely dances to the tune of vested interests. It declares that ‘illegal’ would be ‘legal’, ‘foul’ would be ‘fair’, principles of town planning would be followed in breach and it would not be the ravishers of the city but their victims that would be penalised. Petty politics is its prime motivation and short-term-ism its only goal.
If any law-breaker has constructed five or six storeys where only two or three were permissible, it is stipulated in the new Plan that six storeys would be permissible. Likewise, if residential properties have been converted into commercial establishments, the streets on which illegalities have occurred are designated either commercial or as ones having ‘mixed land-use’.
The imbalances that these changes would cause in the functioning of the city, the overall living environment that they would spoil, and extra burden that they would put on the already chocked infrastructure and civic services are brushed aside by bland statements. Nothing in this respect is said in precise or concrete form. No timeframe for providing additional services and infrastructure, consequent to the creation of constructions of more storeys and increased commercialisation, is indicated. It amounts to hardly anything else than an exercise in deception.
A good example of formulating and implementing sound Master Plans for cities is provided by the manner in which, as a part of the first Master Plan for Delhi (1962-1982), large areas were acquired and a substantial portion of them were developed as huge ‘greens’ around the historical monuments — Hauz Khas (250 hectares); Tughlakabad (325 hectares); Jahanpanah (175 hectares); Chirag Delhi (75 hectares), Siri Fort (100 hectares) etc. The objective was three-fold: (i) to protect the architectural heritage of a historic city; (ii) to create vibrant lungs for the future; and (iii) to provide long walkways and places for enjoyment of nature.
When I proceeded with the acquisition, clearance and development of these areas, I was severely criticised by the vested interests and nicknamed, albeit wrongly, Demolition Man. But I knew that difficulties of the time had to be faced to preserve what constituted the legacy of our past and to provide for what would make our future more pleasant and productive.
Today, when I go out to these areas, I am thrilled to see thousands of people walking around, enjoying themselves and breathing fresh air. And, in the context of what is currently happening, I do feel a gloomy pride of having withstood the pressures and having stuck to the healthy principles of town planning. Of course, I had the good fortune of enjoying the quiet support of Mrs Indira Gandhi.
Unfortunately, during the last few years, Delhi fell prey to the machinations of four distinct groups of racketeers and law breakers: (i) the grabbers of public lands; (ii) the builders of illegal spaces; (iii) the creators of unauthorised colonies; and (iv) convertors of residential units into commercial establishments. Each group crafted its own predatory techniques.
The people who constituted the first group were those who, in connivance with unscrupulous political elements, occupied large chunks of public lands and set-up jhuggi-jhopri colonies to serve as vote-banks. An equally pernicious web was woven by the second group: the builders of illegal spaces. Herein, the land and building mafia, the landowners of the property, the buyers of additional space and the political elements who supported these illegal ventures, all formed a self-serving network.
No less damage was caused by the third group: the creators of illegal colonies. They seized public lands or lands under acquisition and parcelled them into plots without complying with zoning or municipal regulations and without providing any infrastructure or civic amenity worth the name. The plots were sold at high prices by playing the politics of regularisation. And regularisaton was done by the political leaderships on the eve of every municipal, state or central elections. The activities of the fourth group — those who converted their residential properties into commercial establishments — proved to be the easiest way of securing unmerited gains.
The extent of all-round damage that the aforesaid malpractices have caused can be seen from the fact that Delhi today is saddled with about 1,500 unauthorised colonies, 1,300 jhuggi-jhopri clusters and thousands of individual illegal extensions and conversions. They now hang, like dead albatrosses, around the city’s neck. Ironically, behind the smokescreen of Master Planning, these albatrosses are being made a permanent feature of Delhi’s landscape and, if I may say so, of its mindscape as well. Accommodation and rationalisation of all illegalities and cover up of all acts of corruption would further pollute the soul of Delhi and make people more acquisitive and self-centred.
Already, Delhi is reckoned to be one of the noisiest cities in the world and has the highest rate of road accidents per 1,000 vehicles. And this is what the Human Development Report 2006 has to say about Delhi’s sewerage system:
“A large proportion of the city’s 5,600 km feeder sewers are silted and less than 15 per cent of the trunk sewer is functioning”. The city’s water shortage is well known. Today, it is extracting ground water at a rate three times higher than its replenishment capacity. For the disposal of its 7,000 metric tonnes of garbage per day, it would soon be left with no landfill site.
Even now, in most parts of Delhi, it is difficult to find space for parking. The serious situation in this regard is intended to be met in the new Master Plan by a mere statement that for every 100 square metre of commercial area on ‘mixed land-use’ streets, two ‘equivalent car spaces’ would have to be provided. It is a matter of common knowledge that it is virtually impossible to find an area equivalent to two car spaces fronting the shops on the narrow streets.
Nor is it possible to locate a vacant area for providing common parking or building a multi-level parking. The combined effect of commercialisation of additional 2,183 roads and raising of additional storeys in thousands of residential units would be disastrous. Delhi’s overall environment and quality of life would be irreparably damaged.
All in all, the Master Plan (2001-2021) is a plan of its own kind. Its ‘principles’ of town planning would be found nowhere else in the world. It will retain Lutyen’s New Delhi as a showpiece, reduce well-planned colonies to the status of colonies like Daryaganj, add to the congestion of many other choked-up areas and degrade their environment further, and give birth to new slums and semi-slums. It will cause too many maladies the treatment of which, if at all it comes, would involve huge costs and require a long span of time.
(The writer is a former Union Minister of Urban Development.)