Delhi’s favourite haunt is abuzz again. Last week, the National Green Tribunal had allowed 25 of the 34 restaurants in Hauz Khas Village to reopen if they installed wastewater treatment plants within a month. These restaurants were shut down earlier for operating without the necessary pollution permits.
If it were not for a petition in the green court, the illegality of these establishments would have never hit the headlines like the way it did in the past two months. The 34 restaurants in question were throwing oil and kitchen waste directly into the drains. They were also illegally extracting groundwater for commercial operations.
But it is not just about the basic environmental safety. Hauz Khas Village, like the other peri-urban pockets of the city, is practically absent from the civic map. These so-called villages – mazes of narrow alleys framed by poorly provisioned, multi-storey constructions and stinking open drains – are just not fit for living.
The back story of Delhi’s urban villages is a case study on how the city’s planning went haywire. Even as much of metropolitan Delhi grew on farmlands acquired by the government for urbanisation, some parts of it were meant to stay as villages. When revenue settlement was done in 1908-09, populated areas were not assessed for land revenue and circumscribed on village maps in red ink. That is how they came to be called Lal Dora.
Of the 362 villages in Delhi, 135 were classified as urban villages and 227 as rural villages. Later, these areas were exempted from municipal bye-laws, which meant that owners required no building permissions to construct for their own use. This was done to keep the rural character of these villages intact. But for a city that has seen the highest level of urbanisation in India, Delhi’s villages soon lost their rural character.
The villagers were not allowed to sell their property to outsiders. But power of attorney allowed local builders to move in. Bypassing all building regulations, they stacked up floors that are now occupied by working class migrants, warehouse owners and those looking for cheap office space. Since the late 1980s, villages that happened to be in the backyard of South Delhi neighbourhoods witnessed gentrification — cowsheds and granaries were acquired dirt cheap to open niche restaurants, art galleries and fashion boutiques.
Soon, the rents shot up and the façades changed. In the last five years, there has been an explosion of more eateries, galleries, studios, curio shops and bookstores. Hauz Khas Village now has over 60 of them. Shahpur-Jat is equally packed. Lado Sarai, adjacent to Qutab Minar, has become the art mile with a clutch of top art galleries and furniture stores.
But much of this real estate is illegal. Thousands of wafer-thin buildings built on weak foundations with extremely poor load-bearing capacity are a structural nightmare. Mixed zoning has led to rampant commercialisation. Sewerage system is non-existent. When these villages were sparsely populated, such close layouts provided a sense of collective security. Today, there is not even space to build a road.
Since the beginning of this makeover madness, no attempt was made to regulate the haphazard construction boom. Now, eyeing a vote bank ahead of the Assembly polls, the Delhi cabinet has regularised the illegal extensions of Lal Dora areas. While this move protects these buildings against demolition, the risk of civic and environmental hazards remains very real.
If Delhi values its living history, it must bring the urban villages on the civic map. We need a mix of regulation, renewal and redevelopment of existing structures. That will involve some demolition. But heritage deserves some breathing space. And chic does not have to be unsafe.