Delhi is set to rise taller and redraw its skyline. As part of a mid-term review of the Master Plan last fortnight, an advisory committee recommended that buildings that have a provision of stilt parking should be allowed to go up 2.5 metres higher than the existing limit of 15 metres.
The committee hoped that the new norm would encourage construction of stilt car space on the ground floor and free up encroached public land being used for illegally parking cars. Under the new municipal laws, it is anyway mandatory for all houses that came up after 2011 to have stilt car parking space on the ground floor. But to space-hungry residents' dismay, that leaves only three upper floors for residential use.
To accommodate more people, Delhi first relaxed height restrictions in 2007, when residential colonies with smaller plots were allowed to go four metres higher than the permissible 11 metres. Essentially a horizontal city, Delhi did build a few high-rises, mainly in business districts, and residential towers in Mayur Vihar, Patparganj and Dwarka.
The proposal to go sky-high is backed by Urban Development minister Kamal Nath who considers it 'the only option'. The Master Plan talks about high-rise development along Metro lines, green field projects in the outskirts, and in existing residential areas if homeowners pool land and make their plots larger.
There are merits in the argument that Delhi has to find ways to accommodate its fast-growing population that will surpass even that of Australia's by 2030. But the prescription of vertical growth must factor in the ground constraints. It is crucial because we cannot control internal migration like China does. Even a native is treated like an illegal immigrant if found without a "hukou" (a residency permit) in Shanghai.
Yet, more and more people packing in Delhi will further stretch its insufficient resources and infrastructure such as the collapsing sewerage system, paucity of garbage landfills, insufficient road space etc. Worse, high-rises consume extra power and water for common facilities such as elevators or lawns.
Delhi's demand for power is increasing by 10% every year. We need about 4,200 million litres of water per day and face a daily deficit of about 1,000 million litres. In New Delhi, the sewage lines laid by the British have not been changed. In the rest of the city, the last overhauling exercise happened in the 1980s. Three years back, Delhi generated 6,500 tonnes (1,625 trucks) of garbage every day. Last year, it touched the 10,000 tonnes (2,500 trucks) mark. Yet, Delhi could not add a single landfill site in 25 years.
With the highest number of high-rises after Mumbai and Bangalore, Gurgaon lives on groundwater, extracting three times of what is naturally replenished and may go dry by 2017. Back-up power bills run in five digits across such townships and gated communities are inundated with sewer backflows. Mumbai has 0.03 acres of open space per 1,000 people compared to three acres in Delhi.
Delhi may now have to sacrifice some of its open space to meet the shortfall of 1.13 million housing units. But will expensive high-rises accommodate nearly half of Delhi's population that now lives in slums or poorly provisioned illegal settlements?
The real opportunity for vertical growth lies in redeveloping Delhi's unauthorised colonies and building low-cost housing for slum residents. New skyscrapers will compound Delhi's crisis if they attract only fresh lots of upwardly mobile migrants.
Better civic infrastructure can certainly improve the living standards in Delhi or enhance its carrying capacity, which, in turn, will keep pulling the standard down. But whatever be the capacity and aspiration of man-made infrastructure, no city can sustain more than its finite natural resources permit.
Planning, the minister rightly said, was not poetry.