The recent regularisation of around 900 colonies in Delhi is an inevitable and welcome move. No city can allow a majority of its residents to live in conditions of illegality, particularly when that illegality is a direct outcome of its own history of urban planning. However, why are moves to regularise unauthorised colonies not being followed by similar moves to regularise bastis (often reductively called 'slums') that house the city's poor?
The most recent reliable government data says that, in 2000, no less than 25% of Delhi's residents lived in 'illegal' colonies (either unauthorised colonies or bastis). A further 25% lived in regularised colonies or resettlement colonies, ie settlements that began illegally but were later regularised. In other words, 50% of the city's residents were illegal at some point and in some form in their attempt to live in the city.
What does this illegality signify and why does it occur? Illegal colonies of the rich and the poor - it is not just the 'slum' that is illegal as is so commonly believed - have grown in part because of the impossibility of being legal for much of Delhi's history. To be a legal planned colony, housing must be built on land within what is called the 'development area' of the Master Plan in a zone marked for residential development. It is the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) which decides where legal housing can be built and by whom. Further, for the first decades after Independence, the DDA was also effectively the only builder in town.
Today, it is uncontested that the DDA neither built enough housing (to legally buy, be allotted or rent) nor did it notify enough development area in the plan to allow (rich or poor) privately built housing to be legal. Between the first Delhi Master Plan issued in 1962 and the third issued in 2007, for example, only 4,000 hectares of development area were added in Delhi - a mere 4.5% addition to the 1962 plan while the city's population rose by nearly six million people. It is no coincidence then that most of our 900 regularised colonies as well a majority of the city's bastis were built in this period. The rich built unauthorised colonies outside planned boundaries and the poor built bastis by occupying unused public land because they could not afford to do anything else. Both, according to the Plan, are illegal; neither the rich nor the poor can legally register a title deed.
Many argue that the nature of the illegality of the unauthorised colony and the basti is different. Unauthorised colony residents claim that they are bona fide purchasers of their houses and not squatters that occupy public land for 'free'. Yet basti residents do pay for their settlements. The amounts they pay are numerically small but represent a far greater proportion of their incomes and assets. They pay for the right to settle on a plot of land which they do not own in title, for services and infrastructure that they gradually acquire over the years, taxes on the services and goods they consume and through investments in bettering their homes and communities. They may do so without a litany of stamp paper documents but, in essence, they do exactly what unauthorised colonies do: build whatever settlements they can given the failure of the state to provide either the housing stock it promised or the land on which to legally and affordably build their own housing.
The government's own data says that 88% of shortfall in housing units is in stock that the poor can afford. The DDA did not just fail to build housing - it disproportionately failed the poor. Yet it is the unauthorised colony and not the basti that has gotten relief first. The distinction between regularisation of unauthorised colonies and of bastis is tenable only if one believes that the illegalities of the rich should have different consequences than those of the poor - a position that is a blatant violation of constitutional protections for equal treatment under the law, let alone to basic common sense and human dignity.
Another commonly made argument as to why bastis cannot be regularised is the legal complication of how the land owner whose land bastis occupy is to be compensated. Yet in Delhi, most bastis are on public land and nearly three quarters of all bastis are, in fact, on DDA land. In other words, there is not an obstacle but an opportunity at hand.
The very agency that failed to build enough housing for the poor now finds that the poor have built their own housing on its land. The poor have done the DDA's job for it. All the government has to do is to do exactly what it has done for unauthorised colonies: recognise that settlements already exist and allow them security of tenure.
City-wide upgrading of bastis is our only option to address the sheer indignity of everyday urban life for a majority of our city's residents. There is ample evidence from Indian and global cities that upgradation has far-reaching benefits for human development, for a city's overall economic development and the improvement of urban infrastructure and service provision. We must recognise the homes that the poor have already built for themselves and which they can improve on their own if given a sense of secure tenure and protection against eviction. The fact that most bastis are on public land implies that a range of mechanisms are possible to use to convince different public authorities to let their land be used to shelter some of the city's poorest residents. Is this not what public land is meant for?
Gautam Bhan teaches urban development at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore
The views expressed by the author are personal