In Delhi’s dark zones, councillors can’t spend... even if they want to

Updated on Nov 30, 2022 01:56 PM IST

The Delhi Municipal Corporation Act is clear that the municipality cannot use funds in unauthorised colonies, said former mayor Nirmal Jain.

Of the 250 municipal wards in Delhi, around a third are largely just unauthorised colonies. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Of the 250 municipal wards in Delhi, around a third are largely just unauthorised colonies. (HT Archive)

The Capital will, on December 7, get 250 new councillors, all of whom will be equally tasked with improving the civic situation in their wards — from paving streets to flattening landfills. But some councillors will be less equal than others.

Take Jitender Kumar, for instance.

Between 2017 and 2022, Kumar was confronted with a curious problem. His Sangam Vihar C ward, with 67,314 residents that live in the packed lanes of what is often dubbed the largest unauthorised cluster in Asia, had poles for street lights, but no bulbs in them.

He attempted to raise this issue with a standing committee but was given a response that stumped him— municipality funds cannot be used in unauthorised areas.

Of the 250 municipal wards in Delhi, around a third are largely just unauthorised colonies. So, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) cannot develop streets or drains, develop parks or build community halls in these areas.

This puts the roughly four million residents of these unauthorised colonies in a conundrum -- pick a municipal representative who has vowed to improve roads, schools, health facilities in the area, but who will be unable to fulfil a single of these promises, no matter how much he or she wants to.

In unauthorised colonies across the city, participation in the elections often eventually means little for residents. Most of the work in these neighbourhoods is done by the Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (DSIIDC) or the flood control department, both of which are unelected bodies.

This means that around 80 of Delhi’s 250 councillors are virtually powerless to drown out the administrative apathy that has dogged their neighbourhoods, which are inhabited mostly lower income group families, who live either in slum clusters, or slum redevelopment colonies. Homes in these areas are packed cheek-to-jowl, water and power supply is erratic, while access to quality health care is largely a pipe dream.

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Jai Prakash, a former mayor of the erstwhile North MCD, said this problem should have been solved when the civic body was reunified this May.

“Ambedkar Nagar, the Sangam Vihar belt in the south, parts of outer Delhi, Palam, Matiala, Nangloi belt, New Ashok Nagar belt, Gandhi Nagar in the east are completely unauthorised. Ideally, this should have been sorted out in the unification process, with amendment in bye-laws and increasing the power of elected councillors,” Prakash said.

“Hopefully, the reform will continue after the elections.”

Councillors of such wards have repeatedly raised the issue of their disempowerment, both in the house and in standing committee meetings, but the matter is yet to be resolved. Unauthorised colonies have dotted Delhi since the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was set up in 1957, marking the inception of the Capital’s planned development. Since DDA was unable to construct enough low-cost housing units, and large-scale migration from other states continued, such settlements continued to crop up. Since then, the regularisation of unauthorised colonies has been a routine poll promise, but has still to be implemented completely.

In 2006, the Supreme Court had also ruled that residents of unauthorised colonies should be provided basic civic amenities.

Prakash said all political parties should put their heads together to solve the limbo that such councillors find are forced into.

“We had held a special joint house session on the issue of unauthorised colonies a couple of years back, but no resolution could be found,” he said.

The problem has been unresolved, he said, purely regularising these colonies does not fall under the jurisdiction of the municipal corporation, even as the urban development department and DDA have been involved in the process separately.

Problem across political spectrum

The Delhi Municipal Corporation Act is clear that the municipality cannot use funds in unauthorised colonies, said former mayor Nirmal Jain.

“This is a statutory problem. The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (Dusib) looks after slums and JJ clusters, and DSIIDC works in unauthorised colonies,” Jain said.

In south Delhi, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Prem Chauhan, who represented unauthorised areas in Dakshinpuri, said, “Over the last three years, the BJP has been arguing that these colonies have been authorised and approved by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) under the Prime Minister’s Unauthorised Colonies in Delhi Awas Adhikar Yojana (PM-Uday), but if this were true, the MCD should be able to undertake work in these areas.”

The PM-Uday scheme was introduced in the run up to 2020 Delhi assembly elections and empowered people to secure ownership rights to their properties. However, under this scheme, the status of the land — authorised or unauthorised — has remained the same.

“If legal problems exist, the resolution should have been passed by the house and sent to the lieutenant governor to extend the ambit of municipal services in these unauthorised wards,” Chauhan said.

The problem is even more biting in east Delhi, the erstwhile civic body of which itself buckled under the strain of bankruptcy and corruption.

Budget documents reveal that only 13% of the geographical area across the Yamuna falls is peppered with approved colonies. The rest, 87%, are unauthorised and, as a result, lack even basic infrastructure and services.

This, according to former municipal leaders of the erstwhile East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC), goes some way towards explaining why trifurcation of the municipal body in 2012 did not bring with it the kind of civic reprieve residents hoped for.

Shyam Sunder Aggarwal, a former mayor of the erstwhile East MCD, said authorities suffered from a financial crunch over the 10 years because areas under it were largely unplanned.

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“In Shahdara North, almost the entire area is unplanned. There are wards that generate just 1.25-2 lakh in revenue in a year,” Aggarwal said.

A municipal official from the engineering department said they were powerless to help residents in these areas.

“We receive many requests to approve unauthorised areas, but can do nothing,” said the official, asking not to be named.

“Even minor tasks, like repairing a small bridge on a drain, requires a lengthy process that starts at the local level, and coordination with DSIIDC, the MLA and a host of officers.”

AK Jain, former DDA commissioner (planning) and an urban planning expert, said courts have been explicit about providing all basic services like sewage and roads in unauthorised colonies.

“The process for regularisation of colonies is already on and once it is completed, any practical difficulties being faced at the practical level in undertaking development works by the MCD will be removed,” he said.

Past exceptions have been made with a tacit agreement between the MCD and the state and central governments, Jagdish Mamgain, former BJP leader and MCD works committee chairman till 2012, said.

“For instance, just before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, lots of development work was undertaken through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission as the image of our country was at stake,” he said. “Similarly, the flood department was authorised to work in these areas after the Lalita Park building collapse in 2010, which claimed 71 lives. The area was located in the floodplains of the Yamuna, which became the pretext of using the irrigation and flood control department in these areas.”

Kumar, from Sangam Vihar C ward, said that a councillor is the most immediate level of representation for the people, and all complaints come at this level. “The Capital should not have a system in which one public representative is unequal to his counterpart,” he said.

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