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Friday, Sep 20, 2019

Regularising unauthorised colonies can’t be Delhi’s development model

Fifty-six years ago, Delhi had 110 unauthorised colonies, housing nearly 221,000 people. Today, it has 1,797 of them.

columns Updated: Apr 30, 2018 14:49 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Businessmen in Amar Colony market in south Delhi gather to meet a sealing team on April 6, 2018.)
Businessmen in Amar Colony market in south Delhi gather to meet a sealing team on April 6, 2018.)(Burhaan Kinu/ HT Photo)

Last week, when the Supreme Court ordered an immediate stay on all constructions in 1,797 unauthorised colonies (illegal neighbourhoods) that were not in conformity with the building bylaws, it was trying to enforce what the authorities should have all along.

Each time the government attempted to regularise any residential settlements that were built either in violation of zoning regulations or on agricultural or public land, it justified the move as a final compromise which would never be repeated. But despite three large-scale regularisation drives and a fourth one in the offing, Delhi’s unauthorised colonies have only grown in numbers and size.

Fifty-six years ago, Delhi had 110 unauthorised colonies, housing nearly 221,000 people. Today, it has 1,797 of them. According to the Economic Survey of Delhi, at least 5.6 million Delhi residents live in slums, illegal colonies, crumbling urban villages and dilapidated buildings.

The Delhi Development Authority, the sole developer of affordable public housing, has consistently fallen short of the ever-growing demand, forcing the working class to seek alternatives illegally. Over the decades, an estimated one-third of the city’s population has found illegal addresses.

With such huge numbers involved, demolition of homes and uprooting people was never an option. Regularisation drives are seen to be steps towards recognising the rights of the economically backward to proper housing. Indeed, it would have helped if the regularising process improved the living conditions in these poorly provisioned neighbourhoods. It has not.

Today, Delhi’s unauthorised colonies and even those that were legalised in the past drives, stand on weak foundations. Walls are constructed paper thin to stretch the carpet area. Load-bearing beams and pillars are done away with to create additional space. One could see a four or five-storey structure come up in a matter of a couple of months.

Such desperation is plain suicidal, particularly in a city not considered the safest geologically. Much of the Yamuna riverbed, where most illegal settlements are concentrated, falls in seismic zone IV.

It is only when a building starts tilting, it is demolished. But not everyone gets lucky. The 2010 Lalita Park tragedy, which claimed 71 lives in one go, is the grimmest reminder of the price the city keeps paying for such illegality.

An inquiry committee looking into the building collapse in Lalita Park in east Delhi on November 15, 2010, has blamed several departments of Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) for the tragedy.

Given the abysmally poor stock of public housing, most residents are just too happy to get a permanent address in Delhi. Structural safety is perhaps the least of their concerns. While the biggest lure of regularisation is the assurance of legal titles for these unauthorised homes, authorities also promise connections for sewerage, water and power supply, paved roads, parks, schools, fire-stations and such other components that go into building planned townships.

Yet, officials concede that while basic water and power connections, sanitation services and sewerage can be provided in such areas, retrofitting other infrastructure is difficult due to lack of space. The houses are so tightly packed that one couldn’t provide any public space without bringing down some buildings.

As the government’s struggle to fix boundaries of the unauthorised colonies up for regularisation enters the tenth year, experts advise against a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, they feel that the government will have to tweak plans according to local needs, or still better, leave it to the community to upgrade their living space.

For instance, resident co-operatives could redevelop homes in collectives with the government allowing larger Floor Area Ratio, permission to go higher as long as the occupants comply with building norms and leave room for common facilities such as greenery, parking, and even community activities.

Considering the scale of illegality, retrofitting of all buildings for structural safety may turn out to be too expensive. But a government can provide partial subsidies and engage organisations to make technical expertise available for house owners willing to invest in strengthening existing buildings.

Regularisation of an informal settlement has to be incentive-based to succeed, says AK Jain, former planning commissioner of DDA. Incentives, he says, must come as facilities. Not all violations are the same in scale or driven by the same motive. So a blanket approach may not work. But condoning rampant irregularities cannot become the development model for a city aspiring to rival the best in the world.

The court has given Delhi yet another chance to get its priorities right.

For a start, how about fixing the inadequate and corrupt enforcement mechanism before finalising regularisation plans?

(The views expressed are personal.)

First Published: Apr 30, 2018 12:33 IST