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Home / Opinion / The making of an urban tragedy| Opinion

The making of an urban tragedy| Opinion

The city has thousands of layouts, known locally as unauthorised colonies, with a sub-category, known as “regularised unauthorised colonies”.

opinion Updated: Dec 10, 2019 13:00 IST
Shakti Sinha
Shakti Sinha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
New Delhi, India - Dec. 8, 2019: National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams deployed at the spot where a fire broke out in a plastic factory, at Anaj Mandi, Filmistan, in New Delhi.
New Delhi, India - Dec. 8, 2019: National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams deployed at the spot where a fire broke out in a plastic factory, at Anaj Mandi, Filmistan, in New Delhi.(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

The horrendous tragedy at Anaj Mandi in the early hours of Sunday, December 8th, that killed 43 poor migrants in a fire mishap, deafeningly signals a systemic failure to cope with urbanisation. Yet, this perspective still remains largely ignored. This is probably because one of the most surprising, and ironically banal, facts about the national capital is that an overwhelming number of buildings here are illegal.

The city has thousands of layouts, known locally as unauthorised colonies, with a sub-category, known as “regularised unauthorised colonies”. There are also the major illegal redevelopments in existing localities in violation of land-use norms and are beyond the allowable Floor Area Ratios (FARs). The whole Anaj Mandi area falls within this last criteria. But what makes such rampant culture of impunity which brands law-breaking almost a norm in the national capital?

 Also Watch | Delhi Anaj Mandi fire: Watch locals rescuing victims as blaze breaks out

To begin with, systemic weaknesses must be understood. The first relates to the dysfunctional governance structure in Delhi. Democratic countries, in particular federal ones, have difficulty in balancing between representative local government and the particular needs of the federal government. The citizens of Washington DC were given voting rights for US Presidential elections only in the 1960s, but they have no elected representative in the US Congress with voting rights. The Chief Minister of Australian Capital Territory (ACT) of Canberra has very limited powers, far less than the Chief Minister of Delhi, and Acts passed the City’s legislature, can be overruled by the National Parliament. Even in non-federal France and Great Britain, the Mayors of Paris and London have very little to do independently.

Thus, what complicates the situation in Delhi, and this goes back decades, is the multiplicity of authorities and their confusing jurisdictions. Even when there was no territory-wide elected government, the Home Ministry controlled the New Delhi Municipal Council/ Corporation (NDMC) and the Municipal Council of Delhi (MCD) while the Delhi Development Authority (DAA) worked under the Urban Development Ministry. In fact, when Delhi was made into a Chief Commissioner’s province (equivalent to Union Territory) by the British, the Central Government retained control over law & order, land and services (bureaucracy), not passing it onto the Chief Commissioner, their own ICS appointee. We also have a situation where the State Public Works Department maintains some roads, the NDMC/ MCDs others, while the DDA does so in areas that it develops. Similarly, many different entities are charged with marinating drainage and sewage systems. The result is that when flooding happens after even normal rainfall, it becomes extremely difficult to fix responsibility and sort the mess.

However, what actually makes the situation much worse is our attitude towards urbanisation and city governance. We still largely cling to the universally discarded concept of single-use designated areas - housing, commercial, institutional, green etc. Under a misguided perception that going upward would be un-Gandhian, we kept the FARs extremely low, forcing up land prices. To make matters worse, the DDA effectively monopolised housing and commercial development. Since demand always outstripped supply, this led to the development of unauthorised colonies promoted by the unholy mix of land sharks, local political heavyweights and public servants drawn from the police, MCD, DDA and all land-related agencies. The population residing in unauthorised colonies far outstrips those residing in DDA housing projects. Similarly, for reasons of economy, housing unit became shops, a prime example of which is Lajpat Nagar.

On the other hand, town planners decided that manufacturing and urbanisation did not go together, despite the common knowledge that availability of skilled manpower and good infrastructure draws industries. To be fair, industrial estates were constructed, but they failed to meet the demand and were lacking in facilities. Over time, the premium on land meant that larger units migrated elsewhere and what replaced them were thousands of tiny manufacturers primarily serving the local market. Since they obviously weren’t provided for, and the space in the industrial estates had become extremely expensive, these smaller manufacturers mushroomed in unauthorised colonies and in the illegal re-developments of existing areas. In addition, adequate housing is not available for the migrant labours that work in these manufacturing units. With the result, most of them end up staying in or near their place of employment in slums. Ironically, there are mostly corporate offices in industrial estates today, simply because of the premium on land.

The government, often prompted by the Courts, has made many attempts to close the industries in non-conforming areas. It has even succeeded in doing so, because of which, many manufacturers have shifted to distant areas. But in their place even larger numbers have sprouted. To legislate them out of existence would be as feasible as ruling against gravity. Can we instead not choose to understand economic realities and create situations where regulated manufacturing function in conditions conducive to the life and health of its workers and the larger world outside? Is it really a matter of individual culpability alone?

(Shakti Sinha is a retired bureaucrat, who served in senior positions in the Delhi government. He was also private secretary to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)