In 2010, a major pipeline that carried water from the Wazirabad treatment plant in the city developed several breaches. Residents were left parched and the civic authorities had to deal with water-logged roads. The Delhi Jal Board that is responsible for the maintenance of this pipeline spent days looking for the origin of the leakage. The water utility could not locate the fault because “illegal constructions”, read houses, had come up on the pipeline itself. And because these illegal constructions could not be razed, the DJB was forced to change the alignment of this three-decade-old pipeline.
The Government-owned power utility, the Delhi Transco Limited, has been for years complaining about houses in unauthorised colonies having come up dangerously close to vital installations including high-voltage overhead lines.
Numerous instances of blackouts and even deaths by electrocution have not prevented houses from arching towards overhead transmission lines.
Water and power utilities are not the only ones complaining, land meant for forests and green areas has been turned into an unplanned, urban jungle. Haphazardly constructed buildings stand worryingly close to monuments and buildings of heritage value. And while heritage conservation experts worry about the message that is being sent out by the regularisation of the unauthorised buildings, the Government insists it will wage a legal battle, but ensure there are no demolitions.
There are approximately 47 colonies that stand on land that is owned by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and 15 in the regulated zone. “Unauthorised neighbourhoods in the vicinity of heritage sites such as the Qutub Minar or Tughlaqabad Fort will disfigure the landscape of the sites. However, implementation of heritage regulations has never been the priority for the agencies concerned,” said Ratish Nanda, conservation architect and expert on heritage preservation.
In the city where providing infrastructure is often preceded by occupation, there is a growing concern about the Government’s decision to regularise all that came up in contravention of the laws. “There is a perception among people that even if they squat on public land, after some years the Government will eventually legitimise it. Irrespective of who is in power, the dependence on vote bank politics has led to growing lawlessness,” complained noted environment lawyer M.C. Mehta.
Mr. Mehta recalled an instance when the Delhi Government informed the Supreme Court that they could not build any more sewage treatment plants, because there was “no land available”. “They don’t have land for essential installations like STPs, but there is land for thousands of illegal constructions, how bizarre is that,” he questioned.
The Government is eulogising its efforts to regularise 1,600 unauthorised colonies of which 917 have been made legit, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has assured that even those colonies that have come up on land owned by the forest department will be regularised.
“Our worry is that encroachers will be emboldened by the Government’s mood. They will allow colonies on land owned by forest and the ASI today, it will be the Zone ‘O’ (river bed/ river front) tomorrow. There is no scope for allowing illegal constructions anywhere, whether it is the rich in the Sainik Farms or the poor in other parts of the city. The regularisation order over-stretches our limited resources,” said Manoj Misra, convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a non-government organisation that has been fighting for the preservation of the Yamuna and its flood plains.
Officials of the DJB are tight-lipped about the strain that the regularisation order will put on the system, but they are quick to point out that the Government will have to push for more allocation of raw water if it wants equitable distribution. “As on date we have laid the pipeline network in 823 colonies, of which 735 receive water supply. In some colonies we supply water once every two days; in others the duration is longer. But if we have to supply water to our existing 18 million consumers and the 4 million that are in these regularised colonies then the Government must ensure that we get an additional 80 Million Gallons a Day with immediate effect from Haryana and in the future more water from Bhakra Beas and other sources,” said an official, requesting anonymity.
Power discoms have already been supplying electricity in these unauthorised colonies, but they face the challenge of keeping their installations safe. Pilferage is another issue that the companies have to deal with.
“Sometimes when we try to talk to people about the hazards of living near a power carrying line, they snap at us and tell us its their life that is in danger and they will deal with it,” said a discom official.
Has the Government failed the people, has it abdicated its duty to provide habitable housing for the poor, has it overlooked transgression of law by allowing the unregulated growth of farmhouses?
A.K. Jain, a former Delhi Development Authority official, said: “Planned development is an idealistic situation. We aspire for it, but have to realise that planned and unplanned development go side by side. While there is regularisation of these unplanned areas, we need to focus on the critical aspects as well. The Government must turn attention to in-field development, which means large properties or vacant spaces can be used for building group housing societies, where there will be proper infrastructure, roads, and sewers. The Master Plan also identifies that there should be 15 per cent housing developed through in-field development.”
Opinion in favour of regularisation is pivoted around human rights and allowing residents a chance to live with dignity. Attention is drawn to the unhygienic, unhealthy living conditions in these colonies, some of which are marked by mounds of garbage, broken roads, water-clogged streets and no civic amenities.
“I would not like to comment whether the unauthorised colonies and slums should have come up at the first place. The fact is that 50 per cent of Delhi is now living in unauthorised colonies and slums, and at this stage the most important issue and challenge is how to improve their habitation,” said Raj Rewal, chairperson of the Delhi Urban Art Commission.
The DUAC has offered to take up suo motu studies to improve the living conditions for unauthorised colonies.