The government’s ill-conceived urban development schemes are threatening the future of Delhi

The Delhi Urban Arts Commission was constituted by an Act of Parliament in 1972 with the sole intention of acting as a supra urban body to guide the future development of Delhi. After 40 years of its existence, chaired by a galaxy of bureaucrats and, more recently, famous architects, it is still difficult to evaluate whether it has had any visible impact on the city as a whole.

Today, the Commission is extremely unhappy and feels helpless about the future of Delhi and that may well explain why its impact is difficult to evaluate. During the last month, the Commission has been presented three conceptual development schemes by the Central government that seem so preposterous that it has had no option but to comment on them adversely. In one of the proposals put forward by the government, the Commission described the proposal as “a vertical slum” as it would “destroy the emerging future urban design form and architectural character. It was the view of the Commission that such a development would set wrong precedents for the future.”

Three schemes

Three schemes together, clothed as “General Pool Residential Accommodation”, are meant to house almost 10,000 government employees in an area of over 165 acres in the middle of Delhi at separate locations in blocks that will rise to 14 floors. The investment required will certainly cross Rs. 4,000 crore.

The Commission is naturally restless because these schemes follow the directives of the latest version of the Delhi Master Plan 2021, which has called for tripling the current building volumes in many parts of Delhi. For instance, in one of the three proposals located in Sriniwaspuri, 1400 existing houses will be demolished and replaced by over 4,000 flats. While reviewing these proposals, the Commission has questioned how the entire Master Plan of Delhi has gone into the public realm without any approval from it. To add to the angst, the Minister of Urban Affairs has created further confusion by intervening in the status of the Plan which, incidentally, has been made disregarding the procedures laid down in the 74th Amendment of the Constitution which requires an entirely different procedure to be followed for the preparation of urban development plans. Adding to this, the Central government has rushed in to present clearly directed solutions for the future of Delhi.

At the end of the heated deliberations in the Commission about the merits of these schemes, one member commented: “What is the larger game being played behind these schemes?” It is a valid question to ask in a political environment that is being rocked by land and resource looting scandals. Large government schemes prefixed with the word “development” raise suspicion because of the lack of credibility in believing that social concerns are truly guiding the objectives of these schemes.

There is a new thrust by the government to change the character of Delhi from a garden city to a Gurgaon or Bombay model. The trouble probably began when the McKinsey Global Institute published its report on “India’s Urban Awakening: Building Inclusive Cities, Sustaining Economic Growth” in April 2010. Such reports are a regular part of McKinsey’s vision of the world of tomorrow that it prepares for various countries to guide its investors. This particular report has become a Bible for the government. McKinsey has pointed out that if its recommendations are followed, 70 per cent of India’s GDP could come from cities by 2030. Since McKinsey informs us that cities will provide 85 per cent of the tax revenue, the government has a strong motivation for speeding up the urbanisation process to allay fears that international investors have of the worst scenarios that McKinsey has projected “… the lack of serious policies to manage urbanization could jeopardise even 7.4 per cent growth rate … risking high unemployment”. To meet this juggernaut that is coming at us, McKinsey has computed that $2.2 trillion will be required and this would have to come from loans and “monetizing land assets, maximising property tax collections …” and by an enormous densification of metro and tier I cities which are to be surrounded by new satellite towns.

The three Central government housing schemes that have been presented to the Commission for conceptual approval (Kidwai Nagar, Srinwaspuri, Mohammed Park Ramakrishna Puram) provide the first evidence that the government has taken the McKinsey report as a guide to the future. The Commission, during its deliberations, wondered why there was this urgent need to provide almost 10,000 government employees with accommodation and whether some of it would go to others.

The Kidwai Nagar scheme, to house almost 5,000 employees, was presented to the Commission by the Indian agents of a British design consortium who prefaced their presentation with the words: “The scheme has already been approved by the Cabinet”. Going into the technical aspects of the scheme, the members asked for certain clarifications. For instance, how did the developers intend to save 80 per cent of over 2,000 existing trees on the site when the entire site, from one end to the other, was going to be excavated for two parking basements? The scheme had already been presented to the Minister for Urban Development for approval. The Commission felt betrayed at being last in the queue of approving authorities. It had no hesitation in rejecting the scheme, Cabinet and ministerial approval not withstanding. It commented on the Mohammed Park scheme: “The proposal was found unacceptable”.

Delhi is going to be transformed by these ill-conceived schemes being initiated by ministries and outsourced think tanks. If such schemes are allowed to come up, they will provide builders with a precedent to triple densities in Delhi. At this moment, development activities of builders have abated in Gurgaon because of the recession and acute water crisis. They have now turned their eyes to Delhi and are gnawing at its gates, fully secure in the knowledge that the government will back them, as it did when they overbuilt and dried out Gurgaon’s water supply. What nobody mentions loudly enough is that Delhi is already water starved. The Chief Minister is at her wits’ end trying to cope with the migration of half a million people a year who settle down in Delhi as it continues to dry up.

Questionable policies

The questionable urbanisation policies for Delhi clearly have the approval of the Planning Commission whose eyes are fixed firmly on models of development that are advocated by international financial and loan institutions which do not hesitate to showcase the success of China in monetising Commons resources. The urbanisation patterns that are emerging in our cities and industrial corridors (McKinsey has recommended 19 like the Delhi- Mumbai one) are serious causes for concern. If India is being prepared for the role of service provider to the world while China becomes the manufacturing hub, we are in for some very tumultuous times. There are other balanced ways to develop and urbanise but these directions will be difficult to pursue with the existing experts in the Planning Commission and the absence of a public debate on where we want to be in 2030. China has convened over a hundred meetings with experts about its future direction. Should we be content with outsourced solutions for our future while watching the emasculation of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission?

(Romi Khosla is an architect and advisor to the Delhi Urban Arts Commission.)

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