Any dilution of zoning and construction in the Regional Plan prepared by the NCRPB could upset the balance between urbanisation and conservation

As the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) revises the Regional Plan-2021 (RP-21), a blueprint for a sustainable and planned development in the NCR, it does so amid growing concern that perhaps it is time to question the inherent weaknesses of this unique institutional arrangement that has prevented it from becoming a model of “guided urbanisation in one of the largest metropolitan regions in the world.”

Indeed, many of the challenges that the NCRPB faced in implementing and enforcing RP-21, in force since 2005, have become manifest more during the year-long process of revising the plan that is now in its final stages. Perhaps the most obvious has been the addition of three new districts to the NCR, increasing its area by 34 per cent, even though the study group on Regional Land Use, set up to make recommendations for the Revised Draft RP-21, rejected their inclusion. But political pressure (read lobbying by real estate groups) won the day and, in July, a meeting of the NCRPB headed by Union Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath that approved the RDRP-2021, also approved the inclusion of three new districts, even though they were conspicuously absent from the draft plan itself.

So, Mahendragarh and Bhiwani have been added from Haryana, and Bharatpur from Rajasthan, which incidentally makes half of Haryana (11 out of 21 districts) part of the NCR now. Members of the study group that rejected the inclusion of the districts on the ground that their addition would add to the chaos in NCR planning, say they were under immense pressure from political representatives but did not give in, as the demand was “untenable.”

Although the expansion has been done ostensibly to reduce the pressure on Delhi’s health, educational and transport infrastructure, in reality, as the draft of the RDRP-21 itself notes, except for Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida and parts of Ghaziabad, the benefits of NCR planning have not percolated to other areas. The attraction for States is primarily a surge in real estate prices that is likely to accompany the NCR tag, as well as cheap loans from the NCRPB for infrastructure projects.

RP-21 is meant to balance urbanisation and conservation, and provide sustainable development in the three NCR States of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and the Union Territory of Delhi, and prevent haphazard growth in the agglomerated region primarily by zoning and controlling land use. The board of the NCRPB comprises, among others, Chief Ministers of the member States and is headed by the Union Urban Development Minister.

In all the eight years that the RP-21 has been in force, the member States did not finalise the sub-regional plans for their respective areas, as sub-regional plans have to be prepared in conformity with the provisions of the Regional Plan, and this would have tied the States down. Instead, they passed master plans with massive deviations from the provisions of the current RP-21, and at breakneck speed, to cash in on the real estate boom. Haryana passed three master plans for Gurgaon in quick succession in 2007, 2010, and 2012. Now, the States have prepared draft subregional plans that reflect master plans grossly violative of the existing RP-21 but have managed to get their deviations accommodated in the revised RP-21. Once notified, this will not only regularise the existing violations but also introduce fresh dilutions in the original land use zoning. Post-facto rationalisation is the name of the game now.

Consider this: In April, Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda wrote to Mr. Kamal Nath requesting him to instruct the NCRPB to incorporate the “existing position” of Haryana’s Gurgaon-Manesar Urban Complex (GMUC) Development Plan 2031 in the Regional Plan under review. Mr. Hooda’s missive came in connection with a case in the Supreme Court, during the course of which the NCRPB had informed the court that despite several suggestions, Gurgaon’s development plan was not in conformity with the RP-21. It had also submitted a list of deviations by Haryana as early as 2006 and followed up with several letters to the Haryana government asking it to modify master plans of some other NCR towns to bring them in conformity, which fell mostly on deaf ears.

Experts say that most of the revision is aimed at diluting environmental safeguards in the Regional Plan 2021. In June, a planning committee meeting of the NCRPB saw Haryana’s town and country planning department, and Rajasthan mooting several key dilutions in zoning and construction restrictions, all of which have been incorporated in the revised draft RP-2021. Key among them is the proposal to delete the restriction that limits construction at 0.5 per cent, in the Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ), and also the proposal to incorporate guidelines for ‘development’ in the conservation plans to be prepared for the NCZs. These in effect will open up the Aravallis and other so far protected, environmentally sensitive areas in the NCR for urbanisation. Prominent realtors with huge land banks in the protected area stand to gain as their proposed projects will be green lit. These changes were neither proposed nor reviewed by the Study Group on Environment, which was unceremoniously packed up after just one or two meetings. In fact, key members of the same group even held a seminar recently in the capital to discuss environmental oversight in the revised Plan.

Says Jagan Shah, Director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs in the Urban Development Ministry: “The distortions in NCR planning in the last few years go against the very rationale of setting up the NCR in the first place. Implementation of the original plan has been a challenge and the NCRPB has been repeatedly hauled before the courts to explain deviations by the States.”

It is not surprising then, if there are some who see the RDRP-21 as a capitulation by the NCRPB to the never-ending demands from constituent States to deviate from the original plan. “States are running riot with the planning and the NCRPB seems to be committing hara-kiri and consciously giving up some of its powers of enforcement,” says an officer associated with RDRP-21. Chapter 19 of RDRP-21 which deals with implementation points out: “This creates an unnecessary and fractious situation for the NCRPB, which is called upon to point out violations and deviations from the plan, ironically bringing into question both its own efficacy as ‘coordinator’ as well as the commitment of the State governments towards a regional plan prepared by a Board that includes, among others, the Chief Ministers of the constituent States.”

In case of violation of the RP, the NCRPB can at best withhold financial assistance to the participating State or Union Territory. Just how effective this has been is evident from the case of Haryana, which despite deviating significantly from the original Plan, has managed to corner 72 per cent of the financial assistance from the NCRPB.

chander.dogra@thehindu.co.in

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