Millennium Post

Capital woes of capital Delhi

Unregulated urban planning and absence of foresight has plagued Delhi’s cityscape.

Who anchors and who navigates the ambitions of the capital of our country—New Delhi? The Lieutenant Governor; the Chief Minister; the one into now three Municipal Corporations; the Supreme Court and its 'Sealing Machine', which goes under the ubiquitous title of the 'Monitoring Committee'; the behemoth Delhi Development Authority; or the behind the scenes puppeteer the Urban Development ministry; or do it yourself when in need, but make the payoffs and silence your conscience, if it nags.
It is only one question—let me know if you find the answer. And, therein lays the heart of the problem. It is also known as making the city dweller run from pillar to post to seek redressal for his needs. The fact that the city's government and the city fathers belong to different political colours, help in further complicating our lives and increasing our sufferings. Read that as a fine print in the manifesto of the contesting parties in various elections or read it in between the lines. It is there because that is the only promise that is fulfilled by governments on the assumption of office. At least, so it would seem from the multitude of inactions of the authorities.
An expression of judicial anger at rampant unauthorised constructions in the city, reignited the passion to stop and deter illegal constructions with on the spot sealing and closure of errant premises, setting off a citywide panic among the businesses being run from there. This is our unique way of promoting ease of doing business or ease of living. We never let certainty or predictability into any regime of laws, rules or prohibitions. Our governments do not work to help citizens. We still change our tax regimes annually; after all, we still celebrate the budget day almost like the pageantry aka Republic Day.
The local government's rules are a veritable maze of confusion. Any business or bank's lockers (in basements) can be shut down without notice. Yes, in 2006, as many as over 2000 roads were notified for mixed land use, followed by another 350 plus or so, but the fine print contains the devils. Businesses can be run only on the ground floors, but not in the basements or above the ground floor. The dubious 'however' or 'notwithstanding the above' comes into all our legislation, notified rules and anything else to do with government fiats. Here too, basements can be used for certain types of business offices like architects, lawyers or accountants. Floors above the ground can be used for some types of NGOs. All mixed-use notifications come with a standard condition of being valid only if a parking facility is created. Is it not the public authority who should be creating parking facilities in public areas and charging the citizens for them. These rules, designed by our city government, would leave any compliant individual a mental wreck. We often forget that in our country, adherence to the law is also an obstacle race for our citizens. It seems strange that all our governments seek to 'reform' our economic environment to attract the foreign investors; yet, these very state governments assiduously make the life of domestic businesses as difficult as possible. They are in a state of policy coma on urban governance and that is really a large part of governance. They are in a state of apathetic inertia over rural issues and that is another story.
Yes, governance is about regulating the citizen. But, why has it been forgotten that governance is also first about the discipline regulating the government itself? It demands the highest standard of ethics and integrity. When are we going to get the ruling systems to perform the basics of urban planning as a comfort for the citizens and meeting the growth needs? Surely, the authorities have to be aware that the population in the cities has grown immensely and yet, no effort is made to plan in time to cushion the pressure of urbanisation. Lofty pronouncements are aplenty. We will get a 'world class city' in Delhi, to 'smart cities in every state' to Shanghai like financial capital in Mumbai. Do we even understand that we do not mean, what we say? And urban planning and management is a prime example.
For decades now, we have not been able to decide whether the city can go vertical or not. As everything is governed by feelings, this option of going vertical too evokes mixed feelings. Apart from the dubious public sentiment, the fire authorities have always argued that they do not have the infrastructure to manage fire accidents in the higher storeys. The fact that this requires augmentation and acquisition of appropriate tenders and can be done, does not seem to cut any ice with them. Again, the ubiquitous notwithstanding, the municipal corporation's own swanky building is as tall as tall can be, as well as DDA's ugly Vikas Minar, among some others. Why cannot we decide that going vertical, when space constraints exist, is a solution that cities world over have opted for and we can adapt it to our needs.
We have many villages now subsumed within city limits in physical terms, but out of the pale of building laws. Some of these could have been heritage spaces; vibrant and cultural centres have become ideal domains of neglect with growing indiscriminate constructions under no regulatory constraints. All one can say is that these have now become unsafe urban havens and serve as examples of lost opportunities. We forget the famous adage: the doctors mistakes are buried, but the urban planner's mistakes are there for all to see.
Once again, the impulse to mitigate the miseries of traders and retailers even on notified roads is driven by the immediate and proximate desire to win the voters' preference. Increase the floor area ratios, declare more roads for mixed usage for the present, impose facile conditions including monetary concessions and vainly hope that it works. Remember, hope is a policy of the government of the day.
The truth is that unless the governments and the corporation unanimously believe that governance is beyond party and partisan considerations, we do not have a chance in hell that the capital's woes will be addressed. They all work for the same citizens and the same country notionally which is crying for a rule-based system, applicable to all without exception. Yet, politics disrupts a rule-based environment with disturbing regularity. We must not be blind to the fact that the fundamentals of regulation are broken and, therefore, create new and relevant basic laws without 'howevers' and 'notwithstandings'. The use of discretion has generally never been judicious and hence, no point vesting this power in officialdom at the cutting edge. We need to plan for each zone, we need to place the layout of each colony at its entrance, for all to see. The growth directions must be placed in public domain. At least, we have a right to know what our living area will look like. For all this to happen, we have to first know, who is responsible for the ambitions of the great and historic city of Delhi.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)
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