Millennium Post

Encroachment of public space

Civic and law enforcement authorities must proactively cater to the encroachment-plagued urban settlements

Encroachment of public space is common, rather rampant, in our country. Across cities and towns, one can find encroachment on government land, illegally squatting for residing or using the space for business. Railways and Defense have a huge chunk of land spread across the length and breadth of the country. So, it is natural that maximum encroachment is on land belonging to these two areas as per available data.

Prime Minister Modi announced the creation of "Adarsh Gaon" (Ideal Village) and 100 smart cities immediately after resuming office in 2014. However, it has not been properly implemented on the ground so far. There are several parameters for a "Smart City or Adarsh Village". But, one of the most important factors is to maintain adequate greens and free "public space" in any smart city and town, and pastoral land in villages for the animals to graze. One just cannot take away legitimate grazing area, especially of bovines! All our towns and cities are plagued with encroachments and even in the villages, the pastoral land (also known as Gram Sabha land) has become targets of massive encroachment by the construction mafia to cater to the ever-increasing demand for housing.

Indian cities are far behind civilised western cities and New Delhi is also not an exception. It is ugly in general due to haphazard unplanned growth with all-around shabby encroachments.

The national capital territory of Delhi is a fine example of how the encroachers eat away public space and government land in connivance with all concerned authorities. As per existing rule, the land-owning agency has to bear the cost, pay for rehabilitation (shifting) of the encroachers and get the land encroachment-free, which is a big stumbling block often due to lack of funds for such activities allowing the encroachers to continue illegally for long periods. Later they start demanding legitimacy to the encroached land. Several examples are available where the encroachers once rehabilitated by the land owning agency to a government-allotted pucca housing facility, return to again grab the same de-encroached area and subsequently rent it out to other grabbers. Race Course JJ camps opposite to PM's residence is one glaring example of such misuse in Delhi. There are several litigations in different courts of the country with respect to encroachment issues. Out of approximately 4 crore cases pending in different courts in the country, a good number are involving encroachments. In the last count, Delhi Development Authority, which is the custodian of the majority of the government land in the national capital, had approximately more than 7,000 cases in different courts in the capital where the same plot of land is claimed by DDA as well as an individual or group of individuals.

It is not always true that encroachments are carried out by displaced or poor people, who migrate to cities and towns in search of livelihood and work. Rich and the mighty also encroach as per their whims. For instance, in Delhi, the majority of the plotted residential colony pedestrian walkways are encroached by the local residents, in order to park their cars. Visit any posh colony in Delhi and one will find more than 80 per cent of the footpath or the pedestrian walkways converted to free parking lot by the local residents. In absence of any action by any authorities, this condition eternally prevails. The green covers in residential colonies are fast decimating in order to accommodate more number of cars in Delhi and to create space for cars, trees are sacrificed. Mainly, trees in front of respective houses are often illegally chopped or slowly killed with acid being poured in the roots of trees so that trees die and the concerned authorities have no choice but to bring down the tree. Thus, creating space for cars in-lieu of trees. Hon'ble SC has come down heavily on the Delhi government to check increasing pollution in the national capital. And, this condition is further aggravated by less crown cover provided by trees to arrest pollutants. Practically, it becomes a gas chamber due to smog, dust and other floating particles in the NCR air. But, one tends to look the other way and not pay any heed on this important issue for which the next generation will suffer the most.

The exodus of people from villages to towns and cities is common and in practice for the last four or five decades. There have been constant and regular large scale migration to towns and cities from all rural India. In Delhi/NCR alone, five-seven lakhs are added on a yearly basis. It is natural that the migrant population would settle down by encroaching and creating shanties, Jhuggis, Jhopdis, etc. So, what's better than the public space or some government land where the lackadaisical authorities will wake up much later and by the time they do, the public space would be under encroachment.

One of the main reasons is the involvement of local politicians in these matters to create vote bank and to make quick money. In fact, it suits everyone and it's a win-win situation for the encroacher, the local authorities including law enforcement agencies and the local politician! Post-1971 war, millions of people from Bangladesh came to India. 80-90 per cent settled in West Bengal and remaining in Delhi (EPDP Colony of CR Park), MP/Chhattisgarh (Dantewada) and some other places in the country.

In West Bengal, CPM encashed on the situation and started putting up mass scale encroachments on all public spaces like by the side of rail tracks, under the flyovers, by the side of canals, etc. These encroachers were pampered with the ration card, free water, free electricity (such luring is on now in Delhi too) and voter IDs for the settlers. The net result was that within the next five-six years, the then Congress government of Siddarth Shanker Ray was routed from Bengal and in came Jyoti Babu and the CPM rule, with huge illegal migrants as vote bank in the kitty of CPM due to which it ruled for 34 years. It seems that all political parties now have taken a cue from this Bengal episode and followed suit. Only sufferers were legitimate citizens.

Strict enforcement of anti-encroachment law and rule is a must with zero tolerance. There has to be a specific drive to end all encroachments, especially in the national Capital. The hawkers are illegally grabbing all possible public places not sparing even the iconic India gate alongside notable markets such as Sarojini Nagar, Connaught Place, Lajpat Nagar, Ajmal Khan/Karol Bagh, etc. Tightening the responsibilities of civic and law enforcement authorities in encroachment cases with exemplary punitive actions is the need of the hour.

(The author is ex-OSD to LG Delhi, Additional DG, Prasar Bharti and was keenly involved in managing MCD/DDA on encroachment matters. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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