Future in the remaking
The proposed MPD could make incremental progress but is likely to leave larger issues of management, governance, resource upgrade and structural problems unanswered
Governments by their very nature are status quoist in temperament. At best, only when driven by external pressures, do they opt for a change, that too an incremental one only. Bureaucratic verbiage allows for this change to be called transformative or a futuristic vision, depending on who is to be addressed in the PTB (powers that be). As a PR pitch, the big words also come in handy for the citizens to dream of living in a world-class city, on some day in the future.
The vision for the city, as contemplated in the new Master Plan Document, is as it should be. It is stated with solemnity 'to foster a sustainable, livable and a vibrant Delhi by 2041'. No one can argue with this ambition. Indeed, Delhi should have been all of this by now. Sadly, it is not. Thirty per cent of the city's population still lives in illegal colonies, amidst unhealthy and unhygienic conditions. These residents actually contribute to the needed services of the city dwellers and bring convenience to their lives. Nevertheless, the vision 'to foster…' is highly desirable and there can be no argument on that.
The proposed MPD is a set of objectives to be fulfilled over the next two decades. This is the fourth such set of a vision document that the state seeks to outline as its guidance for the next two decades. Previous three Master Plans had many good features, but those fell short of the city's needs. Primarily, in each of these efforts, we have been beaten by the volumes. Population estimates have been wide off the mark on each occasion, putting every civic facility in a huge deficit. Delhi has attracted every kind of seekers of education, jobs and businesses. The city offers economic opportunity in terms of schools and universities, healthcare and employment at every level. The city is relatively safe, at least in the populated areas, and has a good transit system for commuters. But, even now, the proposed strategies will fall well short of what the city needs. Even though the rate of population increase may have slowed, the absolute numbers will continue to impose pressure on all civic services for a long time in the future. We need to devote attention towards augmentation of primary civic infrastructure — both in quantity and quality. The qualitative dimension assumes greater significance if we have to combat pandemic-like disasters in the future. Only ensuring hygiene and sanitation is the way forward.
The intention to make the city a 24-hour live and vibrant one is very welcome. It really should have been one, some 15 years ago. Yes, cultural spaces, heritage sites and leisure venues ought to have been multiplied many times over. The ones that we have are subject to so much conditional usage that it becomes a nightmare to use one venue, because to get clearances and permissions for programmes and other things is a difficult task. Much more convenient is to go to any farmhouse on the outskirts and arrange a social evening by paying under the table a 'do-not-disturb' fee. Why should some of the heritage sites not be usable for cultural and social events is a mystery. It would fetch revenues, offer great venues to the populace and, in the end, multiply leisure spaces. Why sports centres across the city should not have a competent management and why can't there be an upgradation of its open spaces for better cultural space and dining on a pay and use basis? Why should their management be in the hands of government agencies not familiar with the 'service culture'? No matter how hard it tries, a government facility will always fall short of best service standards — be it a hotel, or a cultural unit. Anyway, these are issues of detail, it suffices to say that only an imaginative bureaucracy can create public assets and then withdraw into the shadows leaving good systems to flourish. It needs foresight and oversight frameworks. At best, these are managerial issues and can happen easily if there is a political and bureaucratic will. We hope that there is plenty of both in the future as the evidence from the past is lacking. Even though their own facilitative and enabling roles have been recognised but, to make this a reality, there is a need for a heavy dose of humility in the bureaucracy.
The city has multiple issues — from governance to management and resource upgrades to fundamental structural problems. Possibly the proposed MPD cannot address them. Multiplicity of city management agencies, poor civic management for an array of reasons and other unseen layers that stall decision making in the public interest remain lingering hindrances. The proposed solutions will result in incremental change at best while the deficits of civic infrastructure will continue to multiply. The main question is: What kind of a city do we want? Surely clean, green and user-friendly top the list of desires. To get these, it is the administrative framework that needs to be tightened. We have to simplify and digitise governance systems. There are ambitions to expand and dwell on land pooling and transit-oriented commercial and residential development. Some SOPs have been added like the higher FARs. But what should be of concern is the kind of net result that we intend. Both land supply and land use have been issues of vital concern and have never been addressed in a holistic manner. The most notable consequence of leaving the management of master plans in the hands of the authorities or the municipal bodies is that we have a city where 90 per cent of the buildings, including DDA's own complexes, are in violation of existing norms. No correction is possible even if a very brave heart were to attempt it. Can we not simplify the byelaws to make them more compatible with the needs of the increasing pressure on decent housing. There is now even a selectivity in expanding FARs in transit nodes specifically reserved for development. Why should FAR expansion and height limits be rationalised and balanced all around. FAR management is key to the city's growth, coupled with increased connectivity. Going vertical has, once again, not found favour with the planners. Evidently, the limitations of the fire services continue to be the stumbling block. This ceiling on the potential of the city's development options has to be broken. There are solutions and we have to get them.
We have once again laid an emphasis on waterfront development, with walkways and amusement parks. Waterfronts in any part of the world are a prime and precious asset of cities and they need to be treasured as such. Our efforts to clean the Yamuna have been a string of failures for various reasons. We have allowed the flood plains of the Yamuna to be subjected to all kinds of heartless abuse. Our 'nullahs' are extremely toxic, letting out foul air and pollutants. Can we pay attention here instead of the beatification of small acreage? The river Thames took the authorities fifty years to do the cleanup. Certainly, investment is needed. Monetisation options are available to the authorities and those need to be used.
The plan as proposed is fine as far as it goes. At one level, it recognises the limitations and legacy deficits, but shows little confidence to resolve them. What we need is a convergence of thought, energy and action amongst the layers of administration that currently keep on padding and reinforcing their ivory towers. Fundamental issues need frank and honest answers. The current opportunity is, in all probability, the last one before the city goes down irretrievably and no brand of cosmetic will ever make it sparkle again. Therefore, we need to think on the scale of magnificence, and dare to implement that scale.
The writer is the now retired-Director of the India Habitat Centre. Views expressed are personal