The state of our cities.

The execution [pun intended] of city planning at the altar of political expediency, with particular reference to the judicial intervention in Delhi on illegal constructions and encroachments.

The spate of Court orders in Delhi in the last few years, first directing the tearing down of buildings constructed in contravention of existing building bye laws and then ordering the sealing of large commercial establishments in residential areas are a stunning reality check for our cities that have for long languished in unplanned dereliction.

In the case of Delhi, for a city designated as the capital of the world’s largest democracy, we have exhibited no sense of corresponding pride, or even basic concern for it growth course. I have heard the incumbent CM repeat with misplaced vigour that 5 lakh [five hundred thousand] people move into Delhi every year to justify the problems of planning, but never quite understood that if the figure and practice was so clearly documented, what stopped the administration to either provide for this influx, or contrarily, provide for resisting the same, should we not possess the infrastructure to sustain this sort of chaotic incursions.

But therein lies the key to this entire sorry episode. There can never be any providing for these migratory incursions because any effort to settle them is seen as intrinsically unjustified since their residency in the city is based on illegal encroachments on government or private land. That, the encroachment itself is a paranormal phenomenon aided and abetted directly by political parties and a supplicant administration, is just a footnote in the story. Then begins the long litany of demand and supply – the former outstripping the latter in every aspect of city management and an artificially maintained imbalance that is provides a fertile vote harvest from insecure populations. My point is this: the vote can be harvested only so long as the prospect is insecure and therefore any attempt to settle them permanently is contra-indicatory in the context of the entire scheme of political calculus.

A journalist friend recently informed me that 60% of Delhi is now settled illegally or in unregularized, unauthorised areas. In a scenario like this, the authorized 40% is bound to be a high pressure area, smoked out and hemmed in from all sides with high rental and ownership values, minimum room for changes, improvements and additions at least horizontally. Then, naturally, people start building upwards. Not just people, as we see, but corporates, builders and planners do the same: that is why we progressively move towards high rises, compacted residential living quarters and CBDs – Central Business Districts – in the world’s metros.

Having said that, why do we have a situation where 60 percentage of technically illegal living is allowed to put so much pressure on the legal existence of the rest? If there has to be law, it must apply equally, and if there has to be justice it must be dispensed equitably. The middle class, which forms the bulk of the legal residency in the city is simply asking this: how can it be that a man moves in from another city, squats on a piece of land, maybe just 10 by 10 square feet but which is not his, and for which he pays no retention or maintenance charges and over time thanks to the political machinations and administrative lethargy or an adjunct combination acquires enough legitimacy to be the subject of a regularization drive while he, having purchased his plot of land, paid all legal fees as required by law, is not sanctioned a small addition to his top floor to accommodate his growing needs.

Look at it like this: That building bye-laws were not followed exactly is now presented as worse than the fact that no law was followed at all; or that a complete illegality is a shade more reasonable than partial illegality.

One need not quarrel with the Supreme Court’s verdict; the court has done its job, and explained us the law as it exists and has urged us to follow it to the exact T. But that does not in any way balance out the other side of the issue and frankly, in the absence of any counter weight, I am wagering that an inequality of dispensing justice in such cases seriously undermines any permanent, or even a temporary solution to the problem, laying waste eventually, this judicial, if providential, intervention.

My reasons ? In the absence of balance of justice, the angst of people slighted by the Court order will result in a political antagonism that can seal the fate of the any political dispensation of the state in the next elections. To avoid this, the incumbent government will itself subvert the Court’s orders in one manner or the other. Look at the order of the Supreme Court on electronic meters in autos: the meters were placed, but nobody either follows the meters or trusts them. Remember the raison d’etre of the changeover to electronic meter in autos was not to replace old technology, but to stop overcharging by autos. The Supreme Courts admirable intent was thwarted comprehensively in this case, thanks to the clever machinations of a concerted plan by concerned politicians and auto unions.

Now look at the Delhi demolitions orders: the Municipal Corporation of Delhi continues as before, even in the face of three separate recriminations by the High Court on going slow and soft targeting and yet not a single politician on the list has been touched. There are examples galore. The new Minister of State is already bleating a weakened verdict and you can clearly see the outlines of another concert planned in the eventual dismemberment of the Supreme Court’s essential verdict.

Delhi, like Mumbai and Bangalore is trapped in the vice like grip of our degenerative politics and for all those who blame the bureaucracy, think again. All power flows downwards and that is the nature of the beast. The bureaucracy can resist for only some time if at all, but never forever. The failure of our cities to respond to something as blindingly obvious as an increase in settlers is no reflection of a bureaucrat’s vision – his limits are etched in ink in the rule book – but the lack of one on the part of political parties, politicians and their politics.

The cardinal principle of building cities and towns is planning with an eye on the future. But how can you plan for a problem that expands at a rate greater than you can supply solutions? That we have only adapted retrospective methodologies to such a challenge is a telling example of our pathetic approach to this issue. In situ regularization of colonies, years after settlers have been living there is the leading principle in the recently ordained Master Plan of Delhi at a policy level whereas, incredibly enough, the same political dispensation will not allow any honourable settlement of the issue or hand over rights of settlement to such illegal settlers for precisely the reasons cited in the para preceding this – political profit : leading to a status quo which eventually corrodes our planning processes.

Like always, the recent Court orders only deal with symptoms, perhaps logically since the terms of reference were limited to that. But how can you want to solve a problem and not want to understand the mechanisms of the process?

Illegal encroachment, constructions and misuse of residential property for commercial purposes are all directly linked with a city’s demands for growth. It is the nature of man to grow, expand and arch out. It is in the DNA of our cellular composition to do this. Man does not set out to cheat or build illegally. It is only when the accompanying circumstances do not provide for this growth that any illegality occurs. That holds for the migrant who sets up a shelter on some vacant land on the outskirts of the city; that holds for the man who builds an extra floor; and that holds for the man who sets up business in a residential area. For each instance there is an accompanying paradigm of planning failure, and an environment of all pervasive illegality, which too is the direct result of the sordid political mutations of our governing bodies, pusillanimous policing and crowned by paralyzed, comatose and intellectually barren Governance in our Cities and States.

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