How Urbanisation Went Wrong in Delhi's Lal Dora Villages

Lal dora villages refer to places where the British used red ink to demarcate collectively-held residential land from agricultural land in village maps for the purposes of tax collection.

Seventy-seven-year-old Ajit Kumar Chauhan stares at a park from the front yard of his house in South Delhi’s Khirki village. The park that mostly caters to wedding celebrations now, once housed refugee families from the Partition of India. At that time, Chauhan was about four years old and his family-owned large tracts of agricultural land including the patch where the park stands in Khirki, which was an erstwhile lal dora village – places where British who ruled India used red ink to demarcate collectively-held residential land from agricultural land in village maps for the purposes of tax collection.

In the years following India’s freedom from the British in 1947, the Delhi government acquired agricultural land of many lal dora villages including Khirki’s and absorbed them into the expanding city. The government declared some lal dora villages as “urban villages” and exempted them from various development norms in part to keep their rural identity and community land ownership intact.

But over time, these exemptions from building regulations led people in these villages to construct houses and buildings so haphazardly that much of them are unsafe. People from dominant castes encroached on most of the land.

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Today Khirki has lanes so narrow that a fire brigade truck cannot enter in case of a fire. Electrical wires overhang, and sewage is often stagnant. Water supply is irregular, and garbage is collected by the government only twice a week. Since the late 1980s, successive governments in Delhi have attempted to regularise or create development plans for these villages, which have become places so complex that none of these plans could be implemented.

People in such villages find themselves trapped between the blurred boundaries of urban and rural, traditional and modern, the individual and communitarian ethics. They are also divided over whether or not they want any change in the way the things are, because many of them benefit from the chaos.

As Delhi expands further, another set of lal dora villages on the city’s periphery are being swallowed. In November 2019, the lieutenant governor of Delhi declared 79 more lal dora villages as urban villages, taking the total tally of such urban villages to 214. In September 2020, the governor handed over these villages to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Delhi has 362 lal dora villages.

In the following month, DDA issued a notification saying that the residents of the urban and rural villages will be involved in making layouts for the Delhi Masterplan of 2041. But given the failure of various such government attempts in the past, residents of these villages have little hope.

These notifications are “paper tigers”, says Paras Tyagi of Budhela, a lal dora-turned-urban village in southwest Delhi. Tyagi is a co-founder of the Centre for Youth Culture Law and Environment or CYCLE, a non-profit based in Delhi.

However, nobody really knows whether urban villages will have a fate similar to Khirki or different.

What led to chaos? 

As a lal dora village, Khirki lay on the periphery of urban Delhi, which is today’s old Delhi.  Chauhan thinks of his childhood in Khirki as one of blissful isolation and unhindered autonomy. His family owned about 40 acres of agricultural land on which they grew long-grain rice, wheat, chickpeas and sugarcane. Chauhan remembers cattle milling through the farmlands, and grazing on forage crops. His primary education took place under a tree on the farm. “When it rained, we would shift to the Khirki mosque,” in the village, he recalls.

Khirki village Delhi Lal Dora village

Overhanging electricity wires, balconies jutted out to maximise space in Khirki village. Photo: Flavia Lopes.

Sushmita Pati, professor of Political Science at Azim Premji University who has extensively researched Delhi’s urban villages, says “most villages were dominated by the pastoral Jaat and Gujjar communities who collectively owned parts of residential land, shamlat deh (common land) and agricultural land”.

Chauhan, who belongs to an upper caste, asserts the interdependence that existed in the village. “Harijans [community that is considered of lower caste] would help in our fields and milk our cattle, while the Pandits [community that is considered of higher caste] would conduct marriage rituals. Through a barter system, we would give Harijans grains in return for their efforts,” he says. While Khirki itself was on the periphery of Delhi, the Harijan community lay on the periphery of Khirki.

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According to an independent historian Gyanendra Pandey, post-Partition refugee crisis led to increase in Delhi’s population by over a million in the next four years. So, to rehabilitate the refugees, Delhi government began acquiring large tracts of agricultural land to build temporary settlements. Chauhan’s family gave half of their 40 acres. Subsequently, the rest of the Khirki’s agricultural land was acquired by DDA between 1962 and 1964 for the planned development of the city. “DDA paid us around Rs 4,600 per acre,” recalls Chauhan.

Soon after acquiring agricultural land of some lal dora villages, DDA created Delhi’s first Master Plan in 1962 to develop the city. But it decided to leave the residential areas of these villages largely untouched. Even today, lal dora areas are marked on Delhi’s revenue maps with a single plot or khasra number – a mark of older collective ownership. This means that residents of such villages do not have individual property rights over their plots, and so cannot access bank loans or buy and sell their properties transparently.

The following year, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) declared 20 lal dora villages including Khirki as “urban villages” whose agricultural land was acquired by DDA. That meant that people of these villages had to follow the Building Bye-Laws. But few months later, that same year, MCD issued a second notification exempting these villages from certain sections of building regulations of the Delhi Metropolitan Council Act. This was largely done to accommodate Delhi’s growing post-Partition refugee population. The exemption allowed residents of the villages to construct or repair buildings, or even change the use of a building from residential to commercial without taking any permission from the civic authorities. People began constructing houses and buildings the way they wanted, and where they wanted. Further government notifications granted urban villages access to up to 1kW of free power supply for industrial purposes and exemptions from property taxes.

Khirki Mosque

Khirki Mosque in Delhi. Photo: Varun Shiv Kapur/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Behind Chauhan’s house is a dense maze of residential buildings that extend over the street and take up asymmetrical forms to maximise the horizontal and vertical space. Construction debris lie next to the new construction that is coming up in the vacant space or atop buildings. Narrow alleyways between these buildings end abruptly at buildings having single-room floors, allowing only a sheet of sunlight to seep through the lane. 

In 2006, the government formed an Expert Committee on lal dora to integrate the former lal dora villages into the planned development of the city. The committee recommended creating village development plans for each village along with land use maps. By that time, 135 of the 362 lal dora villages of Delhi had been declared as urban villages. But the recommendations remained on paper.

Three years later in 2009, MCD passed another notification clarifying that the exemptions of 1963 were no longer applicable to those that had been declared as urban villages, and that the exemptions were meant only for the existing lal dora villages which numbered 227 at that time. But between 1963 and 2009, over four decades had passed and many residents of the urban villages had encroached on common land to construct buildings haphazardly and had taken to flourishing real-estate business there.

“Residents were doing away with every habit, material and anything that would resemble a rural lifestyle. Open courtyards were replaced with vertical constructions that could fetch easy rental incomes,” says Tyagi of Budhela. He blames the unclear land ownership of the erstwhile lal dora system for this unplanned construction and has been asking the governments to survey the villages for better planning and to issue individual land titles.

After Partition, Chauhan’s family rebuilt their kuccha bamboo house into a single floor permanent structure. Then in 1980s, he added four more storeys to the house with multiple rooms, as well as a basement dwelling space. Chauhan wanted to add more floors to his own house but Archaeological Survey of India denied him permission because his house sits within a 100-meter radius of the Khirki mosque – an archaeological site – the same place where he would shift for rain cover when he was a child.

Another Khirki resident, Dharam Saini, not only built his own house but also encroached nearby vacant plot to construct buildings which he now rents out. Many of these buildings in the village now violate existing Building Bye-Laws as they exceed floor area ratio norms and are built far taller than the prescribed height limits. Although the Building Bye-Laws became applicable to urban villages in 2009, residents of these villages hardly follow them. “There are so many rules applicable within the village,” says Dharam Saini’s son Lalit Saini, who also became a real-estate developer like his father. “If we start asking for permissions, none of Khirki village would exist.”

At the same time, these places also provide affordable housing to thousands of people who come to Delhi in search of livelihood and cannot afford higher rents or the prejudices in other parts of the city.

According to Pati of Azim Premji University, “the ambition and megalomania” of Delhi’s first Master Plan was so huge that the fate of the lal dora villages and their residents were ignored.

“It was only in the mid-1980s and 1990s that the state took cognisance of these villages when the illegal developments in the village started to become a significant concern,” she says.

In 2017, the Delhi High Court described Hauz Khas village – an erstwhile lal dora village a “ticking time bomb” because 90% of commercial establishments there did not have fire safety clearances. The same year, 89 more lal dora villages were declared as urban villages. 

However, these declarations did not mean much because the Delhi government authorities did not take care of even the basic facilities like regular water supply or garbage collection there.

Eighty-seven-year-old K.C. Rana, the president of the only Residents’ Welfare Association in Khirki village, had been trying to get the MCD to give the permit to build a school in the village. The MCD directed him to the Archeological Survey of India, which then sent him back to MCD citing that the location of the proposed school was within a 100-meter radius of the 14th century Khirki fort built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq. No alternate land for the school was discussed.

Rana and Dharam Saini are from the same family but do not speak to each other because of a dispute over a piece of land that neither own.  “More than 100 brothers show up to fight for small patches of land,” says Saini’s son Lalit.

Bharat Bhushan, the chief town planner of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, says that the corporation cannot implement any of its tasks unless DDA prepares area development plans.

He says that DDA has so far created such plans only for 83 urban villages. However, A.K. Jain, former commissioner of planning for the DDA, says that MCD is equally for the current state of urban villages.

Jain says that the Master Plan of Delhi 2021 introduced the concept of local area plans that MCD could make to plug in civic infrastructure gaps, like buildings dispensaries or schools in urban villages. “But the MCD refused to make these plans because it was not a part of MCD Act and because it did not have the capability to do this”, he says.

This blame game and the lack of timely interventions by the government have resulted in the chaotic state of affairs in these villages today, says Tyagi.

Is there a way forward?

Any kind of planning in the lal dora-turned-urban villages “will take place only when these areas are surveyed” says Ramesh Verma, additional commissioner of MCD.

Khirki Village Delhi

With the lack of coordination among various wings of the Delhi government, the proposals to regularise constructions in Lal Dora villages have remained unattended to. Photo: Flavia Lopes.

“There is a lack of co-ordination in our planning and the on-ground situation. Every officer who goes on the ground becomes disillusioned,” says P.P. Shrivastava, a former bureaucrat who led the 2006 expert committee on lal dora areas suggests micro-planning of the individual villages.

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The Delhi government has been regularising unauthorised neighbourhoods in the city, but these urban villages are complicated entities, which is why the government bodies have largely stayed away from them.

With the lack of coordination among various wings of the Delhi government, the proposals to regularise constructions in Lal Dora villages have remained unattended to

“The issue of urban villages goes way back with complex and fragmented landholdings, and varied interests. So, it is a complicated exercise to regulate them,” says Manish, a research associate who studies urban planning among other things at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Khirki was named after the 12th century Khirki Mosque of the village. The name Khirki translates into Urdu as “window.” The windows that once opened wider, today remain almost always closed in every house of the village.

Loss of the farmland has restricted people of erstwhile lal dora villages to much narrower spaces. This change also reflects in an individual ethic – suddenly, doors came up in the village and defined the threshold between public and private space, says Both Prakash, professor of literature at the Ambedkar University in New Delhi. Prakash studies the post-Partition literature on lal dora villages.

Once thriving with agrarian economy, Khriki has been reduced to a mere adjunct to a neighbouring pocket, torn between a placid village life and highly competitive urban life. Right where Chauhan’s house ends, a neighbourhood called Saket begins, which is home to high-rise apartments, European-style outdoor cafes, restaurants, and shopping arcades.

“Urban villages bear a sense of ‘in-between-ness,” says Pati, “they neither resemble the village nor a city, as much as they aspire to live an urban life.” Dharam Saini still refer to himself as a “dehati” or villager.

Delhi continues to spread further. Its southern periphery has approached the next set of lal dora villages like Dhansa and Mitraon. Whether or not they would resemble Khirki in future depends on what the Delhi government and people in lal dora have in their mind and what they actually do on the ground.

For now, there are only notifications, like before.

Flavia Lopes is a researcher with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers documenting ongoing land conflicts across India.