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“The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanisation. The freedom to make and remake our cities.”
∼ David Harvey, The Right to the City, 2008
The draft Master Plan presents a vision to “Foster a Sustainable, Liveable and Vibrant” Delhi by 2041. It further declares that this vision will be achieved through increased privatisation, concretisation, further densification, attracting investments, etc. It imagines the kind of city Delhi will be by 2041 and the processes of development that will help achieve that image, but remains silent on the questions of protecting commons, ecology, safeguarding the rights of the marginalised and the kind of “development” that is appropriate and necessary. Clearly, such an imagination of Delhi is not one of the people but of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).
The MPD 2041 treats Delhi like a blank slate where existing practices, especially urban agriculture, find no mention. It builds on the narrative of Delhi as a “non-agricultural” area when the ground reality points to a rich history of large-scale agricultural activity which fulfils 10% of the nine million tonnes of food demand of Delhi. The Master Plan, in a line, mentions “specific locations may be identified for permitting agriculture in the floodplains”. A sense of scepticism is appropriate as the floodplains have again and again been the main target area for “development”.
The draft Master Plan portrays an image of a new Delhi – and that which does not “fit in” is left out of the map. It is often the urban poor, the marginalised, who possess little political power and private property, who end up facing the brunt of the process of urbanisation. When the Draft MPD 2041 was released, it was also accompanied by a land-use map. In a very top-down approach, Delhi was mapped into zones with a list of what is permitted and how. These land-use categories do not align with the ground reality of these zones. For instance, floodplains are categorised as Zone ‘O’, divided into Zone OI and OII, in which OII includes built structures like Akshardham Temple, Commonwealth Games Villages and other “unauthorised” colonies. But the settlements of the Yamuna and Chilla Khadar have been put in Zone OI which is categorised as Active Floodplains. Thus, the plan does not recognise the existence of these semi-permanent structures occupied by migrants from neighbouring states nor the existing agricultural practices.
The plan is clearly paving the way for gentrification. In every aspect, the plan pushes to change the map of Delhi, like the promotion of urban greening and “redevelopment” of floodplains which are nothing but features of the Yamuna Riverfront Development Plan, by evicting the urban poor and grabbing land. The same site will also be the location for the New India Garden or Nav Bharat Udyan, which is a part of the highly contested Central Vista Plan. These projects are targeted at “beautifying” the floodplains to increase the elite’s access to the river. Meanwhile the urban poor are evicted, their livelihoods destroyed, and polluting industries are allowed to function undisturbed. Even culturally significant places like Shahjahanabad are the target of a makeover, where the plan makes provisions to encourage the development of cafes, co-working spaces, hotels, etc.
Clearly, an urban planning process aimed at protecting ecologically and culturally significant spaces, the livelihood of the urban poor, tackling imminent climate issues, and retaining the social fabric of Delhi isn’t the driving force here. The strategic importance of certain sites like the floodplains or Shajahanabad is being utilised to make way for private investment, generate profits and enhance the market potential of the floodplains. Delhi is home to many functional “heritages” like baolis, wells, lakes, ponds, etc., which can be understood as resources that are commonly managed or held as “commons”. However, the MPD views nature as separate from humans, as an isolated entity that needs to be protected, managed and kept away from human intervention, especially water bodies. In the end, the purpose is to promote tourism and introduce private investment in every aspect, all under the garb of culture, sustainability and heritage.
Under the banner of “sustainable” practices, like electric mobility, shared mobility, constructing bypass and peripheral roads to decongest roads, reducing on-street parking but increasing off-street parking, the plan pushes for further densification and paves the way for private vehicles. The draft does not align with the existing provisions of other schemes like the Delhi government’s Electric Vehicles Policy that mentions making an addition to the fleet of buses, with 50% being electric. Even the “scientific” data being used is questionable, like the use of Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES) and Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System (DIMTS) data which contradicts the findings of the Delhi government survey regarding metro ridership.
The draft fails to get a sense of the existing realities of Delhi. It lists what is not allowed and where but doesn’t pave the way for alternatives. In the name of civic improvement, development and beautification, it is always the poor who will be evicted and their livelihoods destroyed. The “unclean” bastis, which are home to the migrants on whose labour Delhi relies and functions, will be picked up and thrown far away, on the peripheries, away from sight.
Is there an alternative?
A dense and populous city like Delhi requires meticulous planning, and for this, provisions have been made in the Constitution through the 74th Amendment, which provides a framework for the formation of urban local bodies (ULBs). But the planning process of Delhi has been completely usurped by DDA, which falls under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, where the participation of the local institutions and public is merely tokenistic.
In an urban planning process guided by the local bodies, there is more scope to be sensitive to the needs of the community, people, environment and social conditions. It is an alternative to the undemocratic and linear process of urban planning taken by the Master Plan, where the central decision-making body remains to be DDA. MPD 2041 is detached from the ground reality, making no mention of the existing contestations over land, rising issues of pollution, and is far from inclusive. For instance, the practice of agriculture on the floodplains is a highly contested matter. To ensure that farmers of Delhi can access the same incentives as other states, benefit from government schemes, and be motivated enough to make long-term investments on their land by adopting agro-ecological methods, they need to be incentivised, encouraged and the first step has to be regularising the existing practices. One approach in this can be a return to the lease system by the DDA, especially on land which is contested.
Tackling climate issues has to be accompanied with social justice. Not everyone is equally responsible for the harm caused to the environment, yet the poor pay for it. Moreover, the rapid urbanisation Delhi has been witnessing through the process adopted by the Master Plan has further taken the right to the city away from the urban masses.
The document is clearly unsympathetic towards the marginalised and fails to consider the social-political context of the land. In this regard, the efficacy of urban planning through the land-use method needs to be further looked into as it can dilute the role of local bodies, invisiblise local context, as anything that deviates from the land-use pattern is subjected to evictions, land grab and promotes centralisation of power.
“Right to the city” means power over how the city is made, remade and shaped. It is a right to active participation in urban planning. The Draft MPD 2041 remains inaccessible due to its format and language. It is exclusionary in its vision and approach as DDA has made no efforts to reach out to stakeholders like agricultural workers, farmers, residents of “unauthorised” colonies, etc. There is no recognition of fishing, no mention of any provisions for promotion, even when Delhi has a fisherpeople’s settlement near Jagatpur in Burari, colloquially known as Bengali Colony, where people practice fishing on the northern stretch of the Yamuna near Wazirabad.
The document has even missed the mark in being cognisant of post-COVID-19 sensitive planning and especially gender issues in the face of increasing gender-based violence and safety concerns, which should have been a significant factor. When it comes to gender, intersectionality is another aspect that the document completely fails to recognise. Even the understanding of mobility is limited to transport and does not mention goods that are integral to improve food distribution, shorten the food chains and reduce food wastage due to poor storage.
The proposed document on paper presents the image of a city that is “world-class” as well as “sustainable, liveable, and vibrant”, but these reveal themselves to be mere buzzwords. Upon a closer look, the document is filled with changes and reforms which are shallow and not well thought out. The draft is disconnected from the reality of the city, its history, the needs of the people and imminent issues. Here, “right to the city” is not a mere slogan but needs to be the idea driving the urban planning process. This has to be recognised as the key to bring the power back in the hands of the people, so that they can exercise control over resources, have a say in how their neighbourhood is planned and shape its impacts on them.
Akshita Rawat is a research associate at People’s Resource Centre. Her recent work focuses on the livelihood, gender and policy aspects of urban agriculture in Delhi. The article has benefited from the contributions and inputs by Kirti Tomar and Nishant.