Is There a Method to Delhi's Re-Developmental Madness?

It is a fact that neither those who live in this city nor the government they elect have any control over the land or its use.

When we were growing up, we often heard a joke about a communist from the USSR, who came visiting India and spent a long time travelling all over the country. After a couple of months of travelling in the country, he turned into a staunch believer and this became big news.

Our so-called mainstream media was not as vacuous then as it is now, but there were still some excitable elements with extremely short fuses who thought to seize the opportunity to expose the non-believers. Running breathlessly to this ‘born again’ devotee, they asked what turned him into a believer, to which he replied, “From day one in India I have been wondering about how things ever work here and I am now convinced that there has to be a God who alone can keep this chaotic mass ticking.”

Before those whose sentiments might have been hurt begin to mobilise, let us remind them of two things: one, that this was a joke from a time long before any of these high-strung yahoos were conceived, and two, this joke targeted everyone non-discriminately. So, before the aforementioned zealots begin to rupture their collective spleens, they would do well to unite all the believers against all the non-believers. It may even be a half-decent idea; they will, at least briefly, arrest the almost-daily blood baths and begin to think constructively for a change.

Anyway, let us circle back to the Chaos. From the days of the Russian communist who travelled to India, the chaos has only become better organised. Earlier no one took responsibility, now everyone is responsible. In fact, there are so many people responsible that no one knows who’s answerable.

Take the East Kidwai Nagar Redevelopment Project (EKNRP) for instance. The 86 acres of land that had earlier 2,444 houses in two-storied blocks will now have 4,608 houses – an increase of 2,164 housing units. A simple calculation tells you that if you decided to double the population density of the area, you would need to build 4,888 houses. This could easily be done by pulling down the 1950s-constructed two-storied houses and replacing them with 2,444 four-storied buildings. What we have instead are 78 towers that are 14 stories tall.

Try to calculate the land that has been freed for ‘development’. These days ‘development’ only means one thing – land handed over to the builders. This land has been freed from ‘non-productive’ uses like parks for children, open spaces in the front and rear of houses where the elderly sat in the freezing winters of Delhi to catch a bit of sunshine, the little groves where birds built nests and squirrels found little niches to breed in. All this land is now going to be developed for malls and corporate offices.

Also read: World Trade Centre Project at Nauroji Nagar Flouts Delhi Master Plan Regulation

Providing better housing was never the objective, it was an excuse. The objective was to free the land for ‘productive uses’.

Sixteen thousand trees were going to be felled in the heart of the city – trees that were planted in the 1950s, like Neem, Pilkhan, Peepal, Jamun, Mulberry  and others – that provided shade, produced oxygen, absorbed carbon dioxide, trapped particulate matter and dust. The NBCC had permission to chop 1,100 trees and yet they chopped 1,800 in East Kidwai Nagar. They would have razed another 14,000 had the environmentally conscientious citizenry not rushed to the courts and succeeded in suspending this carnage.

The CAG discovered that instead of planting 8,165 trees as compensatory forestation, the NBCC planted only 1,354. The forest department that sanctioned the felling, neither kept a check on numbers being felled nor on the numbers being planted.

Activists protesting the cutting of trees for the development of Nauroji Nagar. Credit: PTI

The NBCC cannot just build these houses and malls and walk away. Where is the augmentation of the water supply?

It has to be increased at least four-fold if not more, due to the increased water demands of residents, offices and malls. The Delhi Jal Board has not laid new water pipelines, nor has one seen the sewer lines in the entire area being augmented. We don’t even know if the DJB has the additional water to meet this new demand.

Has a wastage disposal mechanism been put in place?

One does not see or hear of it, and to be sure had anything of the sort been planned, it would have been tom-tommed all over the world and found mention in several high-pitched speeches. Since one does not find such declarations, it is almost certain this question has not occurred to those, who are everyday, doing things that have never even been imagined in the last 70 years.

And now to the one issue that should have hit the NBCC in the middle of their eyes, much like the proverbial bullet fired by Billy the Kid – and it should have hit them the moment they set their beady eyes on East Kidwai Nagar (EKN) with their skewed ideas of development. The issue that we are talking about is the road space.

The Ring Road and Aurobindo Marg – two of the busiest streets to the west of Cairo and the east of Singapore, intersect where the sleepy, laid back East Kidwai Nagar nestled before it was bitten by the development bug. Across the intersection are located the AIIMS and the Safdarjung – two of the biggest hospitals in India and perhaps in Asia, with a combined strength of 18,000 patients visiting the OPDs of both hospitals daily. The Ring Road and the Aurobindo Marg are already nightmares for commuters from dawn to well past working hours.

Congestion on the Ring Road. Credit: PTI

It is here the NBCC chooses to start this project.

We began by asking a rhetorical question – is this madness part of a plan? We had hoped, perhaps out of naiveté, that some larger design that would eventually lead to common good was the outcome.

Asking a few basic questions and digging through a few newspaper reports now reveals the callousness of every single agency charged with the responsibility of looking after crucial aspects of life in the second-most populous city in the world.

It is now being suggested that all the new houses may not be allotted, because the roads can’t take the additional traffic. Who is going to pay for the empty houses? The same taxpayers who weren’t even informed about the devastation this scheme was going to unleash upon the city.

Also read: East Kidwai Nagar Should Serve as a Warning, Not Model, for Delhi’s Redevelopment

New loops were added to the Barapullah flyover to de-congest the Aurobindo Marg-Ring Road intersection and now it is discovered that those living in this new high-rises of East Kidwai Nagar have no access to the roads that run outside their homes. And god forbid if even 25% of the owners of the 10,000 automobiles that can be parked inside the EKN complex decide to exercise their right to free movement, both the Ring Road and the Aurobindo Marg will see traffic jams the likes of which make those in Cairo and Singapore look like a walk in the park.

This is just the beginning. They are planning to ‘develop’ Nauroji Nagar and Sarojini Nagar along the same lines; demolitions are almost complete in Nauroji Nagar, the hoardings are up in Sarojini Nagar. At Nauroji Nagar, they are going to build a World Trade Centre; demolitions have also started at Netaji Nagar. Lakshmi Bai Nagar and West Kidwai Nagar are next on the list. By the time they reach West Kidwai Nagar, the circle or should we call it the noose, would be complete.

East Kidwai Nagar concept art. Credit: Facebook/Redevelopment of East Kidwai Nagar

The handful of environmentalists, even fewer concerned citizens, conscientious town-planners together with those members of the judicial services – with the time and inclination to take suo motu cognisance or to actively intervene in favour of public interest litigations concerned with these matters – do not appear to be enough to stop the rot.

It is a fact that neither those who live in this city nor the government they elect have any control over the land. Those who decide to demolish and rebuild are not answerable to those who suffer the consequences of these decisions. No landowning authority is answerable to the people or the government of Delhi and so they do as they please.

The grand plan behind this madness is the disregard for democratic norms and unbridled impunity enjoyed by those who preside over the destinies of all who reside in capital city of the largest democracy in the world.

When will those suffering the consequences of these anti-people policies speak up?

Sohail Hashmi is a filmmaker, writer and heritage buff. He organises regular heritage walks in Delhi.