An unauthorised colony
in Sangam Vihar, Delhi (Photo: Raul Irani)
IN THE BLINK of an eye, a wide, smooth highway in Delhi turns on to an unpaved, potholed street, covered with drain water. The traffic comes to a halt and then inches ahead, slower than the cows which try to wind their way through it. A man rolls up his trousers and wades through ankle-deep water in flip-flops to cross over to a mithai shop. An ambulance’s siren screams louder, desperate to reach a hospital less than a kilometre away. Unruffled by the din, a locksmith sits calmly on one side of the road. Here, life takes a sudden turn to chaos.
There’s a sense of hope and hopelessness at Sangam Vihar, Asia’s largest unauthorised colony (UAC), which has mushroomed in violation of the law of the land. “At least we will not live in fear anymore that one day a bulldozer will come and raze our home to the ground,” says Giriraj Prasad Sharma, an early settler who came here as a teenager in the 1970s from a village in Rajasthan’s Alwar district. He was alluding to the Union Cabinet’s recent approval of a proposal to regularise 1,728 of Delhi’s 1,797 unauthorised colonies, which includes Sangam Vihar. A nearly four-decade old colony, it alone is estimated to have around 700,000 people. The number of people living in the colonies that are meant to be regularised is estimated to be around 4 million, a little less than a fourth of Delhi’s population of 19 million.
Rows of slender two-three-storey structures, like boxes with windows, placed on top of one another, each with a different façade, line the narrow lanes. Rectangular concrete slabs are placed over the drains at entrances to the buildings. Sharma owns one such house. His neighbour, Madan Lal Sharma, in whose garage he and some others are having tea, acknowledges that construction in the colony is not done as per norms or prescribed standards. “People just build according to their convenience. The more moneyed people encroach upon more area.” He lauds the Government’s move to regularise unauthorised colonies, hoping elected representatives can now use their funds for development of the colony.
Most residents are migrants, who left their native villages, mainly in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and Rajasthan, and landed here in search of a livelihood and a better life, making it their home. Moving from the agrarian to the urban, the migrants settled on the periphery, outside the ambit of law, where living was more affordable though uncertain. When Rajveer Singh, a property dealer now, left his village near Gurugram and came to Sangam Vihar in 1983, there were fewer houses and more space. He took a place on rent and bought buffaloes to make a living. Twelve years later, he became a property dealer. “People take loans from private financiers because they don’t get loans from banks. Now they will get loans,” says Singh, who functions from a glass-walled 10-square feet office space. According to him, real estate rates are 25 per cent less than in the authorised zones in the vicinity.
The fight for space and survival is palpable in the crammed colony. It was in the 1970s that people started trickling into the colony, which is now spread over nearly five square kilometres. Interestingly, it falls in the capital’s upscale South Delhi Lok Sabha constituency. The BJP MP from the seat, Ramesh Bidhuri, says that with regularisation, the MP’s, Councillor’s and non-plan development funds can be utilised for better amenities in these colonies. “Everyone exploits the vulnerability of the poor,” he says.
All political parties—the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)—have favoured regularisation, hoping to cash in on the electoral dividend of the expanding colonies, despite the courts flagging environmental and infrastructure concerns over illegal construction. According to Bidhuri, regularising would mean that the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which comes under the ambit of the Central Government, would be able to regulate construction activity, ensuring it conformed to building norms.
The Modi Government’s decision to regularise unauthorised colonies, which are residential settlements built in violation of Delhi’s master plans or illegally subdivided agricultural land, proposes conferring ownership rights to enable residents to mortgage or transfer their property. “This is expected to trigger planned redevelopment in the long run as owners will be able to commit their land for development to an organised developer or government agency,” says DDA Vice Chairman Tarun Kapoor. This, he says, may also help in improvement of existing buildings for better fire and earthquake safety conditions, besides compliance with building regulations.
There is, however, a flip side. The large-scale regularisation could set a precedent, encouraging more such habitations in a city which is bursting at its seams. Besides, dealing with the architectural anarchy is another pressing concern, unless the state decides to rebuild it bit by bit. Crammed, narrow and colourful multi-storeyed structures have been multiplying on the capital’s skyline, amidst tall glass structures, historical monuments and residential apartments. Of Delhi’s total area of 1,484 square kilometres, unauthorised colonies occupy 170 square kilometres, mostly in the south, west and northwest parts of the city.
With the Delhi election due in a few months, political parties—the BJP and the AAP—are vying to take credit for regularisation of these colonies, spread across almost all of Delhi’s 70 Assembly seats. While announcing the Cabinet decision, Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri alleged that the AAP government in Delhi was trying to delay the process and had sought time till 2021 to delineate the boundaries of the colonies. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal welcomed the Centre’s decision but made it a point to highlight that its roadmap was based on AAP’s proposal sent in November 2015.
Legitimacy will bring emotional and financial comfort, besides amenities, says New Delhi MP Meenakshi Lekhi. The BJP parliamentarian, in whose high-profile constituency there could be an estimated 300,000-400,000 people living in UACs, blames the situation on past governments. People bought land on power of attorney, sold and re-sold it, she says. “The architectural anarchy represents the misgovernance model of past governments who did nothing to plan or build a planned city. It became an administrative and habitation mess. Encroachment was allowed with political collusion. Ideally, past governments should have come out with a plan for low-cost housing,” says Lekhi.
The Centre plans to bring a Bill in the coming Winter Session of Parliament aimed at recognising general power of attorney, agreement to sell, purchase and possession documents as a one-time relaxation. It will provide for registration charge and stamp duty on the last transaction as well as address income-tax liability of residents for paying lower than circle rate charges. The Cabinet decision had not included regularising 69 affluent colonies, like Sainik Farms, with the Government making it clear that it applied only to colonies for lower-income groups. The DDA officials say the process of mapping to delineate the boundaries of the colonies has been simplified and will be based on satellite imagery instead of the time-consuming ground survey. A portal will be created for online applications.
The first regularisation of pre-Independence UACs was carried out in 1961. In 1977, the Indira Gandhi Government ordered regularisation of nearly 600 colonies, and in 2001, the Urban Development Ministry formulated guidelines for regularisation of UACs existing in 1993. In 2008, the then Sheila Dikshit government in Delhi issued provisional regularisation certificates to unauthorised colonies, ahead of the Delhi Assembly elections. Four years later, Dikshit announced that Congress would keep its promise to regularise the colonies. She assured that the colonies will not be demolished. But they were not regularised either. The political leadership on all sides has made promises to regularise unauthorised colonies, treading cautiously to ensure that these vote banks did not turn against their parties. It cost BJP’s Jagmohan his job as Urban Development Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government when he resolutely opposed regularisation of UACs, which did not comply with the legal requirements.
IN HIS book, Triumphs and Tragedies of Ninth Delhi, Jagmohan later wrote: ‘Since the unprincipled game of regulation has been continuously played with impunity by the dominant sections of almost all political parties and since all unscrupulous actors involved in it have been attaining their ends without any fear of law, the pace of growth of unauthorised colonies, has over the years, accelerated. On the eve of the last general elections , the number of such colonies, after excluding those which had been earlier regularised, stood at 1639. In them are now involved thousands of vested interests who constitute a huge vote bank. These interests are bound to have a negative impact in shaping future contours of the power structure at the municipal, state and central government level.’ But Jagmohan was in a minority among the political class.
Having allowed such colonies to grow over decades, governments are faced with a situation where humanitarianism, law and politics often tend to be in conflict with each other. For the inhabitants of UACs, the long-awaited legitimisation has come as a relief, building hopes of ownership rights and better amenities— roads, water, electricity, sewage. According to DDA sources, most of these colonies now have access to water and electricity, while 30-40 per cent have a sewerage system.
Architect KT Ravindran, former head of urban design at the School of Planning and Architecture, says the Government should come out with a properly worked-out strategy in a planned manner to rehabilitate and relocate residents in areas where buildings are susceptible to disaster, otherwise it is undesirable to undertake development for environmental reasons. According to him, it presented an economic opportunity through rehabilitation by giving housing a big boost. “At the national level, this should become a mission for urban renewal.”
Describing the Government’s decision to regularise UACs as a “good” move, he says if such a large chunk of the population was marginalised, there was need to revisit the system. “People who cannot afford to live in other places, are forced to live in areas which turn out to be unauthorised. They live in fear of eviction,” says Ravindran.
Since the colonies developed without an approved layout plan, the Government neither regulated construction, nor ensured social infrastructure. A Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee in its report in July 2019 said periodic regularisation of unauthorised colonies can have a ‘serious and unavoidable effect’ on existing infrastructure. It expressed concerns about meeting the growing requirement of basic amenities in view of high density of population and mixed land use.
Some residents see the Government decision as a political move, having been announced just months before the Delhi election, but acknowledge it would help. With the demarcation of responsibilities of Central and Delhi governments hazy in their eyes, they blame the BJP or Kejriwal’s AAP, depending on their political affiliation. The Sharmas, pandits who have traditionally supported the BJP, largely laud Modi. Madan Lal, a diehard Modi supporter, says Kejriwal has done nothing for them, and praises Modi for abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and “enhancing” India’s image at international fora. Giriraj Prasad, however, says “Kejriwal has done what he could, given the limitations and conflict with the Centre.”
Around the corner, running a shop selling water canisters and LPG cylinders, Rajesh Kumar says it has to be seen what benefits people get from the regularisation. “Kejriwal has done a lot of work,” he says. Subedar, who earlier sold kerosene in the 1990s and now sells LPG cylinders, agrees with Kumar. They say that land cost has gone up roughly a thousand times since the 1980s. The political discourse is apparently turning into a Modi versus Kejriwal one. The capital will soon be making its choice. One will have to wait and see what happens in the aftermath of the battle for Delhi, and if this would be the last time a government decides to regularise an unauthorised colony.