Clerical Urbanism vs. Public Interest(Abridged)
Jagan Shah

In order to create a ‘world class’ city, not just a kitschy imitation, the ‘Master’ Plan for Delhi will have to ditch paternalism and target the satisfaction of real social needs. The folly of reducing the social matrix to a list of ‘facilities’ – health, education, sports, communications, policing, fire control, distribution of milk, vegetables and LPG (to honour state-owned monopolies), ‘socio-cultural’ activities, ‘other’ community activities, and cremation & burial – is already writ large in DDA’s earlier master-planning failures.

Our premier urban development agency must understand that a good city is much more than a sum of its parts. A set of tables naively describing what functions and activities define an urban society does not constitute Social Infrastructure. Infrastructure is implicit in every page of MPD 2021: it is the enabling mechanisms and processes that spell out how a 21st century urban society will live, work and recreate. Future India doesn’t need a library to be defined as “having a large collection of books for reading and reference for general public or specific class” and it can surely do without dairy farms that have “sheds for birds.” A piggery may have “sheds of pigs” and a burial ground “facilities for burying of dead bodies” but is an old age home a facility for “caring and training the underprivileged ones” and does disaster management refer only to fire-fighting?

Public stakeholders in MPD2021 expect more than a cut-and-paste of earlier plans. It is corruption enough that DDA uses public money to issue nonsensical definitions, but its customary column on “activities permitted” reveals a vested interest: to insert provisions that perpetuate the exercise of arbitrary discretionary power, and to favour commercial interest. Almost every ‘use premise’ can have a “watch & ward residence” (uncounted in the housing statistics); snack stalls, banks and retail shops are permitted wherever possible (even in pathology laboratories), and nursery school sites can be used to build post offices, community halls, maternity homes and milk booths.

The DDA’s clerical urbanism and dependence on brain-dead listings arise from the basic (mis)premise that a metropolis is a ‘Lego-like’ assembly of building blocks. Unable to read current urban theory, they should at least take a peek from their lofty windows and observe the vast and complex field of interacting flows of resources, capital, goods and information that characterise the metropolis — beyond space-time limitations and statistical calculi — where buildings are merely points in space, accommodating needs that arise from distinct intersections in the fluid matrix. Transcending the objectivism of the Industrial city, the 21st century metropolis is a physical manifestation of the ideals and beliefs through which civil society attempts the containment of chaos, the abatement of uncertainty, and the creation of beauty.

Piecemeal and iniquitous development of ‘shelter’ has made Delhi a fractured city, where classes, castes and communities inhabit segregated ghettoes. Mismanagement of the city’s myriad diversity has created an unsafe city, whereas provisions for security must be embedded in the Master Plan. The development of areas for trade and commerce should promote productivity and the creation of jobs, rather than merely facilitate the landlord’s profitable exploitation of commercial space. The dynamic and highly productive population of vendors, servants and labourers are described as an “informal sector” and no provision is made for their incorporation into Delhi’s society. Shunning migrants and limiting the creation of jobs, MPD 2021 will make Delhi a monument to xenophobia and morbidity, a far cry from a society that abides by the Millennium Development Goals of transparency, participation and equity.

While singing of public-private partnership, DDA hawks public interest cheaply. It shoves ‘parking’ into a chapter on transportation whereas rich car-owners are actually culpable for the misuse of public space and a disavowal of social responsibility. Innumerable vehicles enjoy free parking on our streets, each hogging space enough to house a family of the poor, whose housing stock suffers a backlog of 50,000 units per annum. MPD 2021 speaks of a pedestrian-friendly city (in a solitary disembodied paragraph) but the common man must make do with an undefined percentage of ‘circulation’ space, inevitably encroached by every self-service under the sun. What world-class city forces its people to walk on the roads?

Both letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution are absent from DDA’s mixed-use policy, which relinquishes our streets to lawbreakers, as long as they form a society or cooperative. Entire residential areas can be commercialised, disregarding the rights of law-abiding home-owners who are now forced to vacate their disturbed surroundings. The DDA would privilege the demands of the unruly mob, whereas the individual, the building block of democracy, has his/her rights most conspicuously violated. A master plan is primarily a social vision manifest in the rules of urban development. Unless these rules are devised with utmost care, they will set up a game in which there is only one tragic loser: we the people.

(The writer is Director, Urban Futures Initiative)





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