Hurtling Towards Chaos
Chitvan Gill


A city is an index of the greatness of a nation, a culture, a civilization. The great ages of man have all been recorded as an urban phenomenon. The realisation of the essential human desire to reach beyond and create a world where the spirit could accomplish its creative endeavour is rooted in an urban age. India has a long and remarkable record of urban creativity stretching back to the earliest ages of human settlement – the urban civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro is only the beginning of an extended chain of some of the most splendid cities and architectural achievements the world has known. Nor, indeed, has the idea of the great city been alien to the modern Indian mind after Independence. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru recognized the centrality of the urban aspiration in history, and it was precisely this realization that led to the formulation of Delhi’s first Master Plan in 1962.

Since then, however, Delhi’s urban history is a history of shame and of decline. For over four decades, Delhi has been hurtling towards an increasing chaos rooted essentially in a failure, both, of planning and of plan implementation. If the first Master Plan had the beginnings of a vision, this had been fully extinguished well before its projected ‘completion’; the Second Master Plan was little more than a sightless ‘revision’ of that failed enterprise. Both these Master Plans were undermined by continuous and cumulative failures of implementation, by hundreds of arbitrary and imprudent amendments, and by the wanton regularisation of the most flagrant violations. Their successor, the Master Plan 2021 (MPD 2021), is worse, abandoning the very possibility and pretence of a coherent and integrated vision of a city that strives for greatness.

Delhi’s Master Plan has to be able to imagine and construct a capital city for 21st Century India. In the voluminious document that is the MPD 2021, tucked away innocuously in the ‘Introduction’ is a single, altogether banal little paragraph that spells out the DDA’s vision for Delhi in the 21st century. Nothing could be more telling or demonstrative of DDAs intentions for the future, articulated in an unfounded aspiration to transform Delhi into a ‘world class city’, without the slightest idea about what this would entail. A plan that does not understand the import of spelling out a vision that will shape our urban future, the future of our nation – what hope, what assurance, could be derived from it? MPD 2021 looks into the future and reconstructs a failed and unimaginative past - where is the glory, where is the dream that is to be realised, which is to be the capital of this emerging superpower?

The realisation of the importance of the 21st century is only understood in terms of “limited scope… for pure new urbanisation”. “Limited scope”! Centuries ago the city of Rome planned and executed tasks that defied the imagination, and were triumphs of engineering. In our modern age the DDA can only conjure up a collapse of the imagination.

MPD 2021 reflects the utter intellectual bankruptcy and incompetence of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which is responsible for planning and realizing this city’s future, and it must now be urgently understood that Delhi cannot be left in DDA’s hands. India’s capital will have to be re-imagined again.

A Master Plan must first conceptualize the city’s future, then cover all aspects of its planning, development, financing, phasing and management, along with institutional, financial, legal and administrative mechanisms for the realization of this future. If it is to create a ‘world class city’, it must be based on benchmark studies of infrastructure and facility standards in such cities. But MPD 2021 has its sights fixed firmly on a set of reverse calculations: population projections define demands for particular inputs; the Master Plan projects some numbers on these, and then articulates the hope that they will be variously met.

But alibis for failure are already embedded in the proviso that the success of the plan depends on “the people” and their “will and willingness to adhere to discipline in the use of land, roads, public space and infrastructure.” The DDA, obviously, as in the past, has little accountability in the event of failure.

It is an alarming sense of unease that greets us as we realise that the entire future, the planned future of India’s capital, has been left in the hands of the DDA. This is the same agency that has presided over our past with a wilful disregard for the enveloping chaos fast creeping up across the city of Delhi. This is the DDA that has given this city the legacy of many thousands of unauthorised, ‘irregular’ and ‘regularised’ colonies – all of them built outside the scope of past Master Plans and of the Law – that are the bane of the city today. Seized by chronic lethargy and corruption, DDA has remained a mute spectator to the mushrooming of illegal colonies of mock palaces, on the one hand, and slums and jugghi jophri clusters, on the other, fuelled by the DDA’s inability to meet even basic targets of housing that it was committed to produce. DDA’s ‘solution’ for sorting out chaos was ‘mixed land use’, a potent instrument for destruction that sounds the death knell of Delhi. Its acts of ‘creation’ resulted in the dull, dehumanised, dreary DDA colonies where high income group housing but barely escape being slums, their vision reflected in these works of utter bleakness. It is this force, this agency that drives the vision that is going to shape the future of Delhi. The failure to manage the city’s resources, its infrastructure, its waste, its population and its creative energies, is everywhere manifest. The most vital need of the moment is, consequently, to realise that the city can no longer be left in DDA’s hands.

India, today, speaks of challenging China’s economic might by mid-century. Chinas ‘urbanisation’ and the potent symbolism of cities like Shanghai are bywords for the dominance of that country. Shanghai was completely reinvented and is today cast in the role of a city that competes only with the best. Yet as our working-age population moves to match the Asian giant, MPD 2021 is completely unable to grasp the significance of the emerging dynamic. For the Master Plan, the hundreds of thousands of migrants that pour into Delhi every year, running its factories, its sweatshops, its ‘informal sector’ enterprises, its innumerable trades and facilities, its domestic services – in the process, creating enormous wealth – are no more than a nuisance, to be pushed away, out of the city, if possible, or accommodated in squalid hovels and slums.

A true vision would have been one that saw the enormous potential of this vast migration. The city’s management would then be about creating more opportunities, ironing out bottlenecks, creating linkages, maximising potential to the utmost. The spin-offs of such a well managed city would bring great wealth to its administration, fuelling even greater possibilities of infrastructure and urban growth.

Managing a city is, in essence, about managing its businesses. MPD 2021 recognizes the enormous impact and opportunities of liberalization and globalization. But Delhi has done nothing to exploit and expand these opportunities in the recent past; rather, it has frittered these away in the rising disarray of the city, in chronic shortages, collapsing infrastructure, and the accumulating filth that forced businesses and productive resources out. The MPD 2021 is no better. Its response is: “no new major economic activities, which may result in the generation of large scale employment-related inflows.” The Master Plan, consequently, puts its faith in exclusionary tactics that it feebly hopes will deflect people to the surrounding National Capital Region (NCR), leaving a sanitised city for politicians, bureaucrats and the super rich. It fails, altogether, to comprehend that a city’s – and a nation’s – greatest wealth and potential lies in its people, if properly harnessed. To do this, however, requires a conception of human resources as an asset and not, as is the case in much of MPD 2021, a nuisance and a burden.

The cumulative impact of MPD 2021’s many provisions is the promise of a city of slums, of all-encompassing chaos and of the rapidly increasing breakdown of infrastructure that has already nudged multinationals, large corporations, productive young minds and lucrative tax-payers into Gurgaon and other parts of the NCR. Where then, is the effulgence of ideas to come from? Where, the coming together of a disparate people, to meet and exchange perspectives that quicken the intellect and excite the impulse to reach beyond what is, and create what can be? These are the lifeblood of a dynamic, evolving city. Without them, the idea of a metropolis is no more than a dying shell. When the creative genius and enterprise of a people are lost, cities, entire civilisations, simply wither away.

To craft a future that reaches into a golden age, citizens need to be rooted in a city where serenity, tranquillity and security are nurtured, for it is these qualities that fuel and generate the conditions, the freedom, to create. The maintenance of urban stability is founded on the simple philosophy of order and organisation. But MPD 2021 is, in effect, a disaster management plan – one that tells us how the administration hopes to cope with the challenge of the sheer, overwhelming, inevitable and day to day expansion of chaos in the city. At the end of all its calculations, all of Delhi’s ‘urbanizable land’ will have been ‘utilized’ to its fullest ‘holding capacity’ – there is, it would appear, no future after 2021; or if there is, it is someone else’s problem.

Delhi is, without doubt, confronted with a great crisis. But crises come with opportunities. It is the small things that make the great possible — God, they say, is in the detail. Small minds, however, cannot generate the necessary attention to detail. The campaign to recover Delhi and restore within it the idea of excellence, will have to be planned by the greatest of visionaries, and, given the urgency and magnitude of the impending catastrophe, such plans will have to be executed on a ‘war footing’. The complex and muddled net of incompetent and compromised agencies of urban management in Delhi are simply not up to this task.

MPD 2021’s flimsy slogan of “world class city” masks a profound inability to grasp the problem itself. We are hurtling, today, into what is quintessentially an ‘urban age’. The future of nations depends overwhelmingly on how they shape their cities, their urban futures. Great cities need great minds to conceive them, to imagine and design them; great people to construct them. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has none of these.

(The writer is a film-maker and Convenor, Urban Futures Initiative)





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