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Delhi's disastrous rise to riches
Sunil Sethi | September 23, 2006
The confrontation between angered citizens and the police in Delhi this week, in which four people died, is a perfect example of the kind of blind ignorance that seizes governments from time to time -- myopia would perhaps be too kind a word. How could two governments -- Central and state, a composite of all the men and women who rule not just the city but the entire country -- not have seen it coming?
How could they have failed to recognise that the simmering resentment and hostility, building up for more than a year over demolitions, the sealing of illegal constructions and the misuse of properties, would not boil over and end up in street battles?
I have seldom seen the city gripped by such a prolonged series of panic attacks -- not even in its worst moments of crisis such as the anti-Sikh riots that erupted after the Indira Gandhi assassination. People are worried about their homes, their work places, their livelihoods, their future; the uncertainty has added up to a trauma seemingly without end.
My barber has packed up his shop down the road. The computer engineer who's built up a successful software business in a rented flat a few doors away has asked his staff to work on their laptops from home; the lawyer in the basement next door stands at the gate in hand-wringing despair. The lady with the small tailoring establishment is busy dragging in beds and mattresses to demonstrate to the municipality that she actually lives there.
Everywhere there are signs of distress: front gardens torn down, shops emptied or barred and dislocated businesses in search of hard-to-find commercial property. Rentals of bona fide commercial space have gone through the roof since the face-off between the Supreme Court and municipality started, almost doubling in some areas.
The large-scale disruptions in Delhi are a reality check of warnings that architects like Charles Correa have been issuing for years. The reason why most urban planning in India is an unqualified disaster, he has said, is that those who run them or plan their future fail to understand that it is cities that are a nation's wealth; cities generate jobs, skills, social mobility and economic growth. Urban migration should be encouraged rather than checked.
Delhi's population is currently about 14 million but has been rising faster than any other city -- 46.31% during the decade 1991-2001. It also has the highest density (9,294 per sq km) of all states in the country. But there cannot be too many among the growing millions who have not violated a building law or misused space, largely due to a corrupt municipality and political class that has generously partaken of the riches that Delhi's growth has generated.
Many members of the state cabinet have been shown to own properties that flout every building law; in fact obtaining a mandatory municipal clearance for a new residential or commercial building, known as a "completion certificate," is something that went out with my father's generation 20 years ago. Very few new properties built in the last couple of decades can show one.
Unrestrained building and a mass-scale conversion of residential properties into commercial have led an increasingly vocal group of residential welfare associations to demand that the buck must stop somewhere. The Supreme Court, led by the Chief Justice, has been demanding explanations. It has kept up the pressure on a municipality and state government whose responses have been both dilatory and disorganised.
While the bulldozings, demolitions and sealing of properties continue, it has kept offering diluted face-saving proposals that will somehow help save its vote banks. The gloves are now off in a nasty three-tiered fight: the Congress versus the BJP (with the Congress set to lose the next state election), between the legislature and the judiciary, and between citizens and the police.
But the simple question remains: where do the millions of workers who run small businesses, services and start-ups now go? Delhi's disastrous rise to riches is a model for other cities to observe closely, to retain their own sanity and well-being.