Delhi’s Master Plan and the voice of civil society – A missed opportunity

Lara Shankar Chandra

Delhi is no stranger to urbanization and expansion. Informal settlements have sprung seamlessly across this mega city. According to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), Delhi has 675 slums where more than two million people lived in 2021. Other estimates suggest that one third of Delhi’s 43 million residents live across the unplanned informal settlements and 1700-odd unauthorized colonies (UACs). Migration added 283,000 people to Delhi’s population in 2021, more than double the 101,000 number contributed by births adjusted for deaths, as per Delhi’s Economic Survey 2022-23. Increased migration into Delhi and other factors, such as the pandemic, have led to a rise in numbers of those facing the challenges of informal housing. These challenges include lack of tenure security (leading to evictions), peripheralization, and lengthy delays in redevelopment projects. It is in this scenario that a city master plan should give a macro template, especially for urban development, and an agency to its people. The Master Plan of Delhi 2041 (MPD2041) seeks to make Delhi an environmentally sustainable city that offers quality, affordable and safe living, while providing opportunities for economic, creative, and cultural development. However, the biggest missed opportunity of this once in a two-decade process, has been to educate the people of Delhi about what a city master plan could mean for them. This is particularly necessary for those living without access to adequate housing and basic services.

A master plan is a dynamic long-term planning document that provides a conceptual layout for future growth and development. As such, the drafting of MPD2041 provided an opportunity to respond to the future needs of the city and address the problem of unauthorized colonies (UACs) and informality. To its credit, MPD2041 is the first master plan to showcase the location of UACs and their expanse on the map. The plan proposes two improvement schemes for UACs: “regeneration” for fresh development in line with indicated planning norms, in a move to convert UACs into formal settlements; and the “as is” scheme for existing spaces. However, the master plan of 2041 disqualifies about 75% of the UACs marked on the map from the improvement schemes.

Land rights researchers from Urbanet at Sewa Bharat explain that areas reserved for open space or development projects (the green belt, land pooling, and Zone O) remain anti-encroachment areas. Thus, MPD2041 prevents UACs that lie on them from applying for improvement schemes. However, colonies in those areas have mushroomed and become congested settlements. In addition, while the new plan envisages the transformation of unplanned UACs into a planned form it does not require consent from residents, making them vulnerable to private developers and processes of gentrification. The well-intentioned PM-UDAY scheme, meanwhile, confers ownership rights for individual households in 1731 colonies, but without strategies and directions for basic infrastructure services. To ensure the effective mainstreaming of UACs into urban development, the PM-UDAY scheme must synchronise with MPD2041: layout approvals via the Delhi Master Plan along with the transfer of ownership rights through PM-UDAY. Time will tell whether these schemes will lead to the regularization and improvements of UACs and their inclusion in the social fabric of the city of Delhi.

DDA did invite public opinion and feedback to the draft plan for a period of 75 days in mid-2021 and four online webinars were held to receive comments. Altogether, 33,000 comments were received from civil society organizations and their network forums. DDA claimed to have screened through each comment received but did not make public how these comments were incorporated in the final draft. Civil society representatives including social activists, urban planners, and legal experts have demanded more inclusivity and participation in a dialogue for accountability towards the city’s most marginalized. They have proposed that Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), trade unions, and labour, are the three major stakeholders of the master plan process and should be consulted. They also recommended that a performance review of the previous Master Plan of Delhi (2021) be made available and a dialogue through public meetings initiated so that peoples’ inputs can be incorporated into the plan and the zonal and local plans ahead. Unfortunately, these suggestions and demands are coming in a little too late to be acted on. The limited nature of public feedback indicates that zonal committees were not made and local groups like RWAs were not consulted. In all of this, it is impossible to know whether there was adequate public engagement to make a truly participatory and inclusive process to planning and development.  So, on one hand the Government gets a tick mark for establishing a process for participation, but the voices of those that were not adequately acknowledged or reached remain unheard.

Drafting of the Master Plan is a statutory exercise which must be completed in a time bound manner, as per the prescribed procedure. While a section of civil society representatives continue to demand being heard the Master Plan for Delhi 2041 has been approved by DDA and sent to the Ministry to be notified.    Thus, the opportunity for engagement has effectively ended. Nevertheless, some activists and civil society representatives are now in the process of discussing legal recourse. Depending on whether that pans out, the people of Delhi could have to wait another two decades to experience a city plan that facilitates social inclusion.

by Lara Shankar Chandra