Appeasement Politics of Delhi’s Urban Governance

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oecdBy Shailaja Chandra, Former Permanent Secretary of the Government of India and former Chief Secretary, Delhi; Former Executive Director, National Population Stabilisation Fund, India

5 January 2016

Delhi is among the world’s top ten most populous cities with 18 million people. United Nations projections for 2025 predict that it will rank third, overtaking Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Dhaka, New York and Shanghai. Colossal challenges confront the city’s development, and finding money is the least of those problems. Delhi garners more resources than any other city in India, has the highest per capita income and wages, and boasts more private vehicles than the three metropolitans of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai combined. In early 2015, the new city government slashed the power tariff in half and provided 20 000 litres of free water for all residents — clearly affordable measures.

Visitors are initially struck by Delhi’s pristine enclaves that house the President’s estate, foreign missions, government complexes and sprawling colonial bungalows set along avenues of shady trees and landscaped foliage. The residents of these exclusive enclaves account for less than 2% of Delhi’s population, while a cash-rich, non-elected municipal body maintains their wide, radial roads and lush greenery to perfection.

In the rest of Delhi, seven different kinds of vehicles — BMWs to hawkers’ carts — maintain an average speed of 7 kilometres per hour despite the construction of 50 flyovers and underpasses. Hundreds of planned colonies — ranging from the ultra-posh where residents live behind formidable iron gates with private security guards to middling housing communities — are managed by three elected municipal corporations that show erratic degrees of attentiveness to their obligatory functions. The two massive townships of Dwarka and Rohini, for example,each independently house around a million middle-class residents.

For the politician, these “organised” colonies taken collectively are unpredictable as voters. Instead, three unorganised clusters living in close proximity to one another possess the power to swing votes. That’s why seven members of Parliament, 70 members of Delhi’s legislative assembly and 272 municipal councillors – all elected representatives – rivet their attention on the other half of Delhi’s population. Bettering their lives has little to do with advancing clean air, reliable drinking water, drainage or sewerage — though scores of plans exist on paper. Rather, it has more to do with indulging existing and future voters.

Three disadvantaged citizens’ groups are important to political parties. These include some 500 slums and their successor resettlement colonies, over 1 000 unauthorised colonies and 135 urban villages. Compared to neighbouring planned colonies, the inequality in living standards is stark.

The first group comprises some 3 million slum dwellers — politically the most important. They are families of original or new migrants who squatted on publicly owned land, driven by poverty and lack of jobs in rural villages. Political parties have united in making sure they received immunity from removal, drinking water, a modicum of sewage, food subsidies and an election voting card. Come election time, the handing out of special incentives — including liquor and cash — is well-known, often seeing these citizens vote as a block. Once elected, all city governments announce populist policies as a reward. For example, the newly elected city government put a moratorium on demolitions, prompting dangerous construction in already congested spaces. Extreme squalor and regular breakdowns of public order are accepted as a way of life. Drunkenness, knife-wielding and assaults are daily occurrences.

Every political party has promised to build alternative accommodations for the slum dwellers or undertake in situ development. The communities are shrewd enough to realise that neither will happen, but with each passing year their adverse possession of tenure security grows. It is an astute investment despite living in sub-human conditions. Happily, the insatiable demands of the planned colonies next door for domestic and office staff as well as support services guarantee employment.

The second group consists of over 1 000 unauthorised colonies. They are disproportionately important to political parties. Years ago, the occupants bought agricultural land privately and cheaply, an illegal transaction since converting or subdividing agricultural land required a plethora of approvals that were never obtained. Without sale deeds or building plans, tens of thousands of shoddy structures burgeoned city-wide, mostly with weak foundations, deficient sewerage systems and insubstantial basic amenities. Initially, the municipal system shunned them, but with every election more and more colonies got “regularised”. The High Court of Delhi described this arrangement as robbing Peter (the honest taxpayer) to pay Paul (the dishonest coloniser), but regularisation has officially become a flagship programme even backed by a statute. Each time elections draw near, many more such ghettos spring up and are promised, and eventually granted regularisation. More than the promise of services, it is the protection from rent-seeking that matters. Living standards remain, however, sub-standard.

The third large group comprises 135 urban villages. Dotted all over Delhi and interspersed among planned residential and commercial complexes, these overcrowded villages pose health and fire hazards. Their precariously built structures stand amidst jungles of electric wires, gas fires, shanty eateries and garbage. Ironically, the elected Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which is the custodian of public health and safety, exempted all urban villages from paying property tax or following any building regulations.

Given these present realities, the future of Delhi’s urban development appears doomed. Unless political parties mature beyond appeasement, citizens start valuing quality of life and migrants seek employment in smaller cities and towns, Delhi’s frenzied expansion is unlikely to change.

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