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People and planning


Thirty years ago young men and women all over India poignantly sang these lines from Adam Gaundwi:

If, of a hundred people, seventy today

Are immersed in misery

Place your hand on your heart and ask

Is our country really free?

That wave of middle class idealism is not in evidence any more. Generation X is caught up in the mesh of cola wars and infotech. Generation XX is likely to be even more distanced from notions of liberty, equality and fraternity that once inspired whole societies. This may be cause for mourning for some but it is, nevertheless, real and cannot be wished away. But does it mean that the seventy per cent also disappear? Or does it mean that they will sing their own songs, and idealism of one kind will give way to realism of another?

These questions came into sharp focus on 4 June 2000, a day before World Environment Day. At an unusual convention in the Speaker’s Hall in New Delhi’s Constitution Club, in the shelter of the long shadow cast by the Constitution of India and its framers, people gathered to debate what is a city and who are its citizens? Is the city a product of the imagination of town planners and the affluent on whose behalf they work, or is it the creation of those hundreds of thousands who come to work and toil to actually build and maintain urban society? Is there a visible planned city, and another that is informal and invisible? And do these invisible citizens have any say in the making of the city?

The convention was organised by the Sajha Manch, a loose federation of eight organisations who had organised a similar convention last year at the same time. But this year the Manch invited over 50 mass organisations, community institutions, and voluntary groups working all over Delhi. These organizations gave voice to the experiences and aspirations of those 80 lakh citizens living in an estimated 1200 slums, 50 resettlement colonies, and 1500 unauthorised colonies in the capital. In a sense, Dushyant’s seventy per cent made its presence felt in a debate from which it had so far been excluded – a debate on the purpose and direction of urban planning.

To assist in the debate, the Manch had also invited several concerned professionals and sympathetic researchers to contribute their insights. Furthermore, through months of persistence, involving numerous letters and phone calls, the manch tried to get the administration, the funders, and service agencies to participate. Though many sent confirmations, eventually only the chief minister of Delhi and some senior officials from the Delhi Vidyut Board and the Planning Department put in an appearance. This provided adequate clues about who is officially considered to be a citizen and whose voice is to be heard in the committee rooms of babudom. Even the media coverage the following day reported only the speech of the chief minister or, at best, the contributions of a former prime minister who was ‘kind’ enough to grace the event. Thus, the richness of the deliberations of an invisible city was forced out of sight and, therefore, out of mind.

The two contrasting faces of the city were very much in evidence through the long day. On one hand was the august presence of the Constitution Club itself, with the silent commotion of powerful people flanked by their inevitable security guards. On the other, were the faces of the people etched with care and expectation, dressed in their Sunday finery, unaccustomed to sitting quietly for long in rows of ornate chairs. Yet, the debate was powerful and lively. While the officials portrayed the city as burdened by a wave of migrants, data laboriously collected by the Sajha Manch put the onus on the other foot. Household surveys conducted in over 20 settlements gave a picture of an average family size of 5 with 75% below the age of 30 years. 41% were working in offices, 20% in factories and shops, and 29% as daily wagers. 36% of the families had two or more working members, while 44% of the workers were skilled. 75% were however temporary, and the average monthly wage was less than Rs 2000. So here was a young, productive and insecure working population which, in fact, was being burdened by the city.

The looming threat to work itself was one of the themes of the convention. Darogaji of the labour unions, Ramkumarji from Bhatti, Rajendraji from Vikaspuri, and Vidhichandji from Wazirpur described how industries were being closed down, offices dismantled, and public vehicles forced off the road in the name of pollution, and how this was drastically affecting employment. Sajha Manch data also revealed that the number of workers in a factory averaged 40, as compared to the Delhi government’s official figure of 9. Thus every unit closed down was affecting four times the number of families than was acknowledged by the authorities. The data also showed that the average size of the workplace was only 100 sq m., which was in stark contrast to the much larger (and much more expensive) space being provided to industry under the relocation plan of the government. Large chunks of space were also being acquired for flyovers, hotels, river front development, metro rail, and expressways; most of which, other than generating little or no employment, were also in violation of the city’s master plan. Thus, the working population was being severely burdened by the green policies being propagated by the NGOs, the courts and the administration.

Further aspects of the burden borne by this population became apparent when the chief minister mentioned that the city could not be expected to look after an additional 5 lakh migrants every year. But Shivakantji of Premnagar countered that the DDA, mandated to provide housing in 1955 and on the land acquired for residential purposes, should have built 10 lakh flats by now. Since less than 3 lakh flats had been constructed, it was the failure of DDA to build the balance 7 lakh that had forced people into building unauthorised colonies and jhuggies. Vatsji from Nangloi added that even the DDA flats that had been built in the name of the people were unaffordable. Ravindraji from Mandawli commented that the process of resettlement added to the hardship because the relocation was in far-off areas and there was no provision for economic public transport.

Ramkumarji from Bhatti caustically remarked that the 18 sq yds provided for resettlement was not adequate even for their donkeys. Subhashji of Nirmaan reminded the chief minister that the Nirmaan Mazdoor Act of 1986 had not yet been notified in Delhi. Millions of rupees collected from construction workers and slum dwellers in 1992 had not been used to build cooperative housing societies, since the managing committees had not been constituted by the government. And Gopaji of PUCL drew attention to the uncounted numbers of shelterless who had been on the streets of Delhi for over 10 years, as labourers and lone bread winners, but without access to minimum wages, voting rights or ration cards.

The chief minister also made an appeal for conservation of water, in view of the fact that Delhi was providing 275 litres per person per day compared to London’s 175 litres. But the Sajha Manch data of an average consumption of 30 litres by the invisible population, with 75% of them sourcing water from handpumps, raised the question of who was to conserve water for whom? As Sumitraji from Sundernagri put it, the government norm for resettlement colonies declared in 1986 provided 1 tap for every 100 people, but in her colony there were only 4 taps for 2500 families. There was no drinking water in the schools, and sewerage was non-existent inspite of the MCD sewer passing right next to the settlement. Sajha Manch data revealed that only 3% had access to sewerage while 62% were using public toilets. Other invisible citizens recounted how there was 1 toilet seat for 200 people as against the norm of 1 for 25, public toilets were badly maintained, charges were mounting with privatisation, and drinking water was badly contaminated because of a lack of sanitary facilities.

Electricity supply was another issue which came up repeatedly. Urmilaji of Gautampuri stated that Rs 320 had been paid by hundreds of residents in 1997 to DVB for electricity connections but these were never supplied. Later the scheme was reportedly cancelled, but there was no notification. Neither was the money returned. Subsequently, Rs 800 was collected for installation of meters by private parties under another DVB scheme, but these meters were faulty and the bills were consistently high. Rubinji from Ayanagar said that Rs 48 lakh was collected from his colony by DVB in 1999 for which they had receipts, but they had to erect their own pylons, despite which the lines had not been energised.

Similarly, Rs 70 to 80 lakh had been collected in Premnagar in 1999 for electricity which had still not been made available. And where electricity was being supplied, often it was at much higher rates than the stipulated Re 1 per unit. This, therefore, raised the question of who was the real thief? Was it the residents of the sub-standard settlements who were supposedly attaching illegal wires to the power supply (though Sajha Manch data revealed only 15% households had electricity connections and 96% depended upon the kerosene stove or cowdung chulha)? Or was it DVB which had collected crores of rupees but not delivered any services?

Other services were also held up to scrutiny. 39% were cycling and 22% were walking to work, covering on average, a distance of 10 km but there were no separate cycle or pedestrian paths as stipulated in the Master Plan of 1962. 71% residents mentioned there were nearby schools but admission was frequently denied on frivolous grounds. Clearing school was dependent on attendance and not on learning. Health services had been reduced to family planning activities; no medicines or facilities were available in the few government dispensaries, forcing 70% of the people to go to the unregulated private sector. Ration cards were not being issued and food insecurity was adversely affecting the health of the invisible city. While 68% knew of the local police thana, only 4% had a nearby park. Nevertheless, when women and men took to the streets to protest against gambling, alcoholism and drug use in their localities, the police took immediate action to arrest, intimidate and even beat up the protestors, instead of tackling the powerful gangs who carry on these anti-social activities.

What was the response of those occupying responsible positions of power – whether present or past? Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit listened patiently for the two hours that she was present, made the occasional noting in her papers, and eventually gave a call for bhagidari because the government could not deliver without the participation of the people. (It should be noted in passing that the bureaucrat entrusted with the task of following up on bhagidari was transferred two weeks later!) The two technocrats from the DVB pleaded that changes in policy and directions from above made their technical task of delivering electricity even more problematic. The planners made it plain that government was incapable of delivering services because of crumbling administration and bad planning. And former Prime Minister V.P. Singh issued a call for struggle, without which no change would take place.

The convention firmly placed the voices of ordinary men and women, perhaps for the first time in the city of Delhi, at the centre of the debate around urban planning and, in particular, the evolution of Delhi’s third Master Plan. It also made clear that not much could be expected from either policy-makers, service agencies, media, or professionals. Will the invisible citizens now respond by pushing for greater visibility, for increased participation, and for greater freedom in determining their own lives? Adam Gaundwi certainly seemed hopeful. As did the group from Vikaspuri who sang:

We people, of such a madness are we

That we will rest only when we have changed the world!

Dunu Roy