The spread of unauthorised construction in our cities has assumed significant proportions. One such unauthorised colony is Aya Nagar, situated on the south-western edge of Delhi. The original Aya Nagar settlement was a village populated largely by ‘gujjjars’. The recent extension of the village is settled by migrants from all parts of the country, and the population is now over a hundred thousand persons, mostly from a low-income background. The settlement now represents a microcosm of urbanizing India, and it could serve as a model for understanding the morphology of such ‘spontaneous’ urban development taking place in most cities of the country.

The Aya Nagar Development Project is designed to demonstrate that citizen action combined with expert technical advice can drive the local authorities to provide appropriate infrastructure and improve the urban habitat. The project is being seen as applied research for devising an appropriate methodology to demonstrate a new urban paradigm which places the concerns of the marginalized majority at the forefront and seeks to devise techniques for making urban systems responsive to the imperatives of social justice and ecological viability.

Consultation with the local community regarding development priorities led to a clear consensus on first solving the problem of drainage.The project has, therefore in its first phase, concentrated creative energy and technical expertise on finding a solution to this problem which is financially viable and environmentally sustainable.

Urbanization in the Indian sub-continent has a very long history. Since ancient times, cities have been distinguished in their design by the efficacy of their public health provisions. It is only in the twentieth century that urban planners/thinkers proposed that city design would be driven by transportation systems rather than public health provisions. Thus, in the twentieth century urban development was dominated by the configuration of vehicular roads rather than considerations of public health, civic norms, and conviviality.

Urban development in Gurgaon of the last decade and along the Delhi- Jaipur highway.

By the end of the twentieth century, there was a widespread realization that contemporary urban development is contributing in a most significant manner to adverse climate change which is threatening the sustenance of life on planet earth.

Growth of spontaneous settlements

After 1947, with the political independence of India, and consequent to the partition of Punjab, the population of Delhi increased manifold. To house the migrants the city started to undergo a significant transformation. Much of the migration was accommodated in planned settlements (colonies) interspersed with the organically evolved villages surrounding Delhi.

The provision of urban infrastructure by the State for the development of the new ‘colonies’ attracted an increasing number of migrants from all over the country: people who wanted a share of the economic prospects generated by the new urban expansion. The planned development could not contain this new influx, and a number of colonies emerged on the margins of Delhi without the sanction of the government authorities. These ‘spontaneous’ settlements housed such a large number that the State could not ignore them and they began to be seen as a significant political constituency.

From time to time and coincident with the federal or state government elections many of these settlements were ‘regularized’, resulting in political advantage to the party in power. However the process of regularization did not result in planned development of these settlements for various reasons. The morphology and the urban structure of these colonies is different from the ‘greenfield’ planned development guided by the Delhi Master Plan. The urban typology of these spontaneous settlements is an eclectic mix of the elements of the organically evolved villages and the planned settlements (colonies). The distinguishing feature is the lack of municipal services and utilities, and the fact that these spontaneous developments have been generated largely by the efforts of common people with hardly any access to the machinery of the State. A new paradigm was required to address and resolve the complex set of environmental, cultural, and legal issues arising from this ‘spontaneous’ development, and this was not available.

Over the last several decades the number of such ‘unauthorized colonies’ (as they were labeled by government planners) continued to increase.

In the year 2008, a few months before the state government elections, about 1600 of such colonies were given the status of ‘provisional regularization’ by the government, and in the following year was started the process of redevelopment/renewal to bring these colonies into the urban mainstream. Official statistics now indicate that over 4 million people are living in unauthorized colonies.

Aya Nagar

One such provisionally regularized unauthorised colony is Aya Nagar, situated in South-West Delhi, on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road, adjacent to the Delhi-Haryana border.

Satellite image showing location of Aya Nagar and its surroundings.

The colony has grown in the last three decades on the agricultural lands of an organically evolved village, originally populated by ‘gujjars.’ Most of the agricultural lands of the village were acquired by the Government of India to establish defense and security related establishments in planned and secure compounds. Between these compounds the unauthorised development has spread on the remaining village agricultural lands situated on the undulating and rocky portions of the Aravali hills on the state border. Aya Nagar extension is settled by migrants from all parts of the country. The population of the village and the extension is over one hundred thousand persons. The settlement now represents a microcosm of urbanising India, and it could serve as a model for understanding the morphology of such ‘spontaneous’ urban development taking place in several cities of the country.

The extended Aya Nagar settlement Village Homestead

The physical picture presented by Aya Nagar is one which is not easy to classify according to normative criteria. A visitor to this settlement will find, loosely speaking, a mix of slum and provincial style buildings set in a somewhat picturesque undulating landscape; but the overriding impression will be one of squalor and unsanitary physical conditions. This is a powerful disincentive to making an investigation into the character and nature of this settlement. If, however, we try and penetrate the everyday reality of this home to over a hundred thousand people, we begin to discover a story with many layers. The most remarkable part of the story is the fact of ordinary people organizing their own urban habitat by joining together in a collective, liaising with government authorities, often through the offices of elected political representatives like MLAs and MLCs, forming a ‘coalition’ with the original village residents, and in a relatively short period of time persuading local authorities to provide/upgrade the urban infrastructure. This being achieved even while the civic status of the ‘colony’ was illegal.

Impressive as this fact of infrastructure upgradation may be, a close look at the infrastructural improvements reveals a pattern of technically flawed and unsustainable solutions to the problems of high density living in the urban habitat. It becomes clear that the vital ingredient missing from the collective of residents, political representatives, and government agencies, is the expertise of professional architects and urban planners. It is also clear that in the dynamic situation of highly motivated and economically mobile migrant settlers in the city, the normal working time table of the urban development authority’s town planners is completely outpaced by the reality on the ground. Furthermore the lack of fit between official planning action and the day-to-day requirements of ordinary people has contributed significantly to the housing shortage, and to the creation of a real estate boom fuelled by manipulation of official urban development master plans by moneyed speculators. In this process of converting land to money, all sections of society have lost something valuable – a city fit to live in and to be enjoyed by old and young, rich and poor, local as well as international residents.

We can dismiss Aya Nagar and other such spontaneous settlements as being illegal and therefore not deserving of the benefits of normal civic amenities. The fact remains that the residents of such settlements are also citizens of the Indian Republic and as a consequence have the right to partake of the opportunities inherent in urban living.

Aya Nagar Development Project

The Aya Nagar Development Project (ANDP) is designed to demonstrate that citizen action combined with expert technical advice can drive the local authorities to provide appropriate infrastructure and improve the urban habitat.

In 1999, the Chief Minister of Delhi visited Aya Nagar and declared it to be a model village where effective planning methods are required with the combined effort of government agencies and local residents. To achieve this goal, the Aya Nagar Vikas Samiti was registered in 2001 to be the voice of local people and a task force which will implement the plans proposed for development by the government.

In 2008, the Government of Delhi, under a scheme of the Delhi Kalyan Samiti, granted research aid to GREHA, an NGO primarily consisting of environmental design and planning experts based in Aya Nagar, to propose options and possibilities that can be initiated to make Aya Nagar a real model. The project report submitted to Delhi Kalyan Samiti identified 3 phases of the programme, to be delivered in five years.

The first phase of 6–9 months duration was of research and development of an appropriate methodology, with the design of an ecologically viable and sustainable water cycle for one neighbourhood adjoining the village Johar (the central rain water harvesting structure). The second phase of 18-24 months was of detailed engineering and implementation, including training of local residents for development tasks. In the third phase of 24-36 months the improvement schemes initiated in the second phase would be monitored by experts and residents, with the eventual aim of the residents taking over the long term maintenance.

The proposal is being seen as applied research for devising an appropriate methodology to demonstrate a new urban paradigm which places the concerns of the marginalised majority at the forefront, and seeks to devise techniques for making urban systems responsive to the imperatives of social justice and ecological viability.

The various project tasks to be undertaken are:-

  1. Community Mobilisation: The population of Aya Nagar is a microcosm of the diversity which is representative of India as a nation. The diversity is ethnic, occupational, economic and cultural. To harness the rich human potential of the settlement it is proposed to forge a partnership between several non-government organizations which will work with the people of Aya Nagar to raise awareness and mobilise the community to work harmoniously towards a common purpose of social and physical development.
  2. Habitat Design: The task of providing appropriate urban infrastructure, which is ecologically viable and sustainable, is a great challenge in all Indian cities. In Aya Nagar it is proposed to start with those components of the infrastructure requirement which all sections of the community agree as being essential for the promotion of civilized urban existence. These components are sewerage and surface drainage, as well as provision of water supply for different usages. Within this set it is probable that the problem of drainage is the one around which the entire community can be united for a common purpose.
  3. Raising Human and Financial Resources: The requirement of both human and financial resources is crucial for the project. A working team consisting of experts and the local people is required such that the variety of skill sets of the people living in Aya Nagar can be effectively organized to implement the proposal along with a technical team of experts like planners, architects, engineers, social scientists, and community work specialists who can assist and guide the local working team. Financial resources are required for research and development and to prepare an appropriate methodology for the project.
  4. Documentation for Learning: The design and implementation of the project will need to integrate “out of the box” thinking with established formulae and practices. The components outlined above – community action and habitat design – require innovative approaches to bridge the usual divide between norms and practices. Critically recording the process of development here becomes an opportunity to learn at first hand about restructuring urban space for benefit of the majority.

The Aya Nagar Development Project proposes that the inhabitants alongwith technical experts create, document, and partner with local authorities for implementing a proto-typical model for urban development, to serve as a guide for similar settlements in the whole country.

GREHA along with the Aya Nagar Vikas Samiti has put together a list of priority areas required for development. The priority areas for development initiatives in Aya Nagar are;

  • Public health – Proper functioning drainage and water supply systems.
  • Safety in Mobility – better roads, decongestion of traffic, and increased bus service with a proper terminal.
  • Community facilities like a Baraat Ghar / Community Centre.
  • Government health care facilities like clinics / hospitals and veterinary services.
  • College/s, especially for women, improvements in the condition of existing schools, and better sports facilities for the youth.
  • Places for public functions and community celebrations

Further consultation with the local community (local leaders, community based organizations, and concerned individuals) regarding developmental priorities led to a clear consensus on first solving the problem of drainage.

There is no system for sewage treatment/disposal in Aya Nagar, hence the storm water which flows in open channels along roads is mixed with sewage. Furthermore the open channels become extended garbage bins which are regularly choked with plastic bags and other forms of solid waste. The open channels overflow onto roads, especially when it rains. This is a serious health hazard.

The ANDP has therefore, concentrated creative energy and technical expertise on finding a solution to this problem, which is financially viable and environmentally sustainable. It was agreed that any solution to be convincing should be demonstrable. It was also agreed that for a solution to be sustainable it should be maintainable largely by the local residents. Given that the population of Aya Nagar is now over a hundred thousand persons, and seeing the very diverse cross-section of the residents (who have come from all parts of the country), it was felt that a cohesive unit of community would be a neighborhood of about 200 families. Hence one neighborhood was chosen for making an experimental demonstration of the proposed solution.

Available expertise on the problem indicated that one of the most significant design issues was the availability of water required to flush the long lengths of pipes conveying sewerage from source to a sewage treatment plant. Generally this distance is measured in kilometers. The availability of water in urban areas is not only problematic today, but is likely to get much worse in the foreseeable future. Hence the solution proposed for demonstration in one neighborhood of Aya Nagar (Ghoda Mohalla) hinges on a specially designed sewage treatment plant (digester) which serves about 70 persons and is small enough to be installed in the street outside any house cluster.

This design approach of extreme decentralization would also allow for a greater sense of ownership and control of each digester by the users, being a group small enough to manage their own conflicts and disputes. The technology employed in the design of the digester is commonplace and easily manageable by ordinary people with occasional monitoring by technical persons.

As topographical mapping was done of the neighborhood and the digesters located in a calculated matrix it became evident that the effluent from the digesters could be piped sub-surface to a nearby water harvesting structure, and after a second stage treatment by a reed bed on the banks of the water body, the water could be recycled for uses other than drinking or cooking. A large quantity of this recycled water will be available to become a community asset.

Thus the scheme shows a way of creating a closed-loop water supply system, which if carefully engineered to extend across the urban area could also play a major role in controlling the pollution of the river Yamuna.

The next step

The first phase research showed a direction for conserving water and also uncovered other areas of enquiry which point towards a better understanding of sustainability of urban systems in the Indian context. These are being listed below, to be taken up for detailed enquiry in the second phase:

a) Issues of urban infrastructure

Urban living can be distinguished from rural in many ways, but the most tangible differences arise because of the provision of infrastructure. As habitation becomes more dense, there are more demands made on life support systems, the organization and maintenance of which constitutes the infrastructure, and this needs very careful engineering to make cities livable.

The design of a decentralized sewage treatment system as part of a drainage scheme which conserves water has been engineered conceptually for one neighbourhood of about 250 families. This system is to be extended to cover the whole of Aya Nagar, the colony as well as the village, and will require further surveys, community mobilization, and schematic design. As the number of neighborhoods increase from one to eleven, the complexity of the exercise is also likely to increase, and the resources required will probably increase by a factor of ten.

b) Issues of urban form

In the twentieth century we have created in India two new planned cities, New (Imperial) Delhi and Chandigarh, which have had a powerful impact on contemporary urban development policy. We have had the opportunity to study the development of New Delhi for nearly a hundred years and of Chandigarh for over fifty years. And although the designer of Chandigarh was the most influential thinker and practitioner of architecture and urbanism in the twentieth century, it is now fairly clear that neither of these cities offer an inclusive and sustainable model for urbanization in the sub­continent. It is, however, remarkable that almost all contemporary urban development in independent India, until very recently, is theoretically based on the Chandigarh model.

With the opening of the Indian economy to global trade, a new model of urban morphology starts to dominate the thinking of our urban planners and architects. An example of this is the new development of Gurgaon. This may be the pattern preferred by the most affluent sections of the metropolitan cities, but there can be no doubt in most people’s minds that this pattern cannot be extended to provide an environmentally viable or inclusive solution for the huge urbanizing population of our country.

A somewhat different urban scenario is emerging where the 'other half' is building 'spontaneous' settlements which are extensions of the existing 'planned' or 'organically evolved' parts of our cities. Spontaneous urban settlements do not have a visually cohesive pattern, but they borrow ideas from the other 'types' to provide a radically eclectic mix of built form. To the casual observer this pattern may be described at best as 'chaotic' and at worst as' wretched and slummy'. However first hand experience of living in one such settlement for a decade has shown that there are many hidden benefits, such as greater autonomy in building and maintenance, enhanced conviviality, improved social and individual security, and reduced dominance of vehicular transport on the roads.

These are the most obvious advantages of such an urban environment. The most glaring disadvantage is the lack of public sanitation provisions, and the incompetently engineered electricity distribution.

Compared with the patterns preferred by official urban planners and the social elite, we believe that the urban pattern found in such spontaneous settlements is more sustainable in terms of environmental structure, a vastly reduced carbon footprint, and is more inclusive of social and economic diversity. However this belief is yet to be confirmed by empirical testing/verification in the second phase of the Aya Nagar Development Project.