An entitlements’ perspective of the Master Plan and its revision

Master Plans are statutory long-term holistic frameworks for efficient and equitable city development. Their provisions are citizens' entitlements in city benefits and solutions and their processes guarantee accountability in enforcing and safeguards against downsizing entitlements. While anti-plan propaganda is popular, evidence of better entitlements is sufficient and necessary case for alternatives.

The Master Plan is primarily a land-use drawing – a city map showing different uses in different colors, somewhat like a budget for matching city resources and needs for balanced conflict-free equitable sustainable development.

Delhi Master Plan is the statutory framework for planned development of Delhi, part and parcel of Delhi Development Act of 1957 under which Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was created for sole purpose of development according to Plan. To facilitate this purpose public land was placed at DDA’s disposal under a policy of socialisation of land through large-scale public acquisition. Delhi Master Plan came into force in 1962, was revised in the ‘80s for a perspective up to 2001 and is currently being revised for 2021. A brief description of the 1962 Plan and Plan 2001 as well as the vision guiding the revision can be seen on DDA’s website.

It is not my case that Delhi Master Plan is perfect, or even that a Master Plan is the perfect approach to urban development. But it is my case that, far from being a plannerly artifact, Delhi Master Plan is a document of citizens' entitlements in benefits of planned development on public land cheaply and compulsorily acquired for forty years, entitlements that flow from Delhi Development Act and from Delhi's land policy. As a corollary, it is my case that any alternative to or modification of the Plan amounts to modification of citizens’ entitlements and must follow due process of law to provide accountability on implementation, evidence of improvement over existing entitlements and plausible assurance of solving Delhi’s problems.

Delhi’s problems cannot be attributed to unanticipated excessive migration to slums. Census of 2001 has found a population of 12.79 million in Delhi Urban Agglomeration, consistent with the Master Plan projection of 12.81 million for it. And the 2 million slum-population counted by the Census is also consistent with the backlog on Master Plan targets for economically weaker sections' housing. Thus total and slum population in the city are as anticipated in the Master Plan.

Delhi’s problems cannot be attributed even to resource constraints. Delhi has higher per-capita funding than other cities and most departments do not spend their budget allocations year after year. DDA also has the benefit of a large amount of cheaply acquired public land having been placed at its disposal to generate revenues for development and cross-subsidy benefits therein and make planned development for all a reality.

Delhi’s problems cannot be attributed even to multiplicity of authorities. Delhi Master Plan provides a statutory framework of sufficient legal standing for all agencies to operate in a synergistic manner. The plea that DDA is ‘controlled’ by central government whereas it should be ‘controlled’ by state / local government is specious since all government agencies are sufficiently empowered by Delhi Development Act and the Master Plan to effectively participate in development according to Plan.

Delhi’s problems cannot be attributed even to planning failures, not because the Plan happens to be adequate as a document of entitlements but because it is not meant to be carved in stone. Being a statutory framework, it is at once limiting as well as a flexible. It is limiting to the extent that it may be modified only by due process of law to safeguard entitlements from willful modification and to the extent that every lower level plan must fit into the higher level. Thus zonal plans must detail out the Master Plan, layout plans must conform to zonal plans, building plans must fit in layout plans. At the same time, the Master Plan is flexible because it is a long-term framework and there are limits to anticipation. The hierarchical structure of planning leaves room for innovation at detailed planning levels and the Act allows Plan modifications, by due process, as and when needed. Nothing, therefore, stops timely correction of planning failures. And statutory provisions for Plan monitoring, in fact, make this mandatory.

Delhi's problems are mostly rooted in failure to implement the Master Plan and all that promoted and diverted attention from implementation failures.

Problems of squalor are rooted entirely in non-implementation of ‘non-profitable’ Plan provisions. The Plan anticipated and earmarked space for integrating 0.45 million poor families in residential development across the city, these provisions were not implemented and Census has found about 0.4 million poor families in slums. The Plan anticipated and earmarked suitably dispersed space for about 0.1 million industrial units, these provisions were not implemented and about 0.1 million units function in places not meant for them in ways problematic for themselves and others. The Plan anticipated and earmarked space in line with natural propensities to accommodate 0.3 to 0.4 million hawkers in a planned way, these provisions were not implemented and hawkers hawk on roadsides. The Plan anticipated need for cross-subsidy beyond land disposal for universal access to quality facilities, its provisions for conditional land allotments to secure integration were not implemented and now exclusive facilities on cheap planned sites cater to a few while inadequate unplanned ‘facilities’ dispense education and health services to the majority. The Plan anticipated that villages whose lands are acquired for development would become slummy if not integrated in new development, its provisions for such integration, including by way of space for expansion and facilities, were not implemented and villages have become slummy.

Denial of entitlements of the poor serves to spare land meant for them for profitable but unintended up-market uses that stress infrastructure. Non-implementation of ‘non-profitable’ Plan provisions leading to ‘squalor’ is thus intrinsically connected to infrastructure stress, the other major symptom of urban collapse. This hypothesis is consistent with census data that suggests that population in excess of 11 million, the carrying capacity based population threshold identified by the Plan and recommended to be maintained by diverting city-ward migration elsewhere to the National Capital Region, is in the non-slum segment. Everyday evidence can be seen in up-market schools, hospitals and malls on sites meant for neighbourhood facilities, in institutions, PSUs and corporate establishments not needed in Delhi, etc, and, on the other hand, in water crisis, parking congestion, etc.

In a peculiar case of Robinhood-in-reverse the capital of the world’s largest democracy is denying its poor their Plan entitlements to city space to host for an unplanned population segment that could easily be elsewhere, uses that stress its infrastructure and environment beyond carrying capacity.

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Reconciling equity and carrying capacity concerns is an attribute of the Master Plan that sets it apart from most political and civil discourse that tends to reduce these concerns to, respectively, ‘pro-poor’ and ‘pro-environment’ positions in perpetual conflict. By extension, development according to Master Plan or any other instrument of holistically considered planned development can contribute towards a synergistic society, making Plan implementation worthy of serious attention in a perspective far broader than the purely plannerly.

That a thousand Master Plans have been overtaken by reality is an oft-used argument against Master Plans. But the fact that wallpaper-production style planning only produces wallpaper not planned development does not dilute, in fact it strengthens, the case for greater Plan implementation accountability and ownership.

It is especially noteworthy that no ‘more workable’ alternative to the Master Plan has been tried, tested and proven. Indeed, the understanding of the ‘disconnect’ between design and reality is arguably too inadequate to permit an assessment with any degree of confidence of likelihood of alternatives working any better.

In any case, then, there is no running away from the need to systematically assess Plan implementation failures. And in case of Delhi forty years of land acquisition for Plan implementation make accountability about it legally and morally binding.

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There are two dimensions to development according to Plan – progressive implementation of planned development and corrective action against unplanned development.

Implementation failures relating to unplanned development are by way of inaction against Plan violations by private parties and, more seriously, inadequate public policy for dealing with recurrent or pervasive violations through timely and sensibly considered Plan adjustments, as mandatory under the monitoring provisions of the Plan.

Implementation failures relating to planned development are far more serious and have grown from slow pace of development to priorities in favour of remunerative uses to veritable abandonment of the Plan through use of powers for Plan modification in pursuit of unplanned development for what effectively amounts to profiteering on public land.

It is extremely unfortunate that especially in media, but also in courts and in civil society planning discourse, anything from building byelaw violations to massive misuse of green belt tends to be reduced to same common denominator labeled ‘Master Plan violation’. This obfuscation gets in the way of placing violations in a more holistic perspective of Plan implementation imperatives and allows implementation failures to drift to the point of abandonment of the Plan (as piecemeal pragmatic solution unrelated to the Plan - such as regularisation of violations - are negotiated in lieu of Plan implementation).

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For instance, building level violations by private parties, such as additions in excess of permissible built space or commercial use of homes in excess of that permissible by mixed use regulations, tend to attract greatest attention - perhaps because aggrieved neighbors find their impacts directly perceptible and others find them readily comprehensible. But such building level violations only indirectly distort the overall land use budget and unless this connection is explicated, from the perspective of land use entitlements of citizens at large, inaction against them constitutes the least significant of implementation failures.

On the other hand, area level violations by private parties, such as rampant industrial use in certain residential areas or encroachment of facility spaces by hutment dwellers or development of unauthorised colonies for the non-rich in the course of acquisition of land for other Plan purposes, directly distort the land use budget. While these violations do engage considerable attention, the discourse consistently fails to connect them with any seriousness to implementation failures on, respectively, industrial space, EWS and LIG housing provisions of the Plan.

In such cases, policies for laissez-faire neglect or sweeping regularisation deny and those for relocation in sub-standard schemes downsize Plan entitlements. By effectively de-linking problems of the non-rich from their statutory solution of land reservations for non-remunerative uses these policies serve to spare public land for profiteering. Whether those - in government and civil society - promoting the former have vested interests in the latter or are unaware of the synergy between them is inconsequential. In either case, citizens’ entitlements are being infringed and the city’s problems allowed to drift towards becoming intractable.

At a conservative estimate, over 5000 hectares of public land in Delhi, nearly a tenth of area under the Plan, has been denied outright to ‘down-market’ uses that it was planned for in order to be ‘spared’ for unplanned up-market development, neither necessary nor sustainable. This is by far the most serious Plan implementation failure and also the one most consistently ignored, perhaps because the aggrieved are the poor on whose problematic circumstances is predicated the well-being of many and the beneficiaries the powerful who decide.

Misuse of space meant to be protected, especially in the environmentally crucial ridge and riverfront and around historically significant assets, for willful projects is over and above this, as is misuse of public land on city outskirts for sub-standard resettlement schemes for those denied settlement according to Plan and commodification of less remunerative developed space through policies for, say, allowing commercial use of industrial plots or homes. In Delhi recent years have seen prolific Plan modifications to permit such projects, schemes and policies. Plan implementation has been all but abandoned in favour of these Plan modifications that are usually illegal for having failed even to bother with due process for Plan modification, unlawful for not really contributing to furtherance of the goals of the Plan and untenable even as a progressive planning paradigm as they do not add up to a robust alternative to the Plan.

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On the shaky foundation of what can only be called an extraordinary land scam - abetted in equal measure by vested interests in public land and a drifting discourse that has obfuscated implementation failures to undermine confidence in development according to Plan - the revised Master Plan for 2021 is planning to build a global city for 23 million even as the Plan itself cautions against allowing the city with its constrained resources, especially water, to grow beyond 11 million. That this fly-by-night realtor model has been accepted as the vision for the city for 2021 has been made possible by precisely what has made the land scam possible - willful Plan modification in disregard of due process of law. The ongoing Plan revision has been guided not by mandatory planning data on implementation and ground realities but by ‘ideas’ - freely thrown up by the discourse in the vein of the blind men around the elephant, willfully taken or left by DDA.

Accountability about implementation has by and large not featured at all in the dialogue and even when it has it has been obfuscated with alternative ‘ideas’ that have only served to divert attention by implying planning failures even where there are none. By largely sweeping implementation failures under the carpet, the ongoing Plan revision has also failed to address the core issue of how to deal with them, without which no amount of planning has any meaning for citizens. And by absence of substantive survey and analysis and by confining discussion to exclusionary seminars, ‘participation’ processes in the Plan revision have marginalised citizens and young professionals whose ownership of the revised Plan is crucial for minding it over the next two decades.

A final safeguard for Plan entitlements in course of its revision is provided by the Act in the form of mandatory Public Notice process, a legal and non-exclusionary mechanism for citizens’ participation, under which the draft revised Plan will be placed before public for scrutiny and comment for 90-days. For 90-days citizens of Delhi will have the right and the responsibility to participate in minding their entitlements and the future of their city for 20 years. The city’s young professionals will have the right and the responsibility to inform and forge alliances with citizens directly to promote ownership of the revised Plan of which they will be professional custodians. And all who believe that law for equitable sustainable development should be implemented and not subverted and then willfully changed to condone subversion without any accountability about public land acquired for it over forty years will have the right and the responsibility to express their views. What all do or do not do about the Public Notice for Delhi Master Plan 2021 will matter - a lot, beyond here, beyond now.