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Legalising Delhi's Unauthorised Colonies is Politically Expedient But Environmentally Mournful

The courts have objected to the rise of unauthorised colonies as unplanned urbanisation of the city, more than the pollution from crop-waste burning in neighbouring states, has added to the capital’s environmental woes.

Sidharth Mishra |

Updated:October 28, 2019, 2:59 PM IST
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Legalising Delhi's Unauthorised Colonies is Politically Expedient But Environmentally Mournful
News18 creative/Mir Suhail

In times not very far back in Delhi’s political history, if a politician was introduced as “zameen se jude hue neta”, it did not mean the person was necessarily a grassroots leader. It often conveyed that they were associated with land dealings in the capital’s unauthorised colonies.

The central government this week decided to regularise all the 1,797 such colonies in the city ahead of the assembly polls expected around January next year. That it’s a politically expedient decision goes without saying with more than a third of the city’s population living in these localities spread over 35 of its 70 assembly constituencies.

The move could prove to be a game changer in a race where so far Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) looked to be ahead of its rivals. An analysis of the Lok Sabha poll results would show that residents of these unauthorised colonies voted in large numbers in favour of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates, with the hope that the Centre would oblige them by ending the illegal status of their neighbourhoods. Thus, the decision could be seen both as a ‘return gift’ by the BJP leadership and also an investment for a favourable result in the coming elections.

The city’s population has today grown to about 25 million from 1.7 million in 1947. With economic distress prevailing in almost all the north Indian states over the past several decades, people kept migrating to the capital in search of livelihood. With the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the central government agency responsible for development of the metropolis, failing to rise to the challenge of providing hearth to the migrant population, the farmlands were converted into housing colonies, albeit illegally; thus the name unauthorised colonies.

Around 57 years ago, when the issue first cropped up, Delhi had just 110 unauthorised colonies with around 221,000 people living in them. Today, it has 1,797 such localities, and not to forget that a large number of them have been authorised in the past, the previous instance being in 1993.

To those not conversant with the issue, ‘unauthorised colony’ doesn’t mean habitat of the poor. They, rather, are hubs of a new politically and socially active class. These colonies already have the basic water and power connections and also sanitation services as the MLAs and MPs have been allowed to spend their local area development funds in these clusters.

Then what’s the relief last week’s cabinet decision brings? The government statement explains that a law would be brought which would provide for ownership rights for the residents of these colonies with the power to mortgage their property. This, however, would happen not just after appropriate laws are passed but also rules of business are accordingly amended.

The statement by the Centre says the proposed bill, which is scheduled to be brought during the winter session of Parliament beginning November 18, is aimed at recognising general power of attorney (GPA), will, agreement to sell, purchase and possession documents, which will be a one-time relaxation for this purpose for the residents of these colonies. The bill will also provide for registration charge and stamp duty on last transaction and also address the issue of income tax liability on account of less-than-circle-rate charges.

The step would, very importantly, also bring relief from the ban imposed by the Supreme Court on all the construction in these colonies. The SC in April 2018 had ordered an immediate stay on all construction in the unauthorised clusters as they were not in conformity with building bylaws, as none existed for them.

Every time the courts have tried to implement land use and zoning regulations as provided for in the Master Plan, the government of the day has regularised these colonies, justifying the move as a final compromise which would never be repeated. However, this has never proved to be true. Despite three large-scale regularisation drives in the past, the process for the fourth one has now been initiated with the central government’s fiat.

The courts have objected to the rise of unauthorised colonies as unplanned urbanisation of the city, more than the pollution from crop-waste burning in neighbouring states, has added to Delhi’s environmental woes. The Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee had submitted a report in July 2019 saying that regularisation of unauthorised colonies puts strain on the existing infrastructure. The cabinet while passing the decision has obviously overlooked these observations.

The never-ending inward migration to Delhi, while spurred economic activity, also undoubtedly added to the environmental despairs. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal would not say it, nor did his predecessors like Har Krishan Lal Bhagat, Madan Lal Khurana or Sahib Singh Verma dare to speak against migration as it would have amounted to political profanity. The only political person to stand up and challenge the rampant and unplanned urbanisation was Jagmohan, who lost his job as urban development minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government for being “too rigid” in the matter.

Leaders, right from Congress strongman HKL Bhagat to BJP stalwarts Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma to Outer Delhi’s several-term MP Sajjan Kumar and many lesser political individuals, have been involved in getting these colonies first raised and then authorised and have reaped rich political harvest out of it.

This time too, a war of words has already broken out between the BJP and AAP over taking credit for the move. Union minister for housing and urban affairs Hardeep Singh Puri, while making the announcement, slammed the Kejriwal government for the delaying tactics. Puri claimed that the Centre decided to “take the initiative when it became clear that the Delhi government will do nothing”. On the other hand, the Delhi chief minister has claimed that the union cabinet prepared its road map based on the proposal sent by the Delhi government in July.

Who gets the credit, whom would the voters of these colonies reward for their respective investment? Only time will tell. But for now, the ‘claim game’ is being heartily participated in by players from all sides.

(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst. Views are personal)

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