June 06, 2020
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Up, Up Or Away?

An expert panel rejects a proposal to convert Delhi's urban green areas into commercial real estate

Up, Up Or Away?
It was erstwhile urban development minister Ram Jethmalani's trial balloon. Floated, rumours persist, at the insistence of Delhi's builders' lobby as also a motivated cabal of bureaucrats and architects salivating at the prospect of a real estate gold rush. The plan was audacious, and over-reaching in its ambition. It envisaged the auction of several square kilometres of tree-dotted, prime real estate in the vicinity of the Raisina Hill-Rajpath area, bang in the centre of the capital. A green expanse, serving as virtual lungs for a polluted Delhi was to be tampered with. An area seeped in colonial history, interspersed with 140 original Lutyens bungalows now used as ministerial residences, was to be turned over to the builder-developer wolfpack to build high-rises that, as Jethmalani put it, 'would relieve housing shortage, reduce urban density in other areas ' . A statement of intent that would be laudable if it weren't so incredible, even ludicrous.

Why would a city built on plain flatland, that could expand from here to Dehradun, that had no dearth of undeveloped land waiting to be pressed into the relieving-of-housing-shortage cause, be compelled to sacrifice just this vital breathing point " one of its nodal aesthetic and environmental relief centres " for the benefit of the builders' mafia? Why this land comprising a puny 0.37 per cent of the National Capital Region and not any other if easing the housing shortage was the only motive? Disquiet among those opposed to the move was heightened when prime minister Vajpayee seemed to lend oblique support to the idea when he said 'the Lutyens Bungalow Zone (lbz) could not continue to exist without basic change in a city where space and affordable housing are scarce ' . But the determined if quiet resistance from citizens' groups forced Jethmalani to call for an 'examination of the issue '  by a six-member committee headed by the Bhopal-based M.N. Buch, a former vice-chairman of the Delhi Development Authority and a city planning expert.

Last Monday, the committee handed in its report to Jethmalani's successor in the ministry, Jagmohan. Their answer to the proposal? A clear 'No ' . Buch's reasoning is simple. 'This area represents the only real large expanse of urban green left in Delhi, '  he says. And that matters a lot to what is at last count the world's fourth most polluted city. He scoffs at the 'housing relief '   rationale offered by the scheme's supporters. 'It would certainly offer temporary relief to blackmarketeers, building mafias who buy and sell Rs 10-crore flats. It's not the poor who buy at those prices, '  he points out. Ahmedabad-based architect Balkrishna Doshi agrees, adding bleakly, 'Obviously, builders' lobbies were trying to manipulate the proceedings. '  He wonders why this land was targeted for developmental attention when 'one glance at Delhi's masterplan would reveal huge tracts of land that could be put to better use if their intent is really to alleviate the housing shortage ' . Buch explains the  philosophic premise' of his committee recommendations. 'We feel the lbz is both heritage and haven. For instance, New York's Central Park comprises 580 acres of prime land, invaluable in such a megalopolis. Nobody's thinking of building on that. Every man needs places of repose. The lbz is that to the Delhiite. ' 

Not that Buch and his committee colleagues are anti-demolition. Indeed, they've recommended the tearing down of World War II-era barracks in the same area, their replacement with aesthetically and environmentally compatible buildings that can be put to socio-cultural uses. The committee also suggests the removal of the three service headquarters to the cantonment area. Other recommendations? An urban redesign exercise to redo select south Delhi government housing colonies and markets, to derive more accommodation from the same space even while improving traffic flow; retrofitting or renovation of Lutyens bungalows and their conversion into small museum, theatre or gallery spaces. And even if that doesn't happen, the message is to 'let them be ' . Buch explains why. 'They remain public, musuem spaces in a sense. Politician residents only use 10 per cent of the space as private space. The rest is anyway used by the thousand-odd visitors they meet everyday. ' 

Buch uses the opportunity to advocate his solution for Delhi's ills. 'To relieve urban congestion, why not develop adjacent towns like Gwalior that are well connected by air, train and roads and have the infrastructure to absorb the 11 pages of bhel and sail officers that today litter the Delhi directory. Noida, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon are not satellite towns but suburbs of Delhi. Half-a-million people relocating to a well-within-reach city three hours away would be incentive to another half-a-million support sector individuals to move. Create six such alternatives ringing Delhi and city congestion would ease. Otherwise you have the nightmare scenario of 25 lakh people " or whole Ranchis " moving into Delhi annually. '  He vetoes high-rises as an undesirable solution to urban congestion ills. 'Why live in vertical, fire-unsafe, energy inefficient, hard-to-maintain glass coffins when we have pleasant, low-height, low-density options in the flatlands of Delhi? '  he asks.

The response " albeit a weak one " comes from Jethmalani. Though now minister of law, justice and company affairs, he's still an ardent supporter of the scheme. 'Not all high-rises are ugly. They don't necessarily eat into the green cover. Four storeys instead of one releases more space for greens, '  he says. On the issue raised by Doshi, that there are other stretches of land available for housing development, his reply is cryptic: 'That is a matter of expert opinion. '   Jethmalani's defiant in the face of allegations that the profit motive rather than public good lay behind the proposal. 'That's no argument. Profit is not a dirty word. Why should people not make money if they pay their taxes? '  he asks.

The issue here is, of course, quite different. It's about profiteers profiting and, had it not been for the Buch Committee, the perennially short-changed public paying. For the moment, with Jethmalani out and Jagmohan in and supporting the committee's recommendations, the nays have it.

The Suggestions

  • Do not demolish the 140-odd bungalows south of Rajpath. If anything has to be done, retrofit, renovate or convert them into small museums, art galleries or theatres without building extra space that could encroach upon green areas.
  • 'Temporary '  barracks of the Second World War period in the area which have outlived their usefulness should be demolished and the space recovered converted into public greens. Or low-height, low-density, aesthetically and environmentally compatible structures could be built here that could be put to socio-cultural use. State guest houses could be built here.
  • Demolish the 19 semi-detached government-owned bungalows around Teen Murti Bhavan to create a 25 acre Vice-Presidential Estate. The prime minsterial residence abuts the area. Joint, effective security would be ensured as the area would be effectively sanitised by removing housing that has little architectural and no historical value, and whose occupants are harassed by security strictures of neighbouring vips everyday.
  • Ill-designed, post-independence government housing in Vinay Nagar, Moti Bagh, Bapa Nagar, Kaka Nagar, Rabindra Nagar and Chanakyapuri areas should be part of a major urban redesign exercise. These are low-density, zero-orientation homes: hot in summer, cold in winter, wet in the rains and should be redone. But this should be done without changing the plinth area, the ratio of built-up area to open space or sacrificing the green and circulation spaces that currently exist. It is possible to create 33 to 50 per cent extra accommodation space in each such unit.
  • Markets in areas south of Rajpath, like Khan Market and the one at Sarojini Nagar for instance, conceived and built for a different era, need to be redesigned to facilitate improved traffic flow.
  • No more government office buildings to be constructed in the Lutyens Bungalow Zone. That means, for instance, the external affairs ministry building proposed to be set up oppsite the National Museum off Rajpath will have to find a new address.
  • Have an unbroken green belt stretching from India Gate to Nehru Park in one direction, and from India Gate to Lodhi Garden on the other.

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