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Home > National Interest vs People’s Interest > New Delhi: The commercialisation and dehumanisation of the city

New Delhi: The commercialisation and dehumanisation of the city

An interview with Dunu Roy

by Anosh Malekar, 18 July 2008

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InfoChange News & Features, May 2008

The Yamuna River is the site for spanking new stadia, sports villages, malls and multiplexes. Around 22 lakh people reside in the extended floodplains of east Delhi. Can this population withstand the new colonisation that is threatening to invade the floodplains? An interview with Dunu Roy of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre

There was a time when the Yamuna flowed by the Red Fort. Then she changed course in the 17th century. The British came and tampered with her tributary to reclaim land and since then, as urban development experts admit now, the Yamuna has been a victim of planned development.

Delhi receives only 5% share of Yamuna waters compared with 56% by Haryana and 29% by Uttar Pradesh. Yet the national capital is called its worst polluter — blamed for 79% of the pollution of the river.

Serving as Delhi’s mega-drain is not the only burden on the Yamuna; the city’s civic agencies have been systematically depriving the river of its floodplains. The new zonal plan for the Yamuna River Basin covers some 9,600 ha of land with four components: land use planning and urban design, pollution abatement programme, flood control strategy and water supply augmentation.

The drive to acquire more land has been accelerated by the 2010 Commonwealth Games extravaganza. The Delhi government has its sights set on the Ridge and the Yamuna River for spanking new stadia, sports villages, malls, multiplexes, techno parks, golf courses and a Thames-like riverfront.

This despite the 1995 ‘Delhi Environmental Status Report: An Information Handbook for Citizen Action’, brought out by Delhi government’s Department of Environment, saying that the Yamuna floodplain is an important groundwater reserve for the city and an integral part of the natural river system and, as such, should not be tampered with except for allowing seasonal cultivation and bathing.

The sprawling Swaminarayan Akshardham Cultural Complex has already come up on the eastern bank of the Yamuna, occupying over 24 hectares. Another 65 hectares have been taken up by the Metro Rapid Transport System (MRTS) control centre. Some 63 hectares were given to the Yamuna Bio-Diversity Park, situated between Wazirabad and Jharoda Majra village in north Delhi.

Dunu Roy of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre says there is no attempt to assess the actual impact of all this on the city and its people. Dissenting voices or reports have been quickly suppressed or just ignored. “I am not much worried about the river. Nature never dies. It is we who are going to die. If it is not fresh water, it will be stinking water that will flow down the Yamuna,” he says.

An estimated population of 22.58 lakh (2001 census) resides on the extended floodplain of east Delhi, collectively called the Trans-Yamuna Area. Living 3-4 metres below the flood level, this population has braved the river’s fury about once every decade during the monsoon.
But can this population, mostly the poor, withstand the new colonisation that is threatening to invade the floodplains?

In this interview with Infochange, Roy warns that the policies followed by the powers that be in the name of development will lead to major social unrest. “...as things like the Commonwealth Games that are advertised as high-profile events lead to rise in prices of land, homes, water and power, …Only those who can afford the city can actually live here …The rest will have to move out. This commercialisation of the city actually dehumanises the city for which it will pay a huge price in terms of social conflict…So what you are actually doing is putting in, by design, elements of violence,” he says.

The Akshardham complex, the Metro control centre, a biodiversity park and now the Commonwealth Games. What is happening to the Yamuna floodplains?

In 1996, the Delhi Development Authority produced a document that was called the ‘O-zone Development Plan’. O-zone is the Yamuna riverbed. In the first master plan of Delhi in 1962 the Yamuna riverbed was demarcated as a ‘no development zone’ and clearly outlined as the floodplain of the river Yamuna, which meant it had a colour and it had an index that said this is the Yamuna bed. In the next master plan produced in 1990 the colour disappears and the zone becomes white. This white colour essentially means un-demarcated, which also means that this is a land with no defined use. That is what the authorities have done systematically. Now in 1996 they produced this zonal development plan saying we are now going to develop this land. So it becomes a ‘developmental’ land. This development, they claim in their document, is going to be green. Under green they have recreation, under recreation they have cinema halls, golf courses, entertainment plazas and so on. And within that, saying that somebody has to take care of all this, they have smuggled in commercial and residential complexes also. This is the actual plan for this zone. This plan was not made public. It was a confidential document. It has been made public only last year. So for ten years they have been sitting on this without making it known to the citizens.

What are they targeting? It is roughly 10,000 hectares, some 9,600 hectares to be precise. You multiply 9,600 hectares by 10,000 to give you number of square metres and then you again multiply it by another 30,000 which is the price in rupees per square metre. So this is what we have to really look at. It is commercial sale of land. Consequently, it is targeted clearly at those corporate entities that have the kind of huge money to invest in that kind of land and then take the returns back, which is a commercial proposition. It is a huge landgrab! Now this was the plan in 1996, but this plan can materialise only if you protect what was originally the floodplain of the Yamuna river. You cannot allow the river to occupy the floodplain anymore. And the existing use of the floodplain has to be abolished because though marked as a ‘no development zone’ it is being used by people for something or the other earlier – it is seasonal cultivation, it is a squatter colony on the banks and so on. So you have to remove them and the only way you can do that along with protecting the floodplain from the river itself is by constructing two embankments on either side of the river and secondly removing the present land use on some pretext or the other. The common solution they have found to achieve both the ends is environment. So they say we need to clean up the river and we need to build riverfronts which are clean, hygienic, salubrious, tourist-friendly and the only way we are going to do that is by removing these people.

What impact is all this going to have on Delhi and its citizens?

It is going to have a fatal impact. See what they did was, the same year the master plan came ie 1996, a case was filed in court by a private individual saying the Yamuna is polluted and it needs to be cleaned. When the case came up for hearing, the government agencies deposed in the court that the Yamuna is polluted because of the slums on the banks of the river. This has no logical co-relation whatsoever. It is just visual co-relation. Because to pollute the river you have to get water and slums do not get water here. But this argument has been accepted by the court, which has given an order saying all the illegal squatter settlements have to be removed from the Yamuna floodplains.

Now this has given rise to four kinds of fatalities. One, you are removing the slum settlements that are actually the service class of the city. And when you remove them from here their livelihoods, which are nearby, will be disrupted. When you remove them from close to their livelihoods and put them somewhere else, this population, which was somehow being able to sustain itself, is going to lose its sustaining capacity. They will be further impoverished. When you move them 40 kms away their quality of life will further drop dramatically as livelihood options will come down, incomes reduce and cost of living goes up. You are actually making their lives more miserable. And this is fatal for the city’s service class. Second, it is fatal for those who access their services. Because you cannot get domestic maids anymore, you cannot get chauffeurs, delivery boys, vendors, hawkers, and little shopkeepers. All the service functions in the neighbourhoods decline and their cost starts going up because the entity that steps in to provide these services – manufacturers of vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines and so on – is a corporate entity. So the cost of living for even the middle class, which thinks it has been rid of the dirty people, starts going up. The third fatal impact is for the city as things like the Commonwealth Games that are advertised as high-profile events lead to rise in prices of land, homes, water and power. And this is really devastating, because it means only those who can afford the city can actually afford to live in the city. The rest will have to move out. The city is not going to be economically viable anymore. The fourth and final impact or nail in the coffin so to speak is the commercialisation of the entire city. Everything is available but for a price. And this commercialisation of the city actually dehumanises the city for which it will pay a huge price in terms of social conflict. So what you are actually doing is putting in, by design, elements of violence.

The government often quotes environment assessments by NEERI and CWPRS to justify its development agenda?

These two organisations have professional competence of a particular kind. There is no doubt about it. The question is – is their professional competence adequate to address the issues that are being thrown up? The issues here are not water or energy alone. NEERI is an energy research institute and CWPRS is the central water research station. Now you cannot say that environment is water and energy. It is much more than that. So the moment you commission specialised agencies to do such studies, you are going to get particular kinds of studies. These studies fall into a pattern in terms of what is the protocol of development in the country today, which is – the promoter of development has to prepare a plan and get its environmental impact assessment done. This environmental impact report then goes to the environmental regulatory authority for clearance. Now, when the promoter has to pay for the environmental assessment report, would he pay for an assessment that would go against his plan? He will not. So the protocol itself is flawed at its conception. If at all the impact assessment says no, there is some problem, the agencies will immediately have to add a line saying the problem can be sorted out through appropriate measures for impact mitigation. What those appropriate measure are is never spelt out clearly. In the case of Yamuna, none of these organsiations said that this project should not be taken up because it is environmentally harmful. If at all the consultant says there is a problem there will be huge pressure on the consultant to change his report. And that is what has happened in the case of the committee set up by the ministry of environment. It first said no, we should not have permanent structures, and then subsequently modified its own report. And no regulatory authority ever has the time to go through the lengthy reports. Then there is this argument that development is important. There is a political thrust for development, which even the courts seem to support.

Are you saying that the concerns of the ordinary citizen are not being heard by anybody?

I would say that elected representatives are bothered because they have to stand for elections and face the electorate. But the decision to privatise is no longer in the hands of elected representatives. That power has been taken away from them. The government of the day says we have to function within conditions imposed by the World Bank and IMF, we have to carry reforms prescribed by them. Because if we do not reform, we will get into a debt trap we are not equipped to handle by ourselves. And as I said earlier, the courts are following suit. In case of the Akshardham temple, there was a writ filed in the Supreme Court asking why this temple is being built in an environmentally sensitive area. But the court eventually threw it out saying you (the petitioner) came too late. The same is to going happen in the Commonwealth Games case.The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) is going to say, but our lordships we have already invested hundreds of crores of rupees and in 2010 the games are coming. The courts will say it’s too late to do anything, and development is imperative. It is all a political game that is on. It is a whitewash that is happening.

What is the way out? What are activists like you doing?

See, we have written a detailed critique of the environmental assessment in the case of Yamuna. We have said that these are the flaws – it does not look at a lot of important issues like seismicity etc and whatever flaws it looks at it looks at illogically. We have given it to the government, we have given it to the petitioners in this particular case. But we are confident that the courts will not listen, and the governments will not listen. They will say we (activists) are not competent authorities. It is not as if the facts pointed out by us are not known. They are well known. We have been talking about them for the past 18 years, but they are deliberately ignored. Why? Because we do not represent organised, powerful constituencies like the land mafia or the automobile industry. We represent the average citizens, who no longer matter.