Delhi sealings: Master Plan compounds woes of affected traders; concentration of power with DDA a major obstacle
Political ecologist Dunu Roy pointed out that the Master Plan should be in conformity with the reality of the city and not vice versa.
Bhim Gali is not a road for convoys to parade on. A nondescript outer rim in the capital’s concentricity lining North East Delhi’s Vishwas Nagar is surrounded by a cocktail of sweatshops that operate from what was once a residential area. Here, small and medium-sized factories mostly operate in basements, some were relocated to Bawana (satellite town off North West Delhi) in the wake of demolitions before the Commonwealth Games in 2010. The association of smallscale manufacturing and traders in Vishwas Nagar had told the National Green Tribunal that the area has more than 70 percent plots under manufacturing activity and according to the physical surveys carried out by the Delhi government, can be declared an industrial zone.
This week, Vishwas Nagar found itself in the eye of a storm when the East Delhi Municipal Corporation sealed 70 polluting industrial units. Firstpost hit ground zero to understand the strain in the equation between the state’s administrative agencies, the Supreme Court and civil society that is affecting hundreds of sealings of big and small commercial establishments in the last decade and another 6,000 just this year. Some of the markets in direct line of fire are Sadar Bazaar, the largest wholesale market of household items in Delhi; Lajpat Nagar, a popular commercial market lined by housing colonies in South Delhi; Old Delhi’s bustling food and clothes market in Chandni Chowk; West Delhi’s residential cum commercial market in Karol Bagh; and specialised wholesale market of brass, copper and paper products in Chawri Bazar.
In Vishwas Nagar, the EDMC is sealing properties for misusing residential properties for running commercial establishments. Under the DMC Act, 2,000 notices have been issued to commercial establishments. “Some manufacturers were relocated to Bawana during the 2010 Commonwealth Games demolition drive and the industrial cover is 69 percent, one percent less than what’s required for an area to be considered an industrial zone,” said a member of the manufacturer and trader association in Vishwas Nagar, where over a lakh people might fall into unemployment if the factories operating out of here are sealed. Ranglal, who runs a utensil manufacturing unit inside a basement in the area, said that he vacated the floor 15 days ago when the municipality stuck notices regarding the sealing. He confessed that he gave a letter to the EDMC affirming that he had done the needful and despite that, his unit was sealed.
How the National Capital sealed the fate of its traders
The story of sealings goes back to 1985 when environmentalist MC Mehta had filed a petition in the Supreme Court that a variety of ‘illegal activities’ were being carried on in the capital, in the context of residential areas being used for commercial purposes. It is not uncommon to spot shops below homes, be it in Connaught Place in Delhi’s heart or its civil services and student pulse in East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar and in North Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar. In 2004, the Supreme Court had set up a monitoring committee to address the flagrant violation of norms regarding misuse of residential premises. The Supreme Court directed that if the misuse wasn’t stopped, the process of sealings would commence. After massive trader protests erupted across the capital, in which four people lost their lives, the government attempted to subterfuge the court’s order. At that point, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which is a Central body, modified the chapter on mixed land use in the Master Plan for Delhi 2001. Mixed-use streets were now to be identified based on traffic and parking studies. On the basis of identification, mixed-use was allowed on the ground floor in residential plots and mixed-use with respect to retail shops was allowed up to maximum permissible ground floor coverage. Finally, professional activity was allowed up to 25 percent of floor area and up to one floor in case of plotted development. The government then notified the Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Bill, 2006 on 19 May to restore status quo on mixed land use not conforming to the Master Plan and construction beyond sanctioned plans. This offered traders relief from sealing for a year and after further notifications, the said act was made operative until December 2017.
On 15 December 2017, the Supreme Court revived the powers of the monitoring committee and continued its resistance of the proposed amendments to the Delhi Master Plan that was first drafted in 1962 was amended in 1982 as Master Plan 2001 which was later amended in 2007 and today serves as the Master Plan 2021. The monitoring committee consisting of KJ Rao, former advisor to the Election Commissioner, Bhure Lal, chairman, EPCA and Major General (Retd.) Som Jhingan was appointed to oversee implementation of the law regarding residential premises used for commercial purposes. The committee could seal offending premises without leaving the said action to the discretion of Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) officials.
A tug-of-war between state bodies and traders scars Delhi
The amendments to this master plan can shield local traders from sealing. These specifically include the increasing of Floor Area Ratio (FAR) which is the ratio of the building’s total floor area as against the size of the land it stands on. As per the amendments proposed, the DDA approved uniform floor area ratio (FAR) of 350 for shop-cum-residential plots or mixed land and complexes at par with residential plots. The other changes will be the use of basements to run businesses and the rationalisation of conversion charges. The amendments also propose to notify 351 mixed roads for commercial and mixed-use under the Master Plan. The amendments contain ‘the provision to increase of power load from 5 KW to 11 KW in household/non-polluting service industries in residential areas, and permission of godown clusters in non-conforming areas, synchronization and fixation of charges based on locality defined as per circle rates’. Firstpost reached out to key members of traders’ associations around the National Capital to find out the implications of these amendments on both the state agencies and the traders.
Ajay Gupta, a shopkeeper from Sundar Nagar, explained that the area has been notified as a commercial area in the Master Plan and the sealings have been going on relentlessly despite that. “The monitoring committee says we haven’t sealed your area and the MCD has been showing up without any notice or proof and has sealed 20-21 shops in Sundar Nagar, which has been a commercial area since its inception in the 50s and is being sealed on the ground that mixed-use land norms are being flouted,” alleged Gupta, adding that their de-sealing application is pending with the Monitoring Committee and the SDMC.
Interestingly, in the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act 1957, there was a clause on the ‘Notice of demolition or removal of building’ specifying that ‘when any building or any portion of a building, liable to payment of property taxes is demolished or removed, otherwise than by order of the Commissioner, the person primarily liable for the payment of the said taxes shall give notice thereof in writing to the Commissioner’. In January, the standing committee of the NDMC passed a resolution to give a 48-hour notice to traders before a sealing drive in an area. When Firstpost approached Monitoring Committee member KJ Rao, he asked which law says that a notice is required to demolish illegal establishments that are encroachments on government land. He gave the example of how 450 shops were sealed in Amar Colony, South Delhi, in one day and said that all owners in question are fully aware of the errors of their ways.
Some traders’ associations said that they had received notices and others flatly denied receiving any kind of intimation before sealings. Praveen Khandelwal, secretary general of the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) spoke with Firstpost about the strong demand within the trading communities to re-designate commercial, mixed land use and residential areas of Delhi in order to bring an end to the state of utter confusion. It is because of the prevailing confusion, various parts of Delhi are facing the threat of sealing despite enjoying commercial status even under Master Plan but on the pretext of non-clarity or some other issue, the Monitoring Committee appointed by the Supreme Court is hell-bent on sealing shops, he said. For instance, Khandelwal explained that the entire special area including the walled city is a commercial area since even before a century but is still facing the threat of sealing and conversion charges.
He added that the names Chawri Bazar, Sadar Bazar, Khan Market and Chandni Chowk denotes that these are commercial areas. “Local Shopping Centres and Community Shopping Centres are in itself having commercial use. Since 1962, the MCD has declared a large number of areas in Delhi commercial and mixed land use zones but still these areas have been forced to pay the conversion charges and are still facing the threat of sealing. Where does it end?” he added that to come up with a reasonable solution, the CAIT has suggested Union Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri to constitute a working group comprising of officials from Ministry of Urban Development, Delhi government, DDA, MCD, L&DO (Land & Development Office), Delhi Police and other concerned departments with representatives from trade.
Sanjiv Mehra, president of the Traders’ Association in Khan Market for 19 years, narrated a story of how ambiguity seeped into the laws overtime. “People have paid lakhs to convert residential properties into commercial properties but the multiple civic bodies in Delhi leave a lacuna in the law to keep harassing traders,” Mehra said.
There’s another confusion regarding conversion charges that has surfaced in the last months. In 2017, the DDA had directed municipal officials to ask shopkeepers to deposit Rs 22,000 per sqm as a conversion charge along with an affidavit. Before the DDA’s rate was notified, sealings in Defence Colony were carried out over non-payment of conversion charges at the rate of Rs 89,000 per sqm. In March 2018, hearing an application pertaining to the sealings in Defence Colony, the Supreme Court asked the DDA to file an affidavit explaining if there was environmental clearance for the constructions and to state the provisions for water and power supply, and asked the authority on what basis it had slashed the one-time conversion charge. The newest amendment to the rule exempts traders who have paid the annual charges for a period of 10 years. But traders are now concerned if the money collected in the form of conversion charges is used towards the upkeep of the market complexes.
Time to think beyond the Master Plan, say experts
As per a public notice issued by the MCD, modifications have been made to the Master Plan 2021 under the mixed-use regulation. One of those professional activities involving services based on professional skills namely doctor, lawyer, architect and chartered accountant, company secretary, cost and works accountant, engineer, town planner, media professionals and documentary filmmaker is permissible in plotted development and group housing. Romi Khosla, founded GRUP (Group for Rural and Urban Planning) in Delhi in 1974, and has designed a number of large institutional complexes as well as small community-based rural projects, explained how this feature and other features in the Master Plan are futile.
“There are big flats that are operating solely as legal offices. When municipal officials arrive for inspection, the offices are locked up and guards stand outside the gates. Unless monitoring is decentralised, laws will be flouted,” he said, more so in a city where 60 percent of the people live in unauthorised areas. He makes a case for developing not a single master plan but several small-scale plans specific to each area. “The DDA’s way of consulting locals in urban planning is by inviting suggestions through ads in papers or outside their offices. The complexities regarding water, drainage, roads that are unique to each area, don’t get incorporated in DDA’s plans,” he said that each time the land use is changed in the Master Plan, be it from agricultural to residential to commercial, the city memory is erased.
To put a healthy check on the limitless powers of the DDA, which is a central body, and enable the local government to take charge of rural to urban changes across the capital, in 2016, the Delhi government had invited suggestions for amendments to the Delhi Land Reforms Act 1954. The document observed that the continued pressure of population moving from villages to urban areas and from smaller towns to bigger towns have created a demand for housing and other structures for non-agricultural activities, acknowledging that the act wasn’t created to address this demand as its objective was only agriculture. One of the suggestions it made was that Section 81/82 of the act that levels a penalty on the use of land for purposes other than agriculture and connected activities. Instead, it suggested that it be replaced by the clause that the state government can permit conversion of agricultural land into non-agriculture use as prescribed in the rules subject to prevailing planning norms. A mohalla clinic like decentralised approach towards urban planning could increase public consciousness about issues like drainage, waste management, and fire safety.
Khosla feels that instead of going after small and medium-sized traders, residential plots that are continuously getting permissions to turn into multi-floored structures should be brought under the scanner because they can vastly disturb the water and drainage situation of their neighbourhood. “The Master Plan 2021 prescribes that all plots must use the ground floor for parking. Now, the height can only be 45 ft owing to an archaic fire regulation. As a result, the height of the flats shrinks,” he pointed out the lack of nuance in urban planning in a document that is imposed on the city of fluid and ever-changing landscape.
In the 74th amendment of the Constitution, the municipalities were to be made responsible for the subjects mentioned in the 12th Schedule, which included urban planning, land use, water supply, roads, bridges, health sanitation and slum improvement. Article 243S of the amendment talks about the formation of Ward Committees. ‘There shall be constituted the ward committees consisting of one or more wards within the territorial area of all the municipalities with a population of 3 Lakhs or more.' Khosla felt this act should be implemented in Delhi and local communities familiar of the region’s history and present-day demands can be part of urban planning.
Political ecologist Dunu Roy pointed out that the Master Plan should be in conformity with the reality of the city and not vice versa. “Shops come up not to defy a plan but because there’s demand for what’s being sold. These places are not a problem but a solution to problems in areas of employment, industry, housing and commerce," Roy said.
The Master Plan is a byproduct of a colonial hangover. Its British ways of compartmentalising Delhi land use zones fail to understand the city whose character twists and turns to the tune of refugees and migrants who, sooner or later, belong to it.
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