Land-use legalities

Updated: Mar 30 2006, 05:42am hrs
How to marry strict enforcement with sensible laws on land use is currently the subject of raging debate in the national capital, Delhi, thanks to the issue of a notification on mixed-land use. For the uninitiated, what this means is allowing both residential as well as commercial establishments side by side on certain specified roads. In theory, everyone subscribes to the two principles specified in the opening sentence of this para. Which is why it is useful for citizens elsewhere, too, to take a closer look at the Delhi debate. The difference in Delhi to business-as-usual is the active role of the Supreme Court and high court: the judges have lately been insisting on literal application of laws on a time schedule.

Since much of the citys land-use, as elsewhere in India, owes as much to deviation from the laws on zoning as to its enforcement, there is a huge problem. In theory, there should be none: the laws, on paper, were very clear, just as they are very clear on, say, unauthorised construction or slums. In practice, the problem is enforcement. There is no point in having a law if it is to be laughed at by citizens and municipal enforcers alike. Law-abiding citizens have always welcomed an administrator who impartially enforces the rules. However, given the huge gap between theory and practice, it was but inevitable that the courts should get involved.

There is the related issue of the law itself. This is akin to, say, enforcing prohibition or the laws against prostitution: if the rules arent realistic, they will not be obeyed or enforced as they should be. Delhis land-use policy is an example: the services and outlets banned in theory from, say, residential areas, all exist due to consumer demand, but illegally. Politicians in Delhi, including those at the helm in the Union urban ministry, propose a relaxation of mixed land-use rules, welcomed by some and outraging others. It is clear rules must be realistic to be obeyed or enforced; as a corollary, enforcement has to be strict and certain, with deterrent punishment for breaches. How to ensure this is what affects citizens everywhere. The Delhi outcome must compromise on neither.