Living in the zone

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Sep 14 2014, 08:25am hrs
Last week, officials from the urban development ministry who arrived at former aviation minister Ajit Singhs residence to serve him an eviction notice were heckled by his supporters and forced to beat a hasty retreat. This is the second eviction notice served on Singh who has been a long-time resident of 12 Tughlak Road, one of the sprawling bungalows in Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ). The current government has been making frantic efforts to get former UPA ministers and MPs to move out of this ultra-exclusive residential area in the capital, and their reluctance to do so is understandable. The LBZ, a 2,800-hectare area, contains the most expensive real estate in India, possibly the world. Buying a private bungalow in this area would cost anywhere between R400 to R600 crore at current market rates. A plot of land on Tughlak Road, built over 8,000 sq yards, was priced at R600 crore last year. Nearby, 13, Prithviraj Road spread across 8,543 sq yards was sold for R590 crore. Bungalow number 45 on the same road cost R480 crore for an area of 4,840 square yards. There are 1,200 bungalows in LBZ and only 65 of them are privately-owned.

The maximum number of private bungalows are on the adjacent Aurangzeb Road, possibly Indias wealthiest street based on the net worth of the billionaires living on it. London-based steel baron LN Mittal has a house here, as does KP Singh of DLF, the Jindals, Malvinder and Shivinder Singh of Religare, Analjit Singh of Max India group, Pepsi bottler Ravi Jaipuria and Atul Punj of Punj Lloyd. In the Bungalow Zone, the population density is 12 to 15 people per acre; in the old walled city of Delhi, it is 1,500 people per acre. Built by the British when the capital of the Raj moved to Delhi, it consists of broad boulevards lined with tall, mature trees. Behind low brick walls and screening hedges are handsome, whitewashed bungalows, set amid rolling lawns and herbaceous borders, each between two and three acres. There are discreet but adequate servants quarters and garages. It gives New Delhi a distinctive and rare character. No other city in India has anything close to it.

Its a privilege abused consistently by its political occupants because of its exclusivity and symbol of status. Ajit Singhs family has held on to this bungalow since 1977 when his father Charan Singh became home minister in the short-lived Janata party regime. It has remained with the family long after Charan Singhs political eclipse and demise. The bungalow, like others in LBZ, was built by Sir Edwin Lutyens, New Delhis master architect, in 1912 and 1930 very much in the colonial style. Each bungalow here is a little castle, secured by guard cabins, hedges and boundary walls. The British, in the days before air-conditioners, believed that a large expanse of greenery would offer occupants protection against the heat of summer. Now, of course, there are no such worries, the LBZ, because of its all-powerful residentspoliticians, business tycoons, senior bureaucrats, judges and high-ranking officers of the armed forcesis immune from power cuts. It is this extravagant use of space for the benefit of a tiny elite that has caused much heartburn.

Ram Jethmalani, the veteran lawyer while minister of urban affairs in the coalition government led by AB Vajpayee, set the cat among the peacocks when he recommended that the existing bungalows be demolished and converted into high-rises. Even ministers should move into multi-storied residential complexes, he declared much to the horror of the political elite. The plan was shot down and the LBZ, quintessentially imperial, wonderfully verdant, survived. Yet, the threat remains. When Lutyens designed Delhi, he did it for a planned population of 70,000. Today, the citys population is well over 15 million. For many who live in the crowded, infrastructure-challenged areas outside LBZ, the zone is an offensively luxurious anomaly. The option is to produce a development plan which leaves the greenery of the LBZ intact and exploits this huge area to enhance Delhis urban character. The Union urban development ministry has since moved a cabinet note proposing to raze and rebuild the bungalows in tune with present-day requirements while preserving their heritage character. The LBZ has 588 plots owned by the government but to get the occupants to move out will be a herculean task. Free government accommodation in the countrys most expensive residential area is a perk for which most MPs are ready to give an arm and a leg, and legends abound of the battles that have raged to gain or retain this coveted trophy. Jyotiraditya Scindia has scrabbled to retain his fathers corner bungalow on Safdarjung Road, one of the larger estates in the LBZ. He was allotted the bungalow even though he was a first-time MP and continued to live there as a junior minister. Ram Vilas Paswan, who lives next door to Sonia Gandhi, has not moved out of his Janpath bungalow for two-and-a-half decades. Indias billionaires are willing to pay anything to buy private estates in LBZ, just for the privilege of belonging to this exclusive address. Politicians have the good fortune of getting it for free.

And if it were done with sufficient flair and conviction, it could be Delhis salvation.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express