Building societies: Rigid land use norms leading to unplanned colonies

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January 14, 2021 6:20 AM

There can be no denying that a liminal existence as residents/property-owners unauthorised colony can be prevented for millions if land regulation is responsive in real-time instead of trying to contain damage decades after.

There can be no denying that a liminal existence as residents/property-owners unauthorised colony can be prevented for millions if land regulation is responsive in real-time instead of trying to contain damage decades after.

The Delhi High Court (HC) has ordered the Delhi Jal Board to supply water to the Delhi Sainik Cooperative Housing Building Society, an unauthorised colony in the national capital on the grounds that right to access to drinking water is fundamental to life and that it was a duty of the state to provide this. There are several judgments that enshrine a similar view; some experts interpret the Supreme Court’s (SC) judgment in MC Mehta vs Kamal Nath to hold that the state not only must regulate water supply but also ensure that citizens’ right to “healthy water” is realised. In Narmada Bachao Andolan vs Union of India, the SC maintained that ‘water is … part of the right to life’. From a governance point of view, too, giving access to safe water is in the interest of the state given the public health ramifications of restricted access.

That said, the HC order also creates a moral hazard; it sets a precedent for post facto regularisation of unauthorised colonies by getting the government, through the court process, to provide utilities on a par with approved colonies. This is not to argue that the government must abdicate its responsibility to the residents of unauthorised colonies, but to highlight the need to act faster on the complex problem of growing urbanisation, consequent demand for affordable housing and the mushrooming of unauthorised colonies versus rigid zoning and land-use conversion regulations.

The most telling indicator of how the government—both the Centre and that of the national capital territory—has underestimated urbanisation and the need for affordable housing in Delhi is the fact that nearly a third of the capital’s residents live in unauthorised colonies. The challenges these unauthorised colonies face, from lack of roads and other public works to absent sewer connectivity and public health, mean diminished citizenship for some sections of the capital’s population, including lakhs of low-income households.

The colonies have come up in violation of the zoning regulations, either through breach of the provisions of the Delhi Master Plan or on illegally subdivided agricultural land; though there have been multiple regularisation attempts—after Parliament passed a Bill in December 2019, 1,731 unauthorised colonies in the national capital have been put on the path to regularisation.

The use of satellite imagery and geographical information systems for geo-tagging land can likely speed up the process of regularising colonies, but a more durable solution requires easing up processes such as land-use conversion, granting clear title, etc. There can be no denying that a liminal existence as residents/property-owners unauthorised colony can be prevented for millions if land regulation is responsive in real-time instead of trying to contain damage decades after.

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