Serving piping hot tea in glass tumblers from his shop in Sanjay Colony, Devender Kumar looks at his next-door slum, then back at this reporter. After a long stare to make sure he isn’t being fooled, he breaks into a laugh.
“Nahi hoga (it won’t happen),” he says.
As if to emphasise the point, he goes back to his work. People gulp the steaming tea and move on for their day’s toil in small factory units that dot Sanjay Colony’s neighbouring Okhla Industrial Area.
“We are used to being fed dreams by politicians. Once the elections get over, they start threatening to demolish our slums,” Devender adds by way of explaining his cynicism.
It’s a sentiment many in Delhi’s slum colonies share.
Experience has made them wiser and, indeed, the dream they have been sold is ambitious — but this time the promise isn’t in election manifestos.
It’s in the Official Gazette of India, and is legally binding on the government.
The over 50 lakh slum dwellers in the capital have been promised “pucca” single-room apartments in place of their jhuggis by 2021 under the Delhi Master Plan (MPD) that was notified as the clock struck midnight on Wednesday.
Traders have been spared the sealing of their establishments, but it’s people like Devender whose lives are going to change most dramatically if the MPD is carried out.
The motives behind the Centre’s decision are already being questioned, but there is no doubt, planners say, that the blueprint aims — for the first time in India — to clear up slums without dislocating their residents.
Most slums sit on public land grabbed by the mafia and sold or rented to the slum dwellers. The government will now sell 45 per cent of a slum’s land area to a private builder at a subsidised rate.
“The builder can then do as he wishes with the land — real estate, hotels, hospitals, anything,” says Sujata Ram, planner-consultant who helped draft the MPD.
But there’s one condition.
On the remaining 55 per cent of the land, the builder must set up a multi-floor apartment complex — complete with basic amenities — to house the slum dwellers.
“The builder hands us the keys to the flats. Slum dwellers who owned their shanties get to own a flat while those who rented their shanties can rent a flat,” explains the minister of state for urban development, Ajay Maken.
The flats would be single rooms just 25-40 square metre in size, but with the demon of displacement banished once and for all, the slum dwellers are unlikely to complain.
“Once the flats come up, the people can move back (from temporary resettlement colonies) to where they have been living. The problem of displacement will also be solved,” Maken says.
It’s a model, urban planners say, that other big cities like Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad would do well to take “serious note of”.
“I would say there are big lessons to be learnt from the master plan as a whole. All the big cities have problems of water shortage, sewage disposal, traffic, parking, etc,” says Kanika Tripathi, senior planner at the School of Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad.
Work has already started in parts of Delhi to build a high-capacity bus system (HCBS) that will ferry people from one part of the city to another in roughly the same time as the Delhi Metro.
“The Metro will be expanded, but it cannot take the load of Delhi’s entire population. The HCBS and the Metro will complement each other,” says Ram.
Dedicated bus lanes will ensure that the superfast buses do not compete with other traffic. The existing buses will be phased out, reducing the burden on the roads.
The new buses are the brainchild of Dinesh Mohan, professor of transportation technology at the Indian Institute of Technology. They will have real-time traffic sensors that enable the driver to take the least crowded route.
“The sensors will inform the driver about the state of the traffic ahead. He can therefore avoid the worst traffic snarls by taking a different underpass or overbridge,” Mohan says.
New office complexes, shopping malls and residential apartments will only be allowed to come up if they build adequate parking for vehicles. Projects for multi-level parking — overground and underground — are in the pipeline.
The private sector is to be involved in setting up and maintaining water- harvesting plants in every colony that houses more than one lakh people. These will have to be maintained by residents’ welfare associations.
“If (current) slum dwellers are given a better place to live in with the basic civic amenities, they, too, could be brought into the water-harvesting loop. In such a scenario, almost 25 per cent of Delhi’s water shortage could be solved,” says Sharmishtha Deb of the Pune-based World Water Institute.
If the poorer sections aren’t brought into the mainstream, the water shortage would continue, she warns. “Either way, the rest of the country will learn.”
Tripathi believes that urban planners across the country will be keenly following the implementation of the MPD in the days, months and years to come. There will be plenty to learn, even from the plan’s failures, she says.
“If the plan fails, it will point out the potholes we still need to fill. If it succeeds, it could show urban India the expressway to development.”