Monday, Nov 28, 2022

Delhi Master Plan: Planning a city by excluding the people

Fahad Zuberi writes: The Delhi Master Plan, 2041 – traditionally illiberal enough – has been made more authoritarian, superciliously detached, and imposed on the people of Delhi by the GNCTD Act

Simply put, the people of Delhi cannot have a say in the matters of development, let alone design, of their surroundings. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) recently released the Draft Delhi Master Plan, 2041 and has invited comments and objections from the general public. When read on its own, the Master Plan draft is, at most levels, a repetition of the objectives as stated in the 2021 Master Plan. However, it is important to recognise the significance of this Master Plan as being the first one since the passing of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Act, 2021; and dissect the impact that the Act shall have on the city’s urban development.

With regards to the vision of urban planning, the system of governance in Delhi has unambiguously been under the Union government. The DDA was established through the Delhi Development Act, 1957 and has been a body of the Union government and comes under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. The Lieutenant Governor of Delhi (LG) is also the chairman of the DDA and exercises executive powers including the right to regulatory overwrite in the Authority.

The DDA also has representatives of the people of Delhi from the municipal corporations and the legislative assembly. These representatives, however, serve nothing more than advisory roles in the Authority’s functioning. Noteworthy is also the fact that the Sixty-Ninth Amendment to the Constitution, 1991 that gave Delhi its legislative assembly, excluded the subject of Land (along with Police and Law and Order) from the State List of the Delhi government.

The Delhi government – elected by the people – however, has the Delhi Jal Board, the Urban Development Department and the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board under its powers that it uses to govern the day to day issues of the mega-city. The government deals with Housing, Environment, Urban Development and Road Transport using these agencies. The three elected municipal corporations – North, South and East – form the agencies at the level of local governance besides the NDMC – appointed by the Centre – that operates in its designated region.

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It is important to understand this structure of governance in Delhi vis-a-vis the subject of urban development. The vision for the planning of the metropolis is formulated completely under the Union government while the urban development issues of the city at the local levels are attended to by elected representatives. It is, therefore, imperative that the harmony or lack thereof between these two power structures has determined the fate of the city over decades.

A comparatively cooperative relationship between the central government – first under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then under the UPA government of Manmohan Singh – and the state government under Sheila Dixit yielded several benefits for the people of Delhi such as the development of a robust network of public transport through the Delhi Metro and the upgrades to the Delhi Transport Corporation, and construction of many new roads and flyovers. Both – the Delhi Metro and the DTC Bus systems have gained much global appreciation with DTC becoming the largest CNG powered bus system in the world.

More recently, however, the friction between the Delhi government under Arvind Kejriwal and the BJP-led Centre has had a negative impact on the city. The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (Amendment) Act, 2015, for example, was one of the 14 Bills that were passed by the Legislative Assembly but returned without assent by the Centre in June 2016. The Bill sought to extend the deadline for slums eligible for rehabilitation from March 31, 2002, to January 1, 2006, so as to cover the clusters that have come up since 2002 and to implement their rehabilitation to meet the vision of the Delhi Master Plan, 2021. For a city where 49 per cent of the population lives in slums or unauthorised colonies, this was a major setback and for the Delhi Master Plan, 2021 that envisioned to solve the housing crisis of the city. It meant a significant shortcoming in meeting its goals.


It is at this critical juncture, that the GNCTD Act, 2021 becomes indispensable to the reading and the analysis of the Delhi Master Plan, 2041. Firstly, The Act “clarifies” that for any law passed by the state legislative assembly, the term “government” shall mean the LG. In the context of urban development, this means that the bodies of the state government and local governance that have thus far addressed the issues of urban development of Delhi lose significant powers to do so. These agencies, which already had limited powers in the city and no say in the formulation of the Master Plan, become more impotent as the term “government” itself is redefined.

Secondly, the Act also empowers the LG with executive action over the day-to-day matters of the National Capital Territory and prohibits the state assembly from making any rules to consider these matters or to inquire into them. This implies that the policies formulated or actions taken by the state-level or local-level bodies with regards to the city stand no chance of consideration. Simply put, the people of Delhi cannot have a say in the matters of development, let alone design, of their surroundings.

It is true that the citizens and the stakeholders of Delhi have traditionally had a negligible role to play in urban planning but at local levels such as in matters of road construction, water supply, and sanitation and power, elected representatives to the municipal corporations and MLAs have been important stakeholders. The GNCTD Act amputates this very important arm of urban development at the micro-level.


Thirdly, the Act makes it mandatory for the LG to reserve bills for the President that “incidentally” cover matters that are outside the purview of the state government. The most important of these matters is the subject of land. Almost all policies of urban development, needless to say, are policies about land and therefore, the subject of land is “incidental” to most, if not all urban development policies. By reserving such matters for the President, the Act not only grants unchallenged power to the Centre over the city’s urban issues, but it also means that there will be major delays in execution of the visions of the Master Plan owing to the likely scenarios of conflict between the two governments.

The fact that our Master Plans lack nuance is nothing new. Urban planning in India has historically remained aloof to local contexts and needs. It has followed a top-down approach rooted in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947 of the United Kingdom. This approach takes land-use zoning (residential, institutional, commercial etc.) as the fundamental criteria to planning cities and everything else – transport, commercial growth, heritage conservation etc. – follows this land use pattern. The same has been the basis of Delhi’s Master Plans over the years and continues to be so in the 2041 Master Plan also.

Having failed at the land-use method, several countries including the UK, have abandoned land use as the approach for urban planning. Scholars such as Darshini Mahadevia have observed that the top-down approach has left economically weaker sections and local stakeholders out of the planning process. Moreover, when economic growth, local context and commercial activity relocate the nodes of development and patterns of movement to areas that are deviant from the Master Plan, the state assumes a strong authoritarian policy of implementing the badly conceived and inherently unpredictable land-use patterns through land acquisition and force.

Other prominent scholars such as Isher Judge Ahluwalia and Alain Bertaud have argued for more flexible ways of planning that acknowledge the forces of the market and local governance, for example, and let financial planning and local context decide the scale and location of various zones with the state playing the role of a facilitator of infrastructure rather than that of a dictator of land-use.

Ahluwalia, in her paper ‘Planning for Urban Development in India’, wrote: “An important challenge for urban planning is of capacity both at the local government level to envision and prepare a city development plan, a master plan and a financial plan, and at the level of the state government to provide legislative and administrative support and an enabling environment for facilitating the process of planning at local and regional level.”


Some of the most crucial problems facing the city of Delhi today are the issues of urban villages, lack of financial planning, absence of infrastructure for unauthorized colonies, and housing crisis. As we have seen above, these issues require a localised and contextual formulation and implementation of plans and not a top-down approach that has already failed and has been criticised by urban planners and economists for many years now.

The Master Plan, 2041 for Delhi – that already follows the traditionally centralised and authoritarian approach – has been made more authoritarian, more detached from the neighbourhoods and districts in which it has to operate, and more imposing on the people of Delhi without the opportunity to question its proposals, let alone partake in its development by the GNCTD Act, 2021. As the GNCTD Act completely centralises the governance in Delhi, the Delhi Master Plan, 2041 becomes the most authoritarian master plan ever proposed for the city since independence. While the government should have taken a more flexible and bottom-up approach, with the Master Plan operating under the GNCTD Act, they effectively ignore and suppress local bodies and key stakeholders of Delhi. As the Act consolidates all power of formulation and implementation with the Centre, the Delhi Master Plan, 2041 is a huge step backwards in the discourse of urban planning.


This column first appeared in the print edition on July 15, 2021 under the title ‘A plan without people’. Zuberi is an academic and writes about politics, culture, architecture and city studies

First published on: 15-07-2021 at 04:00:26 am
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