Updated: July 25, 2021 6:22:17 pm
Written by Aravind Unni and Shalaka Chauhan
Delhi’s future involves the hopes and aspirations of millions across social and economic identities. As the draft Delhi Master Plan 2041 is a blueprint of the city which the next generation will inhabit, the document will determine if Delhi evolves as a “world-class” capital city of an emerging India or continues as a city known for its high levels of air pollution, congested traffic, crumbling infrastructure, and lack of safety.
Twenty years from now, will Delhi still be a city of contradictions, of a growing distance between Lutyens’ Delhi and all that lies “Jamna paar”?
In the process of planning the city’s future, citizens are, as they must be, an integral part. However, in the case of the Delhi Master Plan, citizen participation – at the moment, even with the extended duration for accepting suggestions/objections — seems reduced to a mere formality.
The draft Master Plan report, along with the land use plan, has been in the public domain since June 9 for suggestions/objections as per the provisions of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) Act. It was first announced as a 45-day window for people to submit their suggestions and objections, causing major concern among residents, communities and civil society over how to respond meaningfully to a voluminous 450-page document in such a short time. Only after repeated requests did DDA put the baseline studies of the Master Plan on its website — eight days before the announced July 23 deadline. When people objected to the limited time frame, the DDA officials responded that “the objections/suggestions are invited and processed by DDA as per the provisions of Delhi Development Act, 1957”. As the Delhi Development Act follows the Delhi Development (Master Plan and Zonal Development Plan) rules of 1959, it should be noted that it provides 90 days, instead of 45 days. On July 23, the last day of the deadline, the DDA extended the timeline by another 30 days.
The DDA has often mentioned that it has gone beyond laws and provisions when it came to hosting public consultations in 2020 – it has a dedicated “help desk”, and it has conducted webinars post the draft. The plan is also available for wider scrutiny on DDA’s website. However, there was a considerable shortfall in the scope for citizen contribution to the plan.
Until recently, the city was under strict curbs following the Covid-19 second wave, where no community congregation was allowed. Most are still recovering from socio-economic shocks of the pandemic, especially the lower middle class and the urban poor. Second, the draft plan and the land-use plans are complex documents. With planners and “experts” taking more than four years to come up with the document, imagining that an ordinary person can comprehend and comment on the plan without any awareness is not only unrealistic but seems unscrupulous. The lack of initiatives in spreading awareness hints at the DDA’s intent of not wanting to engage the public and rush towards the plan’s implementation.
There are also issues with the format that the DDA has been following in the name of citizen engagement. The online access to the DDA suggestion/objection page and the four webinars, with not more than 200 participants, are highly restrictive, with an online mode that is bound to leave many out.
Around the world, the practice of keeping the public participation and engagement “limited” to the suggestion/objection period, followed by the one-sided, unimaginative online mechanisms riddled with inbuilt exclusions, are a thing of the past. For example, in 2019, the Singapore Draft Master Plan was finalised after consultations with multiple groups of stakeholders from local communities, industry professionals, grassroots organisations, and academic institutions. The authorities focused on many forms of engagement, ranging from public exhibitions, focus group sessions, community workshops, and stakeholder meetings. With volunteer support, more than 400 guided tours were held for community stakeholders, partner agencies, professionals from the private sector, interest groups, and members of the public, resulting in over 25,000 walk-in visitors; and over 1,10,000 unique visitors to online webpages. For its 2030 Development Plan, Hong Kong ensured a focused public dialogue by initiating a process through invitations in exhibition and project websites and consultation through instruments of formal written consultation, panels meetings and focus group meetings. From Latin America, São Paulo has made significant efforts to encourage large-scale public participation in developing a new master plan for the city, with over 25,000 people attending 114 public hearings. Between these hearings and the city’s online crowdsourcing platform, São Paulo’s citizens have contributed over 10,000 ideas to improve the city around them.
Global examples show the importance placed on citizen consultations for an inclusive planning process wherein multiple means and methods of participation are encouraged. Within Indian cities, there are other better examples to look at. The state of Kerala has granted a 180-day window for its state development plans. In the past, in response to demands by citizen groups, Mumbai (Maharashtra) has extended the time from 60 to 120 days for people to file their suggestions/ objections on its Development Plan 2014-34 as a measure to ensure more public participation. As a result, more than 84,000 suggestions/objections came from the city residents in 2015.
The real challenge then is not about having a once-in 20-years public engagement with residents but about making participation a more engaging, inviting, and continuous process. For example, in Paris, the mayor launched “Madame La Maire, j’ai une idée” (“Madame Mayor, I have an idea”) — a collaborative platform that allows residents to propose suggestions for policy changes and provide input for ongoing city development. The residents could contribute their ideas and vote on the proposals they want to be prioritised. Paris’s model follows the mould of Porto Alegre, the birthplace of participatory budgeting — only making it more fun and exciting using digital innovation and technology to reach out to more people. Aside from their innovation, these people’s participation models highlight that, in the sharing of ideas, there have to be provisions in Delhi’s Master Plan about how the projects and people’s priorities will be selected and how people will assist in that selection.
Unless such arrangements are dovetailed into the draft plan, the likelihood of bureaucratic decision making and “select committee” approvals will continue in the coming years. This runs contrary to the principles of transparency and accountability that a world-class Delhi must not ignore. The draft plan is silent on such engagements needed now and in the future. It remains unclear how, where to engage and work with people. There is also no mention of how zonal and local area plans will be drafted and if Delhiites will be at the centre of their drafting.
According to a survey conducted in February 2021, more than 80 per cent of the Delhi residents were unaware of the master plan, leave alone contributing to it. There is a need for DDA to reach out and extend the maximum possible support for people’s awareness building and sowing seeds of long-term participation. It also urgently requires a special cell for public engagement and communication with dedicated, trained officers well-versed in working with people. Delhi needs to lead the way and show how planning with people leads to better outcomes. The MPD 2041 indeed sets higher targets and envisions making Delhi a world-class capital.
The vision of the draft master plan — to “foster a sustainable, liveable and vibrant Delhi” — is a collective one for all the residents of Delhi for the coming 20 years. It is a dream that should be owned, co-developed, and led by people themselves to make their city what they want it to be.
Aravind Unni and Shalaka Chauhan are members of the Main Bhi Dilli campaign, a people’s collective aiming to make urban planning in Delhi more social, inclusive and participatory.
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