Last Sunday, my social media feed was filled with videos of the spectacular controlled demolition of the twin towers in Noida. The Supreme Court had ordered for the towers to be demolished in August 2021 after a long legal battle between the residents of Supertech Emerald Court Society and the developer was judged in favour of the residents. While the residents (rightfully) won the legal battle, the demolition of the towers is a point of reflection for us. Noida has seen a steep rise in real estate legal battles, and an increased stress on government infrastructure that is trying to mitigate the crisis. Let us call it “The Noida Problem”.
According to a report in January, 1.65 lakh flats worth a total of Rs 1.18 lakh crore are currently delayed in Noida-Greater Noida. Around 70 projects under the UP-Rera have gone to the National Company Law Tribunal (NCT) for insolvency and completion of projects by developers like Amrapali and Unitech is being overseen by the Supreme Court. How did we get here?
Let us look at the history of Noida. An acronym for New Okhla Industrial Development Authority, Noida was envisaged in the early 1970s when, in 1972, the Uttar Pradesh government marked the rural area comprising of 50 villages (then under the district of Bulandshahr) as “Yamuna-Hindon-Delhi Border Regulated Area”. The objective was to regulate land dealings in the area close to the national capital. In April 1976, 36 out of these 50 villages were notified as Noida.
The main objective of Noida, included in its name, was to attract and relocate industries from Delhi. The idea of the satellite town was to decentralise economic activity from Delhi to Noida and reduce migration in the megacity. The second (and by no means secondary) objective was to provide affordable suburban housing for the people of Delhi. It was imagined that the population engaged in the service sector in Delhi will live in Noida and work in the capital. Within the NCR Plan, Noida’s population was projected to be 5,50,000 by 2001 and 1.1 million by 2011. The population that the town achieved, however, was only 3,05,058 in 2001 and 6,42,381 in 2011 — around half of the projected figure. This is where the Noida Problem begins.
Watch | A resident in the neighbouring society shares their point of view, in a slow-motion video of the #SupertechTwinTowers demolition
Scholars like Bimal Patel have argued that planners in India have worked on the strong assumption that growth of cities can be perfectly predicted based on population projections. This follows the confidence that cities can be planned to the last detail of how a particular plot of land will be used. Hence, we plan cities as multi-coloured land-use drawings that are legally binding on the people.
In a podcast conversation with BR Balachandran published by the CEPT Research and Development Foundation titled “Planning the City for an Unpredictable Future”, Patel explained that Indian planners seem to want to “design” cities with the same deterministic approach as someone would design a bridge, but growth is not so deterministic.
Another scholar and urban planner, Alain Bertaud, in an interview with the American Enterprise Institute, explained that planners don’t (and cannot) know enough to decide a geographical distribution of densities or economic classes of people in a city. He says, “… in their ambition to design the city, they create a straitjacket the city cannot grow into”. We see this phenomenon play out most explicitly in Noida-Greater Noida.
Planners imagined in the 1970s that Noida would attract industries and people from Delhi and instead of giving Delhi more floor space (FSI) and better infrastructure to provide additional housing and support the existing market respectively, they decided to expand horizontally and “design” Noida — the satellite town. Large parts of Noida were marked as housing lands with high FSI. But Noida lacked the infrastructure that could have supported commercial activities and authoritarian land-use plans prevented the organic development of any new nodes of market.
After the region failed to attract the service sector, the opening of Delhi Noida Direct (DND) Flyway in 2001, the construction of Yamuna Expressway in 2012 and the constant eastward development of the metro line sustained the promise of Noida as a suburban housing town. This created a mirage of a rising real-estate demand in the region.
Builders invested in more and more housing units. Projects got delayed as funds that were collected as advance payments on flats were siphoned off to build more projects. But there were simply not enough buyers. With the actual population of Noida reaching only half of what was predicted by planners, a large section of these housing towers went uninhabited while developers continued building more housing units.
In built projects, rents crashed and existing facilities and shared spaces rapidly deteriorated. For under-construction projects, this meant endless delays and legal disputes. The planners of Noida essentially created a legally binding document that was too arrogant to let the city emerge around its own market. This only resulted in one thing — further choking of an already stressed judicial system.
Today, most sectors of Noida are just walled housing societies. The region lacks essential elements of urbanity like trade and commerce, institutions, and a meaningful public realm. Rows of dilapidated unoccupied housing towers and hoardings announcing desperate messages like “Mission Completion” on construction sites dot the landscape and the number of legal battles continue to rise.
In the children’s book “The Little Prince”, there is a humbling lesson to learn for Indian urban planners. On the first planet that he visits, the prince meets a king who teaches him that authority has value only if it is based in reason. If the command of the king is impossible to obey, it is not the subject who is at fault, it is the king’s fault that he gave an unreasonable command.
Given the unpredictable nature of urban development, plans can be made implementable only when they are flexible enough to let a city grow around emerging markets. The solution to the Noida Problem is not more government control, but less.
The writer is an independent scholar and researcher of Architecture and City Studies