Why this 'Transit-Oriented Debacle'?

Amendments proposed by DDA threaten to go back to exclusionary planning, congestion-inducing street management and urban-scape without enough open green spaces


                    Proposed amendments in FAR policy will only cater to the needs of the realty market (Photo by Arjuncm3, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Proposed amendments in FAR policy will only cater to the needs of the realty market (Photo by Arjuncm3, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The way policies are undercut to compromise the overall effectiveness of regulations is not funny. With so much smart money flowing in to make Delhi smart, the basic blueprint of what makes a city smart is going awry. The evidence of this is the recent proposal of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to dilute the fundamental provisions of the transit-oriented development policy that was originally integrated with the Delhi Master Plan 2021. Though the concerned citizenry of Delhi showed up at the public hearing on the proposed amendments to stop the damaging proposal, it is now a wait and watch, to know if the decision will be for public good or if it will uphold the interest of the real estate industry.   

It is very perplexing why DDA, even after putting Delhi at the forefront among all other Indian cities by adopting the first ever transit-oriented development policy, is now sliding back to repeat the mistakes. It is going back to exclusionary planning, congestion-inducing street management and urban-scape without enough open green spaces, which will not only create more heat islands but also more non-permeable surfaces that cannot hold water for this water-scarce city. 

The Delhi Master Plan 2021 had taken on board the transit-oriented development policy based on a simple principle: rebuild and redesign spaces around the mass transit nodes to allow the urban majority, including poor and middle income households, to have homes close to the nodes. This aims to bring homes, jobs, shops and recreation within walking and cycling distance. Even with higher density the city can have more open spaces for a more healthy living—exactly what is needed to cut motorised distances and trips to control pollution and energy guzzling. But many of these principles are at risk of getting diluted. The promise and hope of having a walking-, cycling-, public transport-friendly city with more homes for low and middle income households at the core can fall through the crack. 

If, God forbid, the proposed amendments come through, only the real estate industry will benefit and not the people of Delhi. 

Proposed modification can seriously limit supply of homes for poor and middle income households: It has been proposed to relax the original area requirement of affordable housing unit from “32‐40 sq m” and “≤ 65 sq m” to “not more than 93 sq m (1,000 sqft)” with an additional qualifier—“homes of any/larger size, as per the demand”. Thus, even larger units can qualify. This proposal to make area unit of affordable housing units bigger is grossly inconsistent with even what the Union government’s new Union Budget of 2016-17 has allowed. The new budget has given fiscal incentives and tax exemptions to developers to promote housing of economically weaker sections and low income groups for flats of size up to 30 sq m in the four metros, including Delhi, and 60 sq m in other cities. 

It is well known that the real estate industry is pressurising to get the area definition of affordable housing units relaxed. CREDAI, the real estate body, has already requested the Union finance minister to extend the incentive scheme to include flats up to 60 sq m in the four metros and 90 sq m in others. But DDA’s proposed amendment is pushing the boundary further to high-end and more expensive studio units that lower income households cannot afford. This will reduce supply of housing for the bottom rung. Nationally, the shortfall in this class of housing is the highest at 96 per cent. 

If the proposed amendments are allowed to come through, a large section of middle income households will find no space in the transit-oriented urban spaces. This proposed amendment can defeat the whole purpose of TOD. This is unacceptable when TOD literature of DDA-UTTIPEC states that only 18 per cent of households in Delhi earn above Rs 60,000 a month. About 22 per cent are in the middle income bracket of Rs 30,000–Rs 60,000 per month. Housing for them is extremely limited. Worse off are the poorer households. As much as 55 per cent of households are in the income range of Rs 5000 to Rs 60,000 per month. Poor households are highly stratified. The original TOD policy provides for compact high density residential development with diverse housing stock for all income classes. 

Worse, the new proposal allows government TOD schemes to be exempted from providing minimum 30 per cent housing. How can the government be exempted from meeting the fundamental requirement of TOD which is part of the mixed-use and full occupancy requirement of TOD areas? No agency should be exempted from this requirement within TOD schemes. 

Developers are allowed to build up to 400 floor area ratio but can utilise only half of it, leaving more scope for speculation: What else can it be but legalised speculation? The original TOD policy required developers to build up to 400 floor area ratio (FAR). But the proposed amendment gives them the leeway to build up to 200 FAR or half of the allowable limit in integrated schemes. They have the choice to build later. Such provisions will only fan and pander to speculative needs of the realty market. It might add to problem of vacant homes in the city. This cannot be allowed as the crucial need today is to augment housing for all and ensure people have access to existing and new housing stock. 

Risk of perpetuating low density areas in TOD zones: Already the original TOD policy includes a list of areas that are exempted from the high density requirements of TOD regulations. These include Lutyen’s Bunglow Zone (LBZ), Chanakyapuri, Civil Lines Bunglow Area, Monuments regulated zone (as per ASI guidelines) and Zone-O. But now the proposed amendment has kept the provision of including more areas in the future if the DDA desires so. The purpose of TOD should be to build density and to redistribute density. Low density areas should not be encouraged or retained beyond the current list of heritage and eco sensitive areas. 

Risk of limiting public access to common areas: Yet another uneasy proposal of DDA is to replace the term “public” with “common” in the policy. At the same time it proposes transfer of authority of the concerned area from public agency to a private party. This is a deadly combination. This means that the management of 20 per cent of the area that are to be taken up for area development as integrated scheme and originally meant to be ungated construction and circulation roads, can be transferred from local urban body to private development entity. This has a serious risk of limiting public access to common areas. The sanctity of managing and maintaining connecting new streets should only be done by a public agency. Or this will encourage gated approach and private control and compromise the larger public good of having well connected streets and walkable neighbourhoods for all. New street networks would also be required to lay new utilities for high rise developments. The new “public” street networks will provide safe shortcuts to pedestrians and cyclists using public transport any time of the day or night.  Public streets are public and must be owned by the municipality. This is central to TOD. New “public” roads must be handed over to the local body and strictly kept public. 

Proposed modification can limit green cover: TOD policy allows a city to have high density development without compromising on the openness needed for overall well being. The original TOD policy in the MPD-2021 had mentioned that every amalgamated plot should have 20 per cent of area as green public open spaces. But now DDA wants to confine this requirement only to amalgamated plot with area of 4 hectares and above. This will take all smaller development out of the picture. This will reduce per capita public open space in Delhi if smaller TOD developments (less than 4 ha) are exempted from the provision. This is unacceptable in a city of lifestyle diseases, especially childhood diabetes and obesity. This will compromise overall welfare and quality of life in the city. All TOD schemes and not just those of over 4 hectares, should be mandated to provide for “public” open spaces. Also at least 20 per cent of open space in any project should be kept permeable to reduce local flooding, increase ground water recharge, and maintain long-term water balance in TOD areas. 

More scope for ad hoc unplanned growth: The TOD concept hinges on the basic principle that all needs can be planned and accommodated well to improve liveability for all. But in the new proposal the requirement of Influence Zone Plans (larger scale layout plans) has now almost been removed from the MPD. The proposed modification now says that the concerned local body will prepare, wherever required, and approve layout plans for TOD Zones. In the absence of Influence Zone Plans, individual developments taking place within TOD zone will be uncoordinated, leading to ad hoc and haphazard development in the city. 

Moreover, as high density developments happens in steps, the city will fall short on zonal plan-level planning for neighbourhood parks, amenities, social infrastructure for which no land will be earmarked and therefore will not be available in these areas. Consolidation of public open spaces to be created and handed over by developers can happen only if an overall influence zone plan or layout plan exists. 

Therefore, DDA and the local body need to plan ahead to identify areas where 20 per cent public open spaces and other amenities are to be made, including neighbourhood and community parks, new hospitals and waste-water infrastructure. In the absence of layout plans and influence zone plans, haphazard developments will take place. 

Prevent missteps and mistakes

This attempt to weaken the fundamental principles of a TOD policy is at war with other policy directions of the government at the Centre and in the state. In fact, the recent release of the recommendations of the High Powered Committee of the Ministry of Urban Development on “Decongestion of Traffic in Delhi” has categorically emphasised on paradigm shift in transport planning and has asked for “enabling quick start of TOD projects for reducing mobility needs and enabling access to public transport..”. This is needed not only for a clean and liveable city but also to contribute to government’s commitment in Nationally Determined Contributions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduce energy intensity of India’s growth by 35 per cent by 2030. 

Clearly, Delhi cannot once again repeat and legalise structural mistakes that cannot be undone in the coming decades and will make us pay a heavy price with our health and loss of well-being.

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