Is it a matter of governance?

Published: Friday 15 May 2009

-- Agencies sanctioning construction projects in Delhi are at loggerheads

Government agencies like the Public Works Department and the Delhi Development Authority are expected to construct buildings and roads to develop the city. Normally such infrastructure projects are considered essential to public interest. Recently, however, media reports suggest differences between and among the authorities involved in sanctioning construction projects in Delhi. The paternalistic role of the government is no longer taken for granted and its intentions are being questioned by project sanctioning agencies.

The current system of sanctioning projects pits stakeholders--official and non-official--against each another. This can be seen as part of a process of checks and balances, essential to democratic decision-making. But it is not so. Differences between sanctioning bodies have turned sour. In many cases the judiciary has been called to mediate matters on which it has no technical expertise.

Even on matters such as the deteriorating quality of the environment, vanishing architectural heritage and the insensitivity of the bureaucracy in managing civic affairs, the public and civil society organizations find approaching the courts more effective. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, an ngo, for example, felt compelled to approach the courts to protect heritage buildings or, in one instance, stop the construction of the Police Memorial at Chanakyapuri.

Recent examples of confrontation between sanctioning authorities include the rift between the Delhi Urban Art Commission (duac)--a Union government body--and the Delhi government, on projects pertaining to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. These include the construction of a corridor linking east Delhi with New Delhi Railway Station, the road over the Barapulla Nalla and the bypass around Salimgarh Fort. Matters have come to such a pass that the Delhi government finds it necessary to side-step the stodgy duac and approach higher authorities.

Of equal concern is the emasculation of the Union government's heritage commission. After four years of existence, it is clear that the institution does not have the gumption to take tough decisions to protect Delhi's architectural heritage. It resorts to legal sophistry to justify its inability to persuade the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation to notify the list of heritage buildings in their respective areas.

I have often wondered about the reason for such myopia. Perhaps there is a clue in Gunnar Myrdal's magisterial opus, Asian Drama, An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. Myrdal wrote planning in the West followed development--it was the result of 'natural' processes of administrative evolution. In India, in contrast, planning precedes development. So decision-makers, directing development or sanctioning them, acquire an exaggerated sense of self-importance, each believing that it has the exclusive responsibility towards public good. Each agency feels constrained to protect its turf.

Rukmani Bhaya Nair's book, Lying on the Post Colonial Couch: The Idea of Indifference, offers another clue. She writes babus generally believe they are mere cogs in a wheel, and so are indifferent to the wheel's purpose. Rules are there just to be followed, not engaged with. Thus dda planners who implement Delhi's master plan do so because it is a legal document, and not because it serves people's needs. pwd engineers build super expressways and fly-overs because that is their job, without regard to the consequences their actions may have on the quality of life in the city. The heritage commission turns a blind eye to destruction of heritage buildings on the plea that its mandate is only to protect notified buildings.

Of course, no fiat can smoothen the process of sanctioning projects. But simple administrative reforms could help. For example, different agencies could discuss key issues before a project is formulated, to obviate roadblocks at the sanctioning stage. In fact, until now an architect of a large project could approach the duac directly for 'conceptual approval'--an informal process that helped the project proponent avoid having a project rejected or drastically altered at the final stages of sanctioning. However, this avenue for constructive dialogue is now shut. duac cites rules to justify its decision. The Delhi government can approach the commission only at the final stage of design development at which point it may well be turned down. Positions have hardened. Should this be allowed to continue?

A G Krishna Menon is an architect and urban planner

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