Health and property rights are burning issues in Delhi, but citizen engagement offers hope

    Tuesday, 29 October 2019 13:35 GMT

Irregular urban property form Madanpur Khadar in Delhi India. Photo Credit Ivan Turok

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Delhi, neighbourhoods can be turned from zones of poverty and exclusion into domains of social mobilisation

Earlier this month, myself and colleagues from the GCRF Centre for Sustainable, Healthy, Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC) attended an international partner meeting in New Delhi, India, where we uncovered a catalogue of public health concerns and inequalities facing city dwellers.

Below are my observations that despite the burning problems, some organisations are offering hope by championing active citizenship and seeking to improve the well-being of residents and hold decision-makers to account.

An unsettling resettlement colony

We started with a walking tour of Madanpur Khadar, an ‘resettlement colony’ of some 20,000 people in eastern New Delhi. It was established in the early 2000s following forced evictions from squatter settlements in the core city center. The Delhi Development Authority acquired agricultural land, subdivided it into tiny plots and leased them to evicted families for a modest sum. 

Over time, people have built their own homes incrementally and vertically using bricks and mortar funded through meagre savings and renting out rooms to lodgers. The tallest structures reach up to five or six storeys high, although some families still live crowded together in a single storey room. Building decent homes for all is clearly a work in progress.

One of the biggest problems is lack of investment in water and sanitation systems. An open drainage channel runs in front of most buildings, but it is unhygienic and overflows when it rains. Hand pumps give residents access to ground water, but this is unsafe to drink so people have to buy drinking water from street vendors. Public toilets are in short supply and poorly maintained, so open defecation in surrounding areas remains common.

As a result, diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid and TB are chronic. Poor air quality causes respiratory illnesses and childhood stunting is widespread because of malnutrition.

The settlement must be considered a step up from the makeshift places that many residents occupied before. The main positives are the street grid, the solid dwellings and tenure security for residents, although space standards are low, investment in the physical infrastructure is lacking and there is no public health centre.

A privileged redevelopment scheme

Our next excursion was a revelation in quite different ways. Kidwai Nagar is a desirable housing precinct covering an extensive area of 86 acres. It is designed to accommodate government officials in a safe and stress-free living environment. The stark contrast with Madanpur Khadar shows what is possible with sufficient commitment.

An area comprising 2,330 housing units in crumbling 2-3 storey blocks was demolished a few years ago and is being redeveloped into an upmarket walled complex by a government entity, the National Buildings Construction Corporation. Altogether 4,750 flats are being built in 75 towers of up to 15 storeys, along with 100,000 mof office space.

Although the overall population density is high, internal and external space standards are generous. The precinct also incorporates a health centre, several schools and a string of sophisticated environmental features. It has its own sewage treatment works, waste disposal system and energy supply, along with internal parks, lots of trees, wide paved streets, underground car parks and two adjacent metro stations.

The smallest flat is more than 3 times larger than the biggest home in Madanpur Khadar and the largest apartment is 20 times bigger. In line with established customs, the rents are heavily subsidised to benefit the fortunate civil servants.

It seems unfair that a government initiative funded by taxpayers is reinforcing social privilege. With these kinds of fringe benefits available, it is unsurprising that public sector jobs are so strongly sought after by Indian citizens.

Hope in grassroots activism?

Our last visit was to an independent organisation that promotes popular involvement in knowledge creation. Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) believes that India is an overly hierarchical society with an excessively centralised government. Democratic engagement can make public policy more responsive and decision-makers more accountable.

Work begins by collecting information and raising awareness of conditions on the ground. Engaging citizens in building a sound evidence base creates legitimate and compelling demands for service improvement. People learn about their rights and what they can reasonably expect the government to deliver.

Close involvement in monitoring local conditions also gives rise to constructive proposals for improvement. Informed citizens are taken more seriously and are more likely to elicit a positive response from the authorities. In short, neighbourhoods can be turned from zones of poverty and exclusion into domains of social mobilisation.

Given the extraordinary costs and complexity of organising centralised systems of waste disposal and sewage treatment in a city the size of Delhi, there are many opportunities to introduce devolved solutions at neighbourhood level.

Off-grid, decentralised systems are also likely to be more resilient, more environmentally sustainable and to create more local jobs than highly capital-intensive projects. 

Our Delhi visit sparked mixed emotions – surprise at the stark poverty and institutionalised inequality, but also optimism stemming from insights into ways of disrupting the inertia and stimulating social change.

Professor Ivan Turok is a co-investigator on the SHLC project, which is funded by GCRF. He is also executive director at the Human Sciences Research Council and chairman of the City Planning Commission for Durban.

The GCRF Centre for Sustainable, Healthy, Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC) is an international research consortium exploring urban, health and education challenges in fast-growing cities across Africa and Asia. 

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