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Delhi's illegal colonies await makeover after coronavirus

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 25 June 2020 00:00 GMT

A street in Vikas Nagar, a so-called unauthorised colony, which is set to be legalised under a federal law aiming to regularise 1,731 such settlements in Delhi, India. March 5, 2020. Rina Chandran/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Regularisation of 1,731 unauthorised colonies takes on urgency after pandemic, but there is no guarantee of better amenities

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By Rina Chandran

NEW DELHI, June 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Sanjiv Yadav moved to Delhi from the northern Indian town of Etawah, he rented a small room in an illegal settlement like millions of other migrant workers in the capital city.

Over the past decade, he set aside money to buy a one-room home in Vikas Nagar in West Delhi, a so-called unauthorised colony of a few hundred homes and shops, receiving a power of attorney for his property - not a title that he can legally sell or transfer with.

That is about to change, with the planned legalisation of more than 1,700 such illegal colonies in Delhi, which the federal government says will benefit about 4 million people.

"I own this house, but I can't get a bank loan. With the regularisation, I can get a title with which I can get a loan," Yadav told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We also don't have proper facilities: the roads are bad, the garbage is not collected. We hope that after regularisation, all this will improve," he said, standing outside his home.

More than two-thirds of Delhi's 18 million people live in informal settlements, according to government data. Unauthorised colonies are built in violation of zoning regulations, often on farmland that is illegally subdivided.

The settlements of densely packed low-rise buildings help fill a gap in affordable housing for the tens of thousands of migrants streaming into the city every day, urban experts say.

The issue of regularising them comes up every few years ahead of local elections, with all political parties promising to deliver on the longstanding demand.

In December, the federal government passed a law to legalise Delhi's unauthorised colonies.

It will "pave the way for incentivised planned urbanisation, and transform urban squalor into modern urban spaces with modern amenities," Housing Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said last year.

Sanjiv Yadav and his wife Rinki pose for a picture outside their home in Vikas Nagar, a so-called unauthorised colony, which is set to be legalised under a federal law aiming to regularise 1,731 such settlements in Delhi, India. March 5, 2020. Rina Chandran/Thomson Reuters Foundation


Worldwide, more than 3 billion people are forecast to lack access to adequate and affordable housing by 2030, according to UN-Habitat, the United Nations' settlements agency.

India's sprawling capital has settlement types of varying degrees of formality, legality and tenure.

Unauthorised colonies - where poor, middle-class and richer residents live - are slightly more secure than slums that are seen as encroachments and face the constant threat of eviction.

While most colonies are characterised by poor infrastructure and amenities, the housing ministry dropped 69 enclaves from its initial list of those that are to be regularised because they are "wealthy".

Residents demand regularisation because they hope it will drive up property values, and they can access bank loans to improve their homes, said Mukta Naik, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank.

"But owing to the many steps and institutions involved, regularisation has been governed by a series of confusing, sometimes contradictory administrative orders," she said.

Regularisation must result in "physical and social infrastructure, as well as minimum necessary services and community facilities," according to the Delhi Master Plan.

But it is not a necessary condition for providing infrastructure, said Naik.

In addition, colonies that have been legalised are categorised as "regularised unauthorised", and it is not clear how quickly or uniformly their property values rise, she said.

With new rules issued last October, residents in unauthorised colonies can register online for a title.

Satellite imagery is used to map colony borders, and the geographic information system (GIS) verifies property boundaries, after which a title is issued. The entire process would be completed in six months, Puri had said.

But with a strict lockdown to contain the coronavirus, the process has been delayed, and there is no way to settle any boundary disputes, said Sanjeev Kumar, a member of the residents' association of Gopal Nagar, an unauthorised colony.

"The process is meant to be easier, but it is still complicated, and they are not taking on board our objections to the maps," he said.

"The law is well intentioned, but implementation is poor, and it is not clear when we will get our titles," he said.

A street in Vikas Nagar, a so-called unauthorised colony, which is set to be legalised under a federal law aiming to regularise 1,731 such settlements in Delhi, India. March 5, 2020. Rina Chandran/Thomson Reuters Foundation


More than 250,000 residents have registered online, and about 600 had been given deeds before the lockdown brought a halt to operations, said R.S. Meena, a deputy director at the Delhi Development Authority.

"The system is new, so people are still getting used to it. But the process should pick up speed, and titles will be issued to everyone who meets the criteria," he said, adding that any disputes are also addressed.

Almost 70% of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2050, according to U.N. estimates, with affordable housing becoming a critical issue.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised Housing for All by 2022, but the home ownership programme is not aimed at the urban poor and homeless who do not qualify for the subsidised loans, according to housing advocates.

Meanwhile, cities have been slow to meet the needs of people living in informal settlements, a task made more urgent by the spread of the coronavirus in the underserved areas.

As part of a stimulus plan, India has vowed to create adequate migrant rental housing in the cities.

But that will not stop the creation of more informal settlements and unauthorised colonies, said Paras Tyagi, co-founder of the Centre for Youth Culture Law and Environment (CYCLE), a public policy non-profit in Delhi.

"What's needed in these settlements is proper roads, water supply and sewage lines and clinics. Not just titles," he said.

"The government should incentivise land pooling in unauthorised colonies to create infrastructure and affordable housing," said Tyagi, who is lobbying for upgrading Delhi's urban villages, whose residents also lack titles.

For Yadav, who works as a driver to support his wife and two children in Vikas Nagar, regularisation offers hope.

"We hope the infrastructure will improve, and that the property value will increase, so that my children will have a better future," he said.

Related stories:

With titles, a million slum dwellers in India's Odisha become home owners

Tackling coronavirus hotspots in city slums hindered by lack of data

In slums and windowless apartments, Asia's poor bear brunt of coronavirus

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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