Master plan for Delhi dreams big but may bypass poor

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 2 July 2021 05:07 GMT

People carrying their luggage walk towards a bus station to return to their cities and villages during lockdown by the authorities to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

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Delhi's master plan is said to ignore concerns over fair land use, lacks affordable housing and short-changes marginalised groups to benefit business

* Draft plan for 2021-41 is open for feedback for 45 days

* Plan prepares for population of about 29 million

* Citizens' groups fear plan ignores informal workers, poor

By Rina Chandran

July 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Planners in the Indian capital of Delhi have set out a vision for a "sustainable, liveable and vibrant" future city in a master plan that experts say ignores its informal workers and bypasses its many poor.

The draft Delhi Master Plan 2041, open for public feedback until July 24, aims to cater for a population of about 29 million - up from 19 million now - with better public transport and mobility, wider housing options and more green space.

But the draft ignores deeply-held concerns over fair land use, lacks affordable housing and short-changes marginalised groups to benefit business, said Manju Menon, an urban expert.

"There is a massive push for redevelopment, for greater commercialisation in residential areas, erasing agriculture from the city and denying housing spaces for the poor," said Menon, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank.

"Unfortunately, this almost full-cooked draft has too much that is still not acceptable or missing, and it's not clear if there will be room for much change," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Master plans are routinely used around the world to shape tomorrow's cities, be it to add amenities, apportion land, protect the environment or improve citizens' quality of life.

Delhi's Master Plan 2041, its fourth since the first effort covering 1961-81, introduces policies for a "strategic and enabling framework that can nurture the future growth of the city," said Delhi Development Authority, the planning agency.

The plan "endeavours to address issues in a holistic manner, build on Delhi's inherent strengths and harness opportunities to realise the real potential of the city," it said.


Delhi was established as the capital of the Indian empire in 1911, when colonial British rulers moved the capital from the eastern city of Calcutta, now called Kolkata.

Architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker planned the heart of the city, and its grand avenues, iconic buildings and many monuments draw hordes of tourists. The city is also a magnet for migrants from nearby states seeking changed fortunes.

On the flip side, Delhi consistently ranks among cities with the worst air pollution in the world, while a plan to redo its central administrative area drew criticism over fears it will destroy heritage and swallow precious open spaces.

These were among the concerns of Main Bhi Dilli - or I am also Delhi - a collective of womens' groups, housing groups and urban experts who have tried to make the planning process for this latest vision more inclusive and participatory.

Their main focus is how the plans might help or hinder the more than 6 million informal workers who typically toil as street vendors, construction labourers and trash pickers, and without whom the capital would cease to function.

"We wanted to see how the urban space can better serve informal workers, who make up 80% of Delhi's workforce but have not been a part of the conversation before," said Malavika Narayan, a research consultant at WIEGO, an informal women workers' group that is part of Main Bhi Dilli.

The coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted the "urgent need for secure, viable, decent housing, and access to sanitation, water and healthcare - not just for informal settlers, but for everyone in the city," she added.

Tens of thousands of migrant workers fled the city last year during lockdowns to control the pandemic.

The Main Bhi Dilli campaign consulted on the plan with young Indians, slum dwellers, vendors and home workers, and held virtual discussions during the coronavirus lockdowns.

The 45 days for public feedback on the draft plan is not enough, particularly as residents are still struggling with fallout from coronavirus, be it illness, unemployment or homelessness, the Main Bhi Dilli campaign said in a statement.

"Further, the draft plan, as well as the mechanism for submitting responses being exclusively online makes it inaccessible to a large number of people," it said.

The DDA and the National Institute of Urban Affairs, which helped draft the plan, did not respond to requests for comment.


The pandemic has pushed planners from Amsterdam to Singapore back to the drawing board to reimagine how mobility, housing and sustainability may look in their post-COVID cities.

Delhi's Master Plan provides for mixed-use developments, more public spaces and lower densities in residential areas.

But a proposal for acquiring vacant land can have "adverse impacts" on peripheral areas and reduce farm land, said Rumi Aijaz, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

Farmers who have tilled the floodplains of the Yamuna river in Delhi for decades - and faced eviction threats as the city expanded - risk new threats, said Swati Janu, founder of the Social Design Collaborative, a non-profit.

The Yamuna, while recognised as a prized asset of the city, is heavily polluted, and the draft calls for its rejuvenation with walking and cycling paths and protected zones.

But this risks leaving out poor farmers and fishers who both earn their keep from the river and help sustain it, said Janu.

"Worldover, urban farming is being celebrated and encouraged, yet we are trying to remove these farmers in the name of development to create jogging tracks. Can't we have both?"

"Master plans for cities are increasingly moving towards inclusivity and participatory planning. This is possible only if we are willing to recognise the roles of, and protect the rights of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups," she added.

The plan would improve facilities for vendors and other informal workers, with proposals also to update conditions in their slums and unauthorised colonies, noted Aijaz.

"To some extent, the concerns of stakeholders have been addressed," he said.

But there is concern about how much of the dream will even come to life, he added, citing a lack of funding proposals.

"There is a high possibility that many proposals and projects might remain on paper, as has happened in the past."


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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. 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

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