Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Feb 24, 2020
Is Delhi destined to become a world class city?

After the massive victory of Aam Admi Party (AAP) in the Delhi assembly elections, Arvind Kejriwal was congratulated by the Prime Minister in a tweet wishing him success in fulfilling the aspirations of the people of Delhi. In response, the Chief Minister tweeted, "Thank u so much, sir. I look forward to working closely with Centre to make our capital city a truly world class city”.

While the Chief Minister has won a huge mandate and can rightly exult in his achievements in the social sectors of health and education that have played a significant role in his victory, his overall goal to convert Delhi into a world class city are words of great audacity. In the context of what Delhi is today, the city does not seem destined to fulfill the elements of class and sustainability. An ORF article some months ago quoted the Supreme Court in the course of hearing a matter concerning air pollution in Delhi. “Delhi is worse than hell”, the Court lamented. To set for oneself a target of converting hell into heaven, especially in Delhi’s current governance structure, is frighteningly daring.

The deficits of Delhi are many and severe. They are in the areas of air and water quality, waste management, affordable housing, crime, governance and man-made disasters such as fire and floods. Global surveys for several years have been reminding us that Delhi breathes the most polluted air in the world. A study of Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) declared Delhi’s water as the most contaminated among surveyed cities. And by the state government’s own admission before the Supreme Court, Delhi is unable to collect and dispose almost half of the daily solid waste.

Delhi made a remarkably successful addition to its public transport through a world class metro. Despite that, private transport vehicles are rising at 5.81 percent annually and clogging Delhi’s streets, with the country’s largest vehicular population, standing at 10.9 million (March 2018). The city has continued to suffer man-made disasters one after another, since the days of the Uphaar tragedy in 1997 to the Park hotel fire in February 2020, exposing the huge governance shortfall afflicting Delhi.

Delhi is also the country’s crime capital. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report (October 2019), with 1,306 IPC crimes per lakh population, Delhi topped the IPC crime rate among the nineteen largest urban agglomerations (UA). It also topped the crime rate for kidnappings, abductions, crimes against children and stood second in regard to crimes against women. Across all crime categories, Delhi clocked the highest average crime rate in India.

More and more of Delhi’s population is living in slums and unauthorised colonies with poor housing and substandard amenities. Delhi reported 12,794 slum households in 1951. However, in 2012, in a note submitted to the Supreme Court, the civic bodies of Delhi reported 49 percent of the population living in slums in 860 clusters and 420,000 ‘jhuggies’. In all probability, the coming national census will report a much larger informal population in Delhi. In keeping with the trends in megacities, Delhi’s informal population will most likely overtake the formal in the coming years.

Unlike Mumbai, where demographic expansion appears to have been tamed by the constraint of land, Delhi’s demographic explosion shows no signs of abating. Delhi, with about 400,000 people ranked the seventh largest Indian city in 1901. It is now around 18 million and the largest mega city in the country. A UN Report predicts that Delhi may be the world’s most populous city by 2028 with 37.2 million people. Some major consequences would follow if that were to happen, as is likely. Delhi’s total area of 1484 km2 that is currently divided into 700 km2 urban and 784 km2 rural will get converted into a huge and sprawling urban area. Its density of 1951 at 968 persons per km2 will go up to 25,067 persons per km2 and space availability per person will go down from 1,033 m2 to 39.89 m2, leading to a huge rise in built density and an acute shortage of open lung space. Massive infrastructure investment and tough regulation, if made, may shore up living for some years, but as the Supreme Court lamented, no government is willing to take measures that are anti-populist. In that event, the city seems destined to be drowned in the demographic and construction deluge.

Would Delhi be able to finance the urban infrastructure that would be needed to service a population of that order? Updating the High-Powered Expert Committee (HPEC)’s 2009-10 calculations for a group of eight major services (water supply, sewerage, solid waste management, roads, storm water drains, transport, traffic support services and street lighting) to current prices, the average per capita investment cost would be INR 95,544 every year for twenty years and a per capita annual maintenance cost of INR 7,254 for the eight cited sectors. For the sake of working out total costs, let us also assume that Delhi’s population now stands at around 20 million.

Based on these figures, Delhi requires capital investments of INR 1.91 lakh crores or INR 95,544 crores annually and an annual maintenance cost of INR 14,508 crores for the eight sectors. These figures do not take into account other significant services such as education, health, fire services, implementation of public amenities under Delhi’s master plan and salaries, administration and regulation costs. In February 2019, Delhi’s Finance Minister presented the 2019-20 budget showing expenditure of INR 60,000 crores. Even if the budgets of urban local bodies in the state are added to Delhi’s total kitty on the one hand and all the infrastructure and maintenance costs as well as costs of establishment on the other, Delhi would have about one-third of the money needed to run a well-oiled city.

One would have tempered one’s concerns about Delhi’s future if the city’s institutional framework was right. However, the current governance architecture inspires little hope, especially in the rising fractious climate of Delhi’s politics. The national capital has a large presence of the central government, with land, police and cantonment areas as their domain. Then there is the state with its numerous parastatals. The city also has several urban local bodies (ULBs). Each provides bits of governance. Since many of these entities have different political parties at the helm, all of them do not pull in the same direction. In the coming years, frenzied political rivalries, badmouthing each other and preventing the opponent from scoring a goal at all cost appears to disallow any concerted attempt to keep the city going.

What should one, therefore, expect to be the fate of the capital? Well, one would have to wait and watch. Polluted air would continue to be somewhere at the top of the problem agenda. So would water. As more people pile up in the city, more solid waste may rot. Public transport would be gasping to keep pace with demand and the crime scenario may get worse. Housing for the poor will run huge deficits and political fights will get more bitter. It is possible to assert about megacities the same assertion made about big banks (too big to fail). We may, therefore continue to live in the hope that Delhi can still become a world class city; that miracles do happen. That hope, one would surely agree, ought not to be abandoned. However, hope is generally a good breakfast, but many times a bad dinner.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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