Traders protesting against sealing drive in Delhi. Photo: PTI
Traders protesting against sealing drive in Delhi. Photo: PTI

Delhi’s proposed changes to its master plan may offer lessons for other cities

The most far-reaching change proposed by DDA is an increase in allowed Floor Area Ratio in commercial and mixed-use areas, which would bring retail zones on par with residential areas

Following stiff opposition from trader associations to the sealing of shops in Delhi that are in violation of existing regulations, the Delhi Development Authority in consultation with the urban affairs ministry has proposed a slew of changes this week to the city’s governing document, the master plan.

While the changes still need to be vetted and approved by the Supreme Court, which had initiated the ongoing sealing drive, the direction and possible fallout of the proposed changes will offer important lessons for all Indian cities on how to regulate the expansion of necessary retail/commercial zones.

Perhaps, the most far-reaching change proposed by Delhi is an increase in allowed Floor Area Ratio (FAR) in commercial and mixed-use areas, which would bring retail zones on par with residential areas. Since FAR is a measure of the permissible extent of vertical growth, resident groups have already expressed concerns regarding congestion and parking. DDA’s response has been an assurance that local bodies would be directed to find adequate parking space before the changes kick in.

The proposed rules also call for the relocation of restaurants, clubs and pubs from residential zones, thereby concentrating such services further in highly congested zones.

The apex court had earlier come down heavily on the process adopted to arrive at the proposed changes, which are yet to be submitted formally, and dubbed the DDA as “Delhi Destruction Authority".

“Everybody in Delhi is just keeping their eyes closed and waiting for disaster to happen. You (civic bodies) have learnt nothing from the Uphaar fire tragedy and [fire] accidents in Bawana and Kamala Mills," the court had observed.

The central problem is that Delhi was never supposed to be managed by one document called the master plan, said Arunava Dasgupta, head of urban design at the School of Planning and Architecture.

“This is a city of nearly 20 million people. Master plans have a long lock-in period of 20-30 years. There were supposed to be local level plans, which are constantly reviewed in consultation with residents. But Delhi, like most other Indian cities, has never created a local-level plan in 70 years," he said.

Retail is important for any city and laws that do not account for the ground reality are hurting both commerce and residents, Dasgupta said.

Any increase in FAR, such as the one currently proposed, must be decided on a case by case basis through local ward-level plans, not at the zonal level, which encompasses an area of a few square kilometers, he added.

Essentially, it is hard to establish city-wide or even zone-wide rules when the carrying capacity of each neighbourhood is so different. Major cities in the US and Europe have vibrant ward councils that sometimes debate the use of even a single plot. Instead of relying on such vigorous debate at the local level, Indian cities have often just made post-facto changes to the overarching city-wide master plan to legalise flagrant violations time and again.

In contrast, Dasgupta says some global cities even try to evolve three-dimensional street-level plans so that more rational choices could be made on the use of basements and terrace space. Delhi’s ongoing response and counter-response to the sealing of retail establishments is, in essence, a symptom of the failure to encourage local democracy in all Indian cities, he added.

“The planning process in our cities is not ground-up. So, there is a critical gap between planning and reality," Dasgupta said.