'No man's land': Delhi's urban villages face uncertain future

Villagers in informal settlements want to be put on the map as they struggle with a lack of land titles and official oversight.

Budhela in Delhi, India
A young girl bikes on a street in the urban village of Budhela in Delhi, India. Image: Rina Chandran/ Thomson Reuters

Many of the landmarks of Paras Tyagi’s life remain the same in Budhela village in Delhi where he grew up: the house he lived in, the school that he, his father and grandfather attended, the homes of neighbours he knew as a child.

But the farmland that Tyagi’s grandfather once owned is long gone, a pond that the cattle used to drink from has been filled in and walled off, and around the village, high-rise apartment and office blocks and a Metro station have sprung up.

Budhela is one of 135 urban villages in Delhi, settlements that are exempted from building codes and excluded from its plans - leaving nearly a million people, most of whom have no titles to their homes, without a blueprint for the future.

“We are among Delhi’s oldest residents, yet we are losing what we had, and suffering from pollution, congestion and gentrification,” said Tyagi, co-founder of the Centre for Youth Culture Law and Environment (CYCLE), a public policy non-profit.

“Urban villages provide housing options for low-income families and migrant workers, commercial spaces for factory outlets and upscale markets, but they are largely neglected and desperately in need of infrastructure upgrades,” he said.

Large parts of Delhi were once agricultural. As these were acquired by authorities, some residents stayed on in adjacent areas that came to be known as “lal dora”, or red thread in the Hindi language, for the red line that

We are among Delhi’s oldest residents, yet we are losing what we had, and suffering from pollution, congestion and gentrification.

Tyagi, co-founder, Centre for Youth Culture Law and Environment (CYCLE)

demarcated them.

Some lal dora lands were designated as urban villages - small islands in the constantly changing metropolis - growing in number from 20 in 1962, when Delhi’s first master plan was made, to 135 today. The city also has scores of rural villages.

Lacking property records, the governance structure of their rural counterparts and left off the city’s plans, Delhi’s urban villages are largely run by influential families, with little oversight by civic authorities, residents and urban experts say.

As pressure increases to integrate lal dora lands into the city’s master plan, authorities must consider their unique character and history, said Kanchi Kohli, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank in Delhi.

“Lal Dora areas have grown exponentially with risky and inadequate civic infrastructure. These areas need to be a part of Delhi’s urban planning, but their inclusion has been and continues to be a complex process,” she said.

“Any attempt to integrate them into the master plan will need to protect them from land grabs, and be a careful, informed process that looks at class stratification and historical marginalisation,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Historical value 

Almost 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, according to estimates by the United Nations.

In India, as elsewhere, rapid urbanisation is putting pressure on governments to build more apartment blocks and metro rail networks, which has led to the razing of old buildings and neighbourhoods.

Cities risk losing not just their history and heritage, but also the traditional knowledge that is key to promoting inclusiveness, sustainability and resilience, according to urban experts.

This is particularly true of large cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, which every day draw thousands of migrants from India’s villages looking for better economic opportunities.

Faced with a critical shortage of affordable housing in the cities, many settle in slums and other informal settlements, which lack basic amenities such as drinking water and toilets.

In Delhi, urban villages with lower rents compared to flats, and with better amenities than slums, have become the preferred option for students, migrant workers and small businesses that often rent the ground floor of the low-rise buildings.

Some, like Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat, which abut upscale neighbourhoods, have lured designer boutiques and trendy cafes and bars - a reflection of how land use in urban villages has been altered over the years, sometimes illegally, said Kohli.

A scheme to improve civic services in urban villages was launched by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in 1979, and then transferred to the Municipal Corporation.

A committee set up by the federal housing ministry to study integrating lal dora areas into the Delhi Master Plan to 2021, noted in its 2007 report that urban villages had not seen the “desired and expected improvements of urbanisation.”

It recommended “modern, decent living accommodation” for residents, proper amenities, a liberal land-use policy, and updated property records.

Delhi’s Master Plan to 2021 noted that redevelopment of urban villages was a critical focus area, but failed to provide a separate legal framework, said Ruchita Gupta, an assistant professor at the School for Planning and Architecture in Delhi.

“If we bring urban villages under the same planning model, we will get the same high-density buildings,” she said.

“These settlements have their own indigenous character, and a cultural and historical value. Can we work with the existing fabric, and make customised norms with the involvement of the community?”

Leenu Sehgal, a planning commissioner at the DDA, said it was drafting new laws for the management of urban villages.

“We are re-examining all aspects, from sanitation to building codes, and we will have a framework in the next Master Plan to 2041,” she said, without giving further details.

Dignity and respect 

Across India, cities have been slow to meet the needs of people living in informal settlements, with only a few introducing laws to upgrade housing and provide amenities - a task made more urgent by the spread of the coronavirus in slums.

Last year, the federal government said it would legalise nearly 2,000 unauthorised colonies in Delhi, upgrading infrastructure and giving more than 4 million poor residents the right to own their homes.

In Budhela, a settlement of 350 households and about 4,500 people, there is growing discontent with the narrow lanes that get waterlogged in the rains, the open drains and lack of green spaces.

Residents are also frustrated by their inability to use their homes as collateral for bank loans, as most do not have titles. The process of registering for one is too onerous and costly, Tyagi said.

“We are asking for just the basics, so we can live with dignity and respect,” he said, pointing to piles of trash lying by the road.

“But the lal dora is no man’s land - no one in the city wants to take responsibility. We don’t know what the future is.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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