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New Delhi's vertical ambition aims to ease overcrowding

New Delhi's vertical ambition aims to ease overcrowding


La ville de New-Delhi prévoit de détruire le quartier de Paharganj (l'endroit où se trouvent toutes les guest houses bon marché de la ville, un endroit prisés par les touristes et "routards", un nid d'escroqueries aussi) pour réorganiser la ville et contruire des immeubles élevés.

Source: International Herald Tribune.

NEW DELHI: Late morning in the Pahar Ganj neighborhood, and the narrow lanes heave with movement. Cross-legged on the pavement, four men bind books in red leather; across the road a man sells pomegranates and fresh green coconuts; the woman next door deals in glass marbles and wooden spinning tops; nearby, gulab jamuns — balls of dough soaked in syrup — are frying in a vast vat of boiling oil.

It is a scene much-photographed by backpackers to India, who stay in Pahar Ganj's cheap hotels, a stone's throw from the New Delhi railway station at the heart of the capital. But the city authorities view this thronging, vibrant stretch of land as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the city.

A new government vision document for the capital, the Delhi Master Plan, proposes that area be demolished and be replaced by high-rise apartment blocks.

Delhi is bursting and the only way is up. If Baron Haussmann's plan for transforming Paris lay in replacing crowded lanes with wide, unbarricadable boulevards, India's minister of state for urban development, Ajay Maken, dreams of creating new space to house the city's exploding population by growing vertically.

His Master Plan 2021, which took effect last month, sets out a recipe for transforming India's capital into a "world-class city," guided by three priorities: obliterating the slums, taming the traffic and importing a Manhattan skyline. On the surface, this dense 200-page document, filled with annexations on sewage systems and arterial road routes, is a dry piece of officialese. But beneath the small print, it is a brave attempt to tackle an urgent problem: how do you transform a chaotic, traffic-choked, churning city into a "global metropolis" worthy of representing India's ambitions to become the next Asian superpower?

The government estimates that around 60 percent of the city's 15 million inhabitants live in homes that are illegal — in slums, in unauthorized developments or in unplanned and unsafe buildings.

Because these areas do not officially exist, they have no safe water supply, no legal electricity system and no proper sewers. Resourceful residents have made do: artfully siphoning water from the mains, risking their lives to sling wires onto nearby electricity pylons to steal power. The city's central water and power supplies are barely able to cope with this extra, invisible demand; most areas receive water for just a couple of hours a day, forcing residents to stock up with buckets when they can, while extended power outages occur daily.

Since these were unplanned settlements, no good roads were ever built for them. Now their inhabitants, who are growing rapidly richer with India's economic boom, are trading in their bicycles for motorbikes, or upgrading their motorbikes for cars. Last year car sales rose across India by 24 percent. Traffic in the capital is growing thicker and more perilous.

The Ministry of Urban Development has concluded that if 60 percent of the people in the city are living outside of the law, then the problem lies with the law itself. With a stroke of a pen, the new plan legalizes the homes of around three and a half million people, who have until now lived in fear of seeing their homes knocked down. Areas deemed dangerous will be redeveloped and the city's roughly two million slum dwellers will be rehoused, many of them in the new, tall developments.

"To be a world-class city we need to have good quality housing," Maken said in an interview in his office in an upmarket part of Delhi where power cuts are rare and the water supply is good (although wild monkeys dance on the cars of officials outside, resistant to all campaigns to banish them).

Since the 1950s, successive governments have restricted housing construction to one state body, the Delhi Development Authority. But this organization failed to keep pace with spiraling demand, and as a result, newcomers to the city have been forced to build for themselves illegally.

Maken has concluded that the state- backed system has proved disastrous, and the new plan (the third drawn up for the city since 1962) allows private developers into the housing market for the first time.

To give these developers an incentive, the plan abolishes restrictions on tall construction, in all but a few historical areas. Building upward is a radical solution for a city where height restrictions keep most buildings at tree level. But, since the government has been unable to stop the annual arrival of around half a million migrants driven by rural poverty, it now says radical action is necessary. By 2021 the capital's population is forecast to rise to 23 million, and the masses must be housed somehow.

"We will have more open spaces and more high-rise buildings," Maken said. "The skyline of the city will change. People will no longer be forced to live in narrow lanes in subhuman conditions. You can't convert the whole of Delhi into Manhattan; but some parts will go that way."

Delhi has no alternative, he said.

"There's no way that we can remove these millions of people, living in illegal constructions, from Delhi. And we shouldn't do it," he said. "They are the people who are working as maids, building the metros, driving the rickshaws; they are essential service providers for the community."

Although Pahar Ganj was originally a legal development, rampant ad hoc construction has turned it into a labyrinthine mess. Developers will now be able to approach residents, who mostly live in three-story buildings, with a plan to provide them with an equal-sized apartment in a 15-story block and a cash bonus of, say, 2,500,000 rupees, or $56,500. The plan stipulates that 35 percent of the housing would have to be developed for poor residents, and green space would be left between the tall buildings.

"We have a democratic system, so we can't act in a coercive manner, but market forces will motivate the residents," Maken said. "They will be persuaded to convert their property into much better living conditions."

Unsurprisingly, the plan is controversial. K.T. Ravindran, dean of the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, warned that India was not culturally suited to the high-rise.

"You'll get whole communities who don't look each other in the eye, where the only human contact is when they yell at the person in the next car," he said.

Author of Delhi's first Master Plan, Jagmohan, a retired politician who uses only one name, was also scathing, remarking that the proposal would turn Delhi into a world-class city only if one equated high-rise blocks with sophistication. "And what message are you giving by legalizing illegal settlements? You're saying that anyone who has infringed the law will now stand to gain," he said.

Serving tea from his pavement tea stall, Surjit Singh Bedi, 60, said he had no sentimental attachment to the streets of Pahar Ganj that have been his home for the past 55 years.

"What's to like?" he asked, gesturing toward the tilting buildings, illegally and inexpertly extended and re-extended on their original base, and the thick cobweb of looping electricity wires stretching like a canopy above the street, tangled extravagantly on lampposts. Beyond the network of narrow lanes, traffic on the main road is at a standstill, drivers leaning sourly over their steering wheels, jabbing at their horns.

"If there is electricity, there is no water. If there is water, there is no electricity," he said. "The power lines are so dangerous that houses keep catching fire. The traffic is so bad, that the houses are burnt out before the fire engines can get here.

"I've never been in a tower block, but I'd be willing to sell up and move."