These days Delhi is a city of cranes. New residential colonies, entertainment venues and shopping malls are stamped out of the ground and claim their space in an increasingly dense and ever-expanding urban sprawl. Yet in the Indian capital city where ground is scarce and the land use status of plots often ambiguous, new construction plans are not always uncontested. In South Delhi late last year, residents of the area encompassing Chittaranjan Park, Greater Kailash II and the apartment blocks of Alaknanda and DDA Flats defied the humid weather of the monsoon season to join a protest rally organised by the Citizens Alliance, a group of concerned community members determined to mobilise the neighbourhood in an attempt to oppose the construction of what is projected to become Delhi's second largest "mega mall" in the heart of their colony.
The Citizens Alliance was formed when news began to seep through that Reliance Industries Ltd, one of the biggest retail players on the Indian urban scene, had decided to construct a gigantic 67,000 sq m mall after acquiring the plot of land in 2007 through an auction of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). The news came as a big shock to the local residents who claim that the plot was initially assigned to provide common facilities such as playgrounds, a swimming pool and a tennis court, with only limited commercial development taking place. Yet when the Citizens Alliance did research on the matter, they were surprised to find out that the land use status of the plot had changed, thus turning a community-related development project with limited commercial potential into an exclusive retail affair.
A doomsday scenario
During the protest gathering, which was attended by a crowd of around 800 people, it became clear that the building of the Alaknanda mall was opposed for many reasons. Vivek Sharma, a locally based lawyer, lamented the highly untransparent decision-making procedures and explained at lengths the painstaking process of finding out how the mall construction project got all the required clearances.
The mall is deemed an ill-conceived project that will rip the fabric of the neighbourhood apart. A mother pointed out that the mall will be constructed in an area full of public schools and emphasised how the mall represents a threat to security, health and lifestyle for parents of young children. Children will be exposed to "junk food and pubs" while the bustling mall environment might function as a magnet for all kinds of "undesirable folks". Several speakers alluded to the 2012 Delhi rape case which shocked the nation and residents feared that the mall would transform their peaceful neighbourhood into a much more dangerous place.
Questions were also raised with respect to the impact of the Alaknanda mall on the local power and water supply for which no sufficient provisions had been made so far, thus fueling fears that supply to residential areas might be affected.
Another major concern was the impact of the mall on the local road network. As Ashutosh Dixit, president and main spokesperson of the Citizens Alliance, explained, no infrastructure provisions had been made and residents feared permanent congestion and rising levels of air pollution. A study conducted by the Citizens Alliance revealed that the traffic during peak hours will increase from 700 to 1,850 cars per hour and limited parking space in the mall will lead to even further congestion of the roads.
A resident from the Saket neighbourhood spoke about the implications of the construction of Select City Mall, currently Delhi's biggest mall, close to her home, relating that the mall had not only dramatically altered the cohesion of the neighbourhood but also caused almost permanent traffic jams that often impeded the working of emergency services such as the fire brigade and ambulances. She related how she, a doctor by profession, was unable to reach a patient in time due to mall-bound traffic.
The story shocked the audience and Select City continued to be invoked as a nightmarish scenario that loomed like a sword of Damocles over the neighbourhood.
Challenging the 'Delhi Destruction Authority'
All in all, the Citizens Alliance appear to raise valid questions about what seems to be a very ill-conceived and badly planned moved by the DDA. Yet unplanned growth, often stimulated by dubious land-use politics, seems to be the norm rather than the exception in urban India. In Mumbai, the old mill lands of Girangaon are redeveloped in a piecemeal fashion that suits former mill owners (again a story of land-use politics) and the result is a dense and chaotic patchwork lacking any cohesion. Modern high-rises and shopping malls pop up next to the low-rise chawls of the former mill workers, a maze of flyovers dissects a neighbourhood, leaving not only the observer bewildered but also creating a socially scattered and physically splintered urban environment that is simply unsustainable in terms of liveability, traffic circulation, and local livelihoods.
The Alaknanda mall is in this sense no exception, but what is remarkable in this case is that a well organised and well connected group of local residents mobilised their community in a determined effort to challenge the DDA, demand their democratic right to have an insight into the proceedings and attempt to persuade the authorities or, by means of last resort, the courts, to develop the plot in a more sustainable way, taking into account the local fabric and catering more to the needs and wishes of local residents rather than the fancies and fashions of the city-wide consumer middle classes.
The short, wordless performance of the theatre activist Pranab Mukherjee at the beginning of the evening rally symbolised the general sentiment as he warned the audience that speaking out is essential: one has to fight for rights and justice, and remaining silent, as he dramatically gestured, means being trampled by power.
Voice matters, but whose voice is heard?
Although the protest rally and the concerted efforts of the Citizens Alliance seem to have had some limited success in slowing down the construction process, with Reliance taking a "wait and watch" attitude, a somewhat uncomfortable but nonetheless important issue still needs to be discussed. The plot currently earmarked for commercial development was once the site of a slum. When the slum was cleared to make way for a community centre (in front of which the "stop the mall" rally took place), there was no protest from the residents. One gets the uncomfortable feeling that despite the "united we stand" slogan often heard during the rally, the solidarity of the community extends not to all but remains highly class-based. This is a somewhat provocative way of putting it and solidarity of the kind that cuts across classes is hard to expect when conflicting interests are at stake. Yet the problem here is that the voice of slum dwellers is seldom heard whereas middle-class residents have the networks, the resources and the air of respectability that makes it more likely that their complaints are considered, their rights as citizens respected.
A further irony is that the envisaged mall caters to the rapidly growing middle classes, to which the residents of this upmarket colony in South Delhi no doubt belong. An older man speaking at the rally frankly admitted that he enjoys going now and then to Saket's Select City Mall. The general sentiment seems to be that malls are fine, as long as such a "monstrosity" doesn't appear in our own backyard.
This is not to say that the Citizens Alliance should refrain from confronting the DDA on the land-use status magic it performed for the benefit of Reliance. It is understandable that the residents fight for their right and demand redevelopment of the plot inspired by a vision that is more holistic and takes into account the needs of the residents and the precarious state of the local infrastructure. Yet we cannot turn a blind eye to the double standard of class democracy in which slum dwellers can be relocated on a whim to make place for a community centre and what is going to be either a mega mall or a convenient sports complex, both catering ultimately to the middle-class segment of the city's populace. Indeed, one could argue that a low-cost housing initiative accommodating the former slum settlers should after all have been the first priority.