In the mid-1970s, while Reena Ramachandran (81) was working in the Ministry of Science and Technology of the Government of India, she came across a publicity brochure from the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) announcing its first housing program of self-funded group in India. Bag. The area was then nothing more than vast tracts of farmland, and a far cry from Sardar Patel Marg, where she lived with her husband, who worked for the Railway Department. But the program, Ramachandran said, was a great investment opportunity for “people like her.”
“My husband and I were both government employees with limited means. It was difficult to buy land and build your own house in such an expensive city as Delhi,” she explained. “The DDA scheme was within our reach to pay in instalments and we would not have to deal with a builder. The DDA himself was the builder. The fact that the house would be in a residential colony with security and all amenities were factors that influenced his decision.
The DDA had been operating for two decades by then. It was established in 1957 following partition by the central government to provide for the planned expansion and development of Delhi. The DDA’s predecessor, the Delhi Improvement Trust (DIT), was established in 1941 on the recommendation of Arthur Parke Hume to manage urban congestion in the city following the relocation of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Less than a decade later, the DIT was deemed insufficient in its ability to support capital that was growing both rapidly and haphazardly.
“After independence, the first residential settlements in Delhi were built by the Ministry of Rehabilitation and some private developers in the 1950s. But the ongoing development was ad hoc in nature and no one was responsible for road connectivity , infrastructure services like water, electricity, etc. Very often a house was built but the inhabitants had to wait five to ten years to be connected to electricity and water,” said AK Jain (74), who retired as a commissioner of DDA planning. “Jawaharlal Nehru, unhappy with the situation, felt that the capital should set an example in terms of urban development.”
Political scientist Sushmita Pati, in a 2014 research paper, noted that the development idea of Nehru was based on the idea of a strong center. Thus, “the DDA Act of 1957, under which the DDA was established, makes the public authority responsible for the acquisition of land and the development of the city”.
Nehru’s involvement in the development of Delhi’s first master plan (1962) under the DDA was significant. It was at his insistence that Albert Mayer of the Ford Foundation was brought in to prepare the plan with the Urban Planning Organization.
Jagmohan, who became the commissioner of the DDA in the mid-1960s, was instrumental in carrying out the master plan. Pati in his article wrote that Jagmohan believed that with the master plan, “the DDA took upon itself the project to build the ‘ninth city’ of Delhi, which was twice as large as the previous seven cities”. Besides the city of Delhi, the smaller towns and villages surrounding it were to be developed as the National Capital Region (NCR).
Initially, the DDA received Rs 5 crore with which they bought land from the farming communities, beautified it and sold it according to income groups or commercial agencies for profit, which they then used to buy from new land.
“The plan aligned with Nehru’s socialist ideologies and prevented private actors from speculating on land,” Jain said.
The first residential settlement developed by the corps was the Safdarjung Development Area. In the decades that followed, over 100 residential settlements were built by the DDA, outside the sub-cities of Dwarka, Rohini and Narela. These include Pitampura, Janakpuri, Paschim Vihar among others. In addition, more than 40 resettlement colonies have been built for people living in slums, the majority of which were created during Sanjay Gandhi’s city beautification campaign in the 1970s.
Jain, who joined the DDA as an associate planner aged 28 in the mid-1970s, said one of the reasons he wanted to join the corps was that the DDA had a reputation across the world to be a model development agency.
“About 50 cities in India had later emulated the DDA plan. These included Bhopal, Bangalore and Jaipur,” he said.
One of the agency’s greatest contributions to the city, Jain explained, has been to make affordable home ownership available to large numbers of migrants and salaried employees. “I remember my peon telling me how people in his village in Bihar treated him with new respect after they found out he had bought a flat in Delhi,” Jain said.
But the DDA’s plans were not without flaws. History buff Sohail Hashmi explained that one of the first things DDA did was to place all of Shahjahanabad under the slum and JJ department. “This is the beginning of decadence of Shahjahanabad because city authorities are not required to provide many civic amenities in slums and JJ neighborhoods,” he said.
“It was also at this time that Shahjaha-nabad was nicknamed the ‘walled city’. This created an idea in the minds of the people of Delhi that it was a place isolated from the rest of the city.
Other criticisms against the body included that its housing programs had not achieved the goal of inclusive development as promised; that it only benefited high-income groups, leaving behind a large portion of Delhi’s population. A 2014 report by the Center for Policy Research noted that the nature of the DDA’s plans is such that “the city’s poorest residents become squatters as the DDA acquires the land they live on, but they have few affordable housing options”.
How slum dwellers were moved to resettlement colonies during the emergency is again seen as a dark episode in the agency’s history. In recent years, the agency has seen a drop in the number of applications for its projects.
Jain believes the reason for the lack of popularity is that the DDA has been unable to keep pace and meet the aspirations of a new India. “The model that was adopted 50-60 years ago must be completely changed. It needs to build bigger houses with better quality construction and services,” he said.