The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic has exposed the deficiencies in the concept of the National Capital Region (NCR) envisaged in 1985 for coordinated urban development in and around Delhi so that there could be seamless mobility, quality housing, and shared infrastructure, say multiple experts in planning and administration.

Over the past month, three of the principal state administrations that make up NCR — Delhi, UP and Haryana — have sealed and unsealed borders at will, failed to share or pool health care infrastructure, and not tried to evolve a common strategy in the face of rising Covid-19 cases. Delhi, which has reported 25,004cases till Thursday, sealed its borders to restrict the number of patients coming in for treatment on Tuesday, just as Noida and Gurugram, which had sealed their borders for weeks despite Delhi letting commuters in, were ready to ease curbs on intercity movement. Noida had 543cases, while Gurugram reported 1,410infections by Thursday.

This lack of coordination forced the Supreme Court on Thursday to order the Centre to convene a meeting of member states – Delhi, UP, Haryana and Rajasthan – in order to evolve a “common programme and common portal” for easing interstate movement in the National Capital Region.

 

The way the concept was developed, however, such a situation was never meant to happen.

Capital expansion

NCR was constituted due to a spurt in population growth in the region since 1951, largely due to migration resulting in congestion and shortage of civic amenities, as per the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB).

The aim was primarily to decongest Delhi, and the region came into being in 1985 under the NCRPB. In the 1990s, with the emergence of Noida (New Okhla Industrial Development Authority) and Gurugram, the urban growth accelerated at breakneck speed. What used to be agricultural fields on the Capital’s outskirts became the hubs of industry, offices, and housing.

With almost invisible borders, Noida carried the promise of affordable housing and easy commute to and from Delhi. “Noida offered all than an upper-middle class person aspires for. The authority planned at least 150 residential plotted areas and at least 600 group housing colonies in view of high demand,” said Rajpal Kaushik former chief architect and urban town planner of Noida Authority.

While Noida was redefining urban growth on the eastern border of the Capital, business was booming in Gurugram (then Gurgaon) located on its southern border with home-grown carmaker Maruti setting up its plant in the 1980s. Gurugram, a village till then, had vast swathes of barren land and minimal local government. Sensing the potential for industrial and urban growth, private builders such as DLF and Ansal consolidated large tracts of land and soon world class residential condominiums and office spaces sprung up across Gurugram, earning it the tag of “Millennium City”.

Proximity to the Capital and the IGI airport, a large inventory of office space, and the economic liberalisation in the 1990s enabled Gurugram to attract corporate houses, both domestic and multinational, IT companies, BPOs, and Fortune 500 companies to set up base in the city, spurring growth and opportunities.

Several industrialists from other Haryana cities such as Hisar, Bhiwani and Jhajjar also came to Gurugram to set up their base, making Udyog Vihar and Manesar industrial hubs.

“The National Capital Region is seen as a single economic and social unit where people move seamlessly while working in one corner or city and living in another part. It is also one of the largest integrated economic and social corridors in the world. It attracts the best talent, top corporates who want to work and live here. Real-estate growth has happened to a great extent because of economic growth and opportunities offered by a seamless NCR, which has common ethos and culture. It important to ensure people move with ease in this region,” said Akash Ohri, senior executive director, DLF.

While Noida and Gurugram owe their growth mostly to the economic liberalisation, Ghaziabad in UP and Faridabad in Haryana has been traditional industrial powerhouses of the two states.

Today, NCR comprises Delhi and 23 districts from UP, Haryana and Rajasthan and is spread over 55,083 square km. However, the administrative integration has remained largely on paper, with member states working in silos and often sparring over issues such as water sharing, mobility and pollution. A case in point is the fact that the region is yet to evolve a common mobility solution with no reliable public transport, except Metro, to commute across the cities of Delhi, Noida, Ghaziabad and Gurugram.

Mobility issues

Despite existing as a massive urban conglomerate, there was no common, reliable public transport in the region before the Delhi Metro came up. Delhi operates nearly 100 buses for Gurugram, Noida and Bahadurgarh, but Haryana and UP roadways buses can’t enter Delhi since they run on diesel, which is banned for public transport in the city since 1998, when the switch to CNG was made.

Public transport between NCR cities involving para transit vehicles is even more restricted. As against the 95,000 registered auto-rickshaws in Delhi, only 10,000 have permits to ply from Delhi to NCR cities and vice versa.

Delhi transport minister Kailash Gahlot said the Capital has put in place some of the “most relaxed norms” for transport vehicles coming from other states. “But we do not get the same treatment from them. For example, we charge no passenger taxes on any bus coming from Haryana or any other adjoining state. But DTC buses have to pay extra passenger tax on routes such as Gurugram or Bahadurgarh. We run the buses despite the high passenger tax which in turn, makes the ticket quite expensive. Since long, we have been demanding abolition of passenger tax so that public transport becomes cheap and affordable and more and more public uses public transport,” he said.

The recent sealing of borders because of Covid-19 has only added to the chaos.

The Regional Plan-2021, the second plan prepared by NCRPB, mentions the formation of a unified metropolitan or regional transport authority for NCR.

“But the plan has remained on paper. It was to ensure better coordination between various government authorities in the NCR for seamless connectivity and movement of commuters. If this authority was in place, the problems we are facing today would have been easily addressed,” said PK Sarkar, member of the technical committee of NCRPB.

According to a senior NCRPB official, there is a committee of transport secretaries chaired by NCRPB’s member secretary which takes up issues related to better coordination between member states.

“But the committee has not met during the Covid-19 crisis. There has been no request either from the member states in this regard. All state governments are taking decisions as per their local situation,” said the official, requesting anonymity.

Urban transport experts say that some of the provisions mentioned in the Regional Plan-2021, such as Regional rail Transport (RRTS), development of peripheral expressways (Eastern and Western peripheral expressways), expressway between Ghaziabad and Meerut, expansion of Metro network etc. have been implemented.

Sarika Panda Bhatt, a transportation expert based in Gurugram, pointed out that there is a common transport agreement which allows unrestricted movement of vehicles between these states. “But as it would appear, such reciprocal gestures do not apply during a pandemic,” she said, pointing out the lack of a coordinated approach during a crisis.

A second senior official in the NCRPB, who asked not to be named, said: “NCRPB is merely a facilitator, and we cannot enforce any regulations. It is up to the states to accommodate each other’s challenges. But now we are facing a storm, so everyone has shut their doors and windows to keep themselves safe.”

Satish Mahana, UP’s industry minister said, “As far as the Supreme Court direction on borders is concerned, the state government will take appropriate decision on it…To ensure that office goers or factory workers don’t face any problem in commuting our government has directed Gautam Budh Nagar or Ghaziabad to issue passes.”

Haryana transport minister Mool Chand Sharma said the government is aware of problems being faced by the people. “An industrialist in Faridabad has a factory in Gurugram and transports his goods to Delhi. We can see that people are being inconvenienced. I will speak with the chief minister before taking discussions forward. We have to find a solution that balances protection of both life and livelihood.”

Pollution politics

Every year when the air pollution goes up in the winter months, so does the blame game between NCR states. While Delhi maintains that crop residue burning by farmers in Haryana and Punjab accounts for a bulk of particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) pollutants in Delhi’s air, the governments of the two states fault Delhi for not doing enough to curb other sources of pollution in the capital. Despite pollution posing a major health emergency for millions, the states are yet to reach a consensus on a common approach and collaborate to tackle the problem.

Now, the Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority (EPCA) regulates and enforces measures under the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) across NCR.

While referring to the challenges posed by the rapid spread of the coronavirus disease, Sunita Narain, member of EPCA, said the administrations which constitute NCR should go back and remember how they have together tackled air pollution in the past few years,

“NCR is completely interlinked in terms of movement and the air-shed is one. At EPCA, we found that the only way to deal with it was cooperation. There were a lot of times NCR cities such as Gurugram and Bhiwadi came to us questioning why we were locking them down as well under the graded response action plan, despite their pollution levels being fairly lower than Delhi. But, we didn’t allow any compromise and it worked only because the entire plan was executed as NCR as a whole,” Narain said.

What is currently happening is not the way to go, she added. “It is like drawing borders between states right now and it feels like we are drawing international borders. We have been pushing for augmentation of public transport among NCR cities because there is massive to and for Delhi from the neighbouring cities,” Narain said.

Water woes

Politics, protest and posturing have dominated on the issue of sharing water of the Yamuna between Delhi and Haryana. Delhi depends on the Yamuna for most of its water needs and blames the Haryana government for not allowing its share of water to flow in the Munak canal – the main water supply tributary to Delhi. Haryana, on the other hand, alleges that Delhi wants Haryana to part with its share of water.

The two states are locked in a legal battle over the issue and the courts have time and again directed the two states to reach a negotiated settlement.

(With inputs from Vinod Rajput in Noida; Prayag Arora Desai and Abhishek Behl in Gurugam)