Seema* has been living in the G Block, colloquially known as Paras colony, of Aya Nagar for more than seven years now. Having migrated from Uttar Pradesh in search of better employment opportunities, she and her husband had only one dream, like any other migrant – to buy their own house in the locality. “My husband and I work very hard and have always dreamt of having a house of our own.”
However, little did she know that just a year after she bought the land in Aya Nagar from a local Gurjar, the front yard of her house would sport a big pond filled with garbage, plastic bags, solid waste and waste water from neighbouring houses. Such ponds have become a common sight in Aya Nagar, the final urban agglomeration along Delhi’s southern-western border.
The village of Aya Nagar has undergone a dramatic spatial transformation from rural to urban, since the mid-1980s. Indiscriminate, unplanned construction of houses on one side of the land led to the formation of troughs on the other side, and concretisation of streets and bylanes in the area meant that water could no longer seep into the ground, creating these huge pools of water. Pipelines were laid from the houses that drained into the closed pools, which often do not connect to any other water body. One now finds them choked with sewage from the surrounding houses, untreated kitchen water and garbage.
The original inhabitants of this area are the Gurjars, a pastoral agriculturist community, dating back to the late nineteenth century. However, the area’s proximity to the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road (M.G. Road) and the affordable housing provided by multi-story apartments and tenement structures made it an ideal choice for the migrant population, resulting in a tenfold increase in the number of households. But this newly emerged settlement was never categorised as an authorised colony because it was built on rural land.
Unauthorised colonies: The genesis
According to Gautam Bhan’s 2013 essay, titled Planned Illegalities, “an ‘unauthorised colony’ is one that is built on land not included in the development area in the (city) plan, or one built on land within the developmental area but not yet zoned for residential use.”
These plots earlier used to be rural or agricultural land that were later subdivided into plots, and their development process does not conform to building bylaws and planning guidelines.
According to The Quint’s report, shortly after the country got independence and the political focus shifted to development and urbanisation, many people residing in villages started migrating to cities and peripheral areas in order to find better job opportunities. However, this also led to the emergence of unauthorised colonies because, inevitably, the demand for housing increased and made the land costlier.
Private landowners then grabbed the opportunity to subdivide their land and transfer power of attorney on these land parcels to individuals, for them to construct houses and rent them out at comparatively lower rates. Moreover, the plots of unauthorised areas cannot be sold for non-agricultural purposes, therefore, the ‘selling’ of land happens through powers-of-attorney, which can be registered as proxy titles. This means that titles of ownership cannot legally and fully be transferred to the individuals, because the colony does not exist in the ‘development’ plan.
Consequently, these colonies came into being in an extremely chaotic manner, without any provisioning for water, sanitation, street networks and other basic facilities. Furthermore, Bhan highlights in the essay that even municipal services cannot be provided to these colonies. Aya Nagar which developed as an unauthorised colony also shares the same fate in terms of public services, similar to the other 1,797 unauthorised settlements in Delhi.
The ordeal of citizens
Residents of Aya Nagar, especially the migrant inhabitants, have always struggled with the most basic of amenities, such as access to regular and clean water supply and sanitation facilities, as mentioned above. If anything, things have only become worse with time.
Seema recalls that the pond outside her one storey house has existed ever since she moved in there from the one-room rented space where she lived earlier. However, over the past four years, the accumulation of untreated drain and sewage water in the ponds has significantly increased. There is frequent overflow, and even a few spells of rainfall results in serious waterlogging with the dirty water often entering the nearby houses.
In October, last year when Seema and her family were out of town, she says her “house was on the verge of submergence after the rain. The whole furniture got destroyed. Every single item in the house was washed over by the sewage-filled water.” After she got a frantic call from her neighbours informing her about the condition of her house, she along with her husband and son hurriedly came back. But there was nothing she could do as the temporarily installed motor pump near her house remained non-functional under the mounting water pressure.
So she dialled an official from the Irrigation and Flood Control department at a number that her son found on the internet. However, when the motor pump contractor was sent to visit the site and resolve the issue, he threatened her instead.
“He angrily asked us who had called? After I responded firmly he tried to argue that there is no problem and said that if I ever called, my family and I might not even be there to complain again,” says Seema.
Fearing further backlash from her Gurjar landowner and the near certainty of other families refusing support, Seema just couldn’t think of registering a formal complaint.
Flawed drainage and corruption: A deadly mix
Almost every other person living in G Block echoes similar experiences at one time or the other. They trace the origins of the problem to the forced laying of piped drains in the adjacent F and other blocks of Aya Nagar. These were mostly designed to drain into the pond of the G Block. However, there was no proper outlet for this pond, so that the water started overflowing and entering the houses of people living nearby.
“A motor pump is installed here to drain out the water from this pond. However, the catch is that this pump runs on diesel, so the contractor never lets it run optimally and sells the remaining diesel. The pump only runs when the situation deteriorates,” Seema’s husband says.
This creates inhouse sanitation issues as well. For years, people in many unauthorised colonies have relied on mechanical desludging in order to manage the sewage from their houses which gets stored in a sump below the house. In the absence of any state-led interventions for faecal sludge management, Aya Nagar, since 2000, has witnessed the mushrooming of an informal market and privately-owned septic tank emptying services. Home owners rely on private operators , who come and empty the sump using portable vacuum pumps.
Archana Yadav, who lives in the same colony, remembers the first time she had to get her septic tank cleaned. “It was in 2015, three years after my house was built, when we got our tank cleaned, we realised that it wasn’t really filled,” Archana says. However, two years later when the pond started getting choked, the water started back flowing in her washroom. “Now I have to get the septic tank cleaned at least thrice a year. And it takes 1,200 rupees per visit,” she says.
When the sewage water flows back into the washrooms of the houses, pressured by the storm and drain water in the overfilled ponds, residents living in the farthest corners of Aya Nagar such as Phase 5 and Phase 6 are left with no option but to resort to open defecation in the nearby designated forest areas.
Such tales are borne out further by the numbers we see in the socio-economic survey of Delhi concluded in 2019, which says 0.6% households still practice open defecation, while 36.7% use septic tanks and toilets in 1.2% of houses connected with open drains, in order to manage their sewage.
To make matters worse, there is no monitoring of how and where the sewage collected by the private service providers gets discharged; it is often dumped near farmlands and forested areas, adversely impacting hygiene and living conditions in those areas and degrading the forest environment.
This is not all. The abysmal sanitation and drainage issues harm the houses in more ways than one. Archana has had to spend around Rs 2 lakh to get her two storey house repaired, following a spell of flooding. There are cracks in the recently renovated walls, and she says, “I am really afraid of what would happen to this house if there is an earthquake. Nobody will buy this house even if we put it on sale and we can’t shift somewhere else because we have invested everything we had in this house.”
Following recent announcements made by the Delhi Jal Board and Delhi Municipal Corporations, construction of sewer lines is underway, from the main road (connecting Aya Nagar with the greater city) to the market road in Aya Nagar. Vedpal, a local municipal councillor, however calls it a big “planning failure,” because the construction plan ignores the present population and the extent of urbanisation in the area. “This is evident when you just look at the meagre storage capacity of the sewage tanks which are being constructed, clearly ignoring the massive population growth the area has witnessed in the last decade,” he says.
The woes of residents, therefore, do not seem likely to end anytime soon.
* Name changed, as Seema did not wish to reveal her true identity for fear of backlash from local landowners.