How regularisation of irregular colonies fell flat on its face as a poll issue in Delhi

Both AAP and BJP had initially claimed credits for initiating steps to regularise 1,734 illegal colonies in Delhi. However as elections drew near, the ruling party laid greater emphasis on its performance in health, education and women's safety. The BJP's plan to leverage the issue also came a cropper.

This article is part of our special series on Delhi Elections 2020

Unlike other recent state elections, much of the discussion in the Delhi assembly poll campaign has centred around the successful delivery of  civic amenities and public fund utilisation. This campaign tone was set by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose claims have been in sharp contrast to the  BJP’s political agenda.

In the run up to polls, both the ruling AAP and the BJP were seen firing on all cylinders, with the Congress proving to be a lazy bystander. But despite Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s carpet bombing with the ‘Shaheen Bagh narrative’ and call to purge the nation of ‘traitors and intruders’, the buzz among voters has been about the performance sheet of the Kejriwal-led AAP government

Conflicting claims

While Delhi’s education and health infrastructure is the central theme of discussion among voters, the issue of regularisation of illegal colonies, which the BJP sought to take credit for and make a major poll plank with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself leading the first public interaction on this in December, has proven to be a non-starter. The whole issue has now become embroiled in conflicting claims..

The AAP and the BJP both sought to claim credit for this development. The BJP claimed that the Union Urban Development Ministry’s move to regularise 1,734 illegal colonies in Delhi was entirely the Centre’s initiative, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi ’empowering’ illegal colony residents by providing them ownership rights.The AAP countered this with the claim that it deserved the credit for forwarding the Bill for regularisation to the union government. Unlike in other states, land issues in the Union Territory of Delhi fall directly under the central government.

In December, the BJP was so confident of this issue giving them an advantage over AAP that it declared its Delhi unit, without a Chief Ministerial candidate, will fight the assembly election on the basis of  Modi’s initiatives for Delhi, the regularisation of illegal colonies being just one of them. But by January, the linking of Modi with the move had failed to find resonance with voters even though, in a hasty move, Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri handed over ownership registry papers to 20 persons in the first week of January.

Come January second week, the ruling AAP and the lazy bystander but still significant Delhi Congress unit moved quickly to punch holes in the BJP’s claims. Kejriwal and AAP leaders targeted the Centre, alleging that the regularisation would bring little change in the lives of the residents of these colonies. AAP also went into high gear to claim credit for carrying out developmental works in all the listed unauthorised colonies during its five year rule — from laying sewer lines to building roads and providing other amenities .

Kejriwal’s campaign rhetoric from the beginning has been “Vote for us only if you think we have done good work in the last five years. Vote for the tangible work and not for unsubstantiated dreams.”  AAP’s poll managers, advised by renowned campaign strategist Prashant Kishore, have been more or less successful in reaching across to people to establish the Delhi government’s performance in education, health, transport, free power and water and women’s safety as a much more substantial poll issue than the BJP’s ‘promise’ of ‘colony regularisation’.

Congress pitched in with its door to door campaign to call the colony regularisation announcement a ‘farce’ as many colonies have been left out in the list due to forest, mining and National Highway regulations 

The already sagging BJP campaign focussed on the Centre’s Urban Development moves suffered another blow from  the recent incidents of fire in the city, which claimed many innocent lives. Unplanned and unauthorised structures with no facilities to prevent fire, cave-ins and other disasters have always been a concern for Delhiites. 

No one’s baby

While the Centre hurriedly set in motion the process of handing deeds to residents, independent experts and media sounded a note of caution saying the consequence of moving forward with the regularisation process without provision of safety amenities and proper civic guidelines could prove disastrous. The whole colony regularisation narrative, to the BJP’s dismay,  got tagged with possible fallouts like a major fire or a building collapse.

In outer Delhi’s Kirari colony, a post-fire tragedy report of a fire incident in a three storied building, which killed nine people, revealed that the ground floor of the residential building was being used as a godown for cloth. The fire started in the ground floor warehouse and spread suffocating and killing people in minutes.

In another tragedy in an unauthorised colony, Uttam Nagar, the fire brigade trucks got stuck in congested lanes after the roof of a building collapsed. These incidents exposed deficiencies in the local area plan and civil preparedness during an emergency. All claims of ‘pride in colony regularisation’ fell flat after that.

By the third week of January, BJP’s campaigners  ditched the Colony Regularisation issue and Amit Shah changed his public speeches to what the AAP was waiting for. BJP alleged that the people of Delhi are still to get free Wi-Fi, 15 lakh CCTV cameras, new colleges and hospitals,promised by the AAP Government. It sent all seven of its sitting Delhi MPs to conduct ‘sting operations’ and ‘expose’ Kejriwal’s claims. 

AAP immediately retorted with evidence of its ‘model of development’ which strengthened its core campaign of highlighting its performance. Colony regularisation had by then become no one’s child.

Citizen Matters tried to speak to urban planners in the Central and State government ministries to understand more about the current status of the colony regularisation move. With the Model Code of Conduct in place,  no official response was available. 

“Both governments (NCT Delhi and Union) moved at a speed not warranted in such a crucial issue,” said one senior official asking not to be named. “Giving property rights to settlers of colonies without understanding its implications cannot be a smart move. Binding regulations and proper guidelines have to be in place first, as these properties once bestowed with rights become commercial real estate and the government’s role does not end with announcements. Available infrastructure has to be carefully studied and resource allocations have to be put in place.”

The Union government has, since December, been running a due process through the Delhi Development Authority’s portal for registration of applicants and submission of applications. A total of 57,000 people have registered so far and 3,500 have completed their applications. The Union Government claims that the money collected as fees for the process would go to a special development fund that would be used to create social infrastructure and roads in these colonies.

That, however, is an administrative process, with little impact on voters’ perceptions.

Also read: Regularisation of Delhi colonies — While AAP, BJP fight for honours, residents keep fingers crossed 

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