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Volume XLIV, No.49

Sealing Controversy in Delhi: The Way Out

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Bharat Dogra


The violence seen on the streets of Delhi on September 20 should have been a wake-up call to resolve the sealing controversy in capital city before it leads to massive disruption of livelihoods and the accompanying discontent.
At the root of this controversy is the issue of what kinds of commercial or non-residential activities are permitted in residential areas. It is by now clear that the norms on the basis of which recent efforts (before September 20) were made to settle this issue are such that lakhs of people will either lose their livelihood, or else their livelihood will be badly eroded and disrupted. Tens of thousands of families which are able to eke out a reasonable livelihood today may be pushed below the poverty line. One has to look not only at the number of establishments but also the workers (part-time and full time) employed by these establishment and the additional livelihoods (such as headload workers or cart-pullers) supported by them.

It is no less true that the solutions proposed by the government in terms of grading of various colonies, or specifying the width of roads around which shops may or may not be regularised, have only served to unnecessarily complicate the issue. This has also served to create divisions within the people. It has certainly added to the uncertainty, confusion and the resulting tension of people. In fact the entire work has been conducted in such a way as to create unnecessary, extreme tensions for lakhs of people, including women and children. Suicides and shock related deaths have already been reported.

No democratically elected government can turn itself away from the responsibility of protecting livelihood of lakhs of citizens suddenly threatened by disruption of livelihood. It is true that courts of law have the most respected role in a democratic set-up. But it is equally true that it is an essential democratic duty to draw attention to any harmful impact of court orders, particularly when these concern the fate of a large number of vulnerable people.

This issue has been made unnecessarily complicated and simple, democratic solutions are available. For all residential colonies a simple guideline can be adopted that three kinds of non-residential activities will be prohibited while all other activities will be allowed in a reasonably disciplined way The prohibited activities should be firstly those in which there is any possibility of a serious accident; secondly, those activities which are linked to serious health-problems (this includes noise pollution); thirdly, those activities which can have an adverse impact on moral health (for example liquor shops, or clubs carrying out obscene activities).

If these activities are strictly prohibited, then any other non-residential or commercial activities will not pose any serious problems for the overall well-being of the city and its citizens. However, an additional safeguard can be provided that if anyone is found to be carrying out non-residential activities in residential areas in such a way as to create serious problems for the neighbours then, on the basis of such complaints, action can be taken to check such activities on a case-by-case basis.

The work of identifying activities which deserve to be prohibited should be carried out in cooperation with local people, assisted by panels of experts constituted by government as well as non-government organisations. As the number of units identified in this way will be much smaller (compared to a blanket ban on commercial or non-residential activities) it will be much easier to plan for their resettlement whenever such rehabilitation is well deserved. The government should make available alternative sites to them at affordable rates and instalments.

In addition, urgent attention should also be given to rickshaw-pullers, vendors and others who are threatened by loss of livelihood due to distorted government policies or orders. Due to the entirely non-polluting nature of this form of transport and given the urgent need for reducing pollution and global warming, there is actually a new interest in cycle-rickshaws even in some cities which did not use them earlier. It is therefore particularly thoughtless that at this juncture many restrictions are being placed on rickshaw pullers in Delhi.

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