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‘Unliveable’ — why DDA’s Narela sub-city is a ghost town despite investment of ‘1000s of crores’

Narela was expected to be Delhi’s next Rohini or Dwarka, a bustling city within the city. But instead, it is a shell of a town. Those who do live here want escape. What went wrong?

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New Delhi: A stench of rot fills the air as one walks through the paths of Golden Apartment in north Delhi’s Narela, near the border with Haryana. There are signs of what could have been — tall buildings, green patches, paved paths. But the structures look abandoned, weeds sway in the unkempt gardens, and the roads are strewn with garbage. It’s also eerily quiet.

Golden Apartment was built by the capital’s largest land-owning body, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), an agency of the central government that plans and develops residential, commercial, and public projects in the national capital.

The housing project in Narela’s Pocket 1-A was envisioned as a bustling township, but no one really wants to live here, and many who do, wish they didn’t.

“Only about 600 flats out of 1,600 must be occupied. Many people wanted to surrender them after buying from the government, as amenities were bad, but couldn’t for some reason. They now regret it as they are not able to resell them,” said Aman Kumar, a resident of Golden Apartment.

Kumar runs a coaching centre a few kilometres away from his home, but the commute is a hassle. “One has to walk quite a lot to reach the bus station. And there is no metro connectivity whatsoever.” He takes his own vehicle to work, but complains that though the roads are wide, they are not “well laid out”.

It’s a similar story elsewhere too in Narela, which has had a hard time of living up to its designation as Delhi’s third DDA-planned mega sub-city, after Rohini and Dwarka, under the Urban Extension Project.

The latter two sub-cities — self-contained settlements within Delhi that straddle the zone between urban and suburban — have plenty of takers, but Narela is still a ghost town.

Covering about 9,866 hectares (98 sq km), Narela’s population was expected to witness a boom from about 1.8 lakh in 2001 to a number closer to its “holding capacity” of over 16 lakh by 2021. The idea was that people from all over Delhi would flock to stay in its affordable housing projects.

Garbage overflowing at Golden Apartment in Narela | Sukriti Vats | ThePrint

“Narela was a planned habitation bordering Haryana, slightly away from the main city, in which development started in the late 90s (around 1998-1999). The advantage it offered was to the comparatively not so well-off people who could own large estates — not very large, but better than the one-room places they would get in the inner part of the city,” said P.K. Ghosh, former vice-chairman of DDA, who has overseen its expansion.

Yet, two decades down the line, it seems that many people would still rather stay in a poky one-room flat in a jam-packed neighbourhood than in the “large estates” of Narela.

The DDA had reportedly invested as much as Rs 3,000 crore to develop housing projects in Narela as of 2019. While a metro line is in the works, and the DDA approved schemes worth around Rs 825 crore for developing infrastructure last year, residents alleged that they are yet to see the results.

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Sweet deals, but ‘poor response’

The three sub-cities of Dwarka, Rohini, and Narela were envisioned by the DDA in 1987 to meet the increasing demands for affordable housing in the national capital. Situated close to bordering states, they were developed by acquiring agricultural lands and building large-scale housing projects.

Of the three sub-cities, Narela has the largest holding capacity — over 16 lakh people, compared to 13 lakh in Dwarka and about 9 lakh in Rohini — and seemed to have the potential of turning into a mini-metropolis in its own right.

But this hasn’t panned out and it has been frequently touted as a “ghost town” for its sparse population.

Last year, in a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Kaushal Kishore, Union minister of state for housing and urban affairs, said that the DDA has put on sale 56,932 flats in four of its housing schemes since 2014.

Of these, 15,500 have been returned by the allottees, of which a whopping 79 per cent were located in Narela sub-city.

More DDA flats under construction in Narela | Sukriti Vats | ThePrint

The reasons given by the allottees for backing out ranged from high prices, small sizes, and low quality of the flats to remote location and insufficient connectivity.

Narela is more than 40 km away from central Delhi and the majority of the flats come under the Lower Income Group (LIG) and Economically Weaker Section (EWS) categories.

Former DDA vice-chairman Ghosh said that it was thought Narela would appeal to people who had limited funds and who had work/business dealings in the northern part of the city. But, when it came to the crunch, the costs outweighed the benefits for many.

“Even when the residences started coming up in Narela, people had an attitude where they were happy getting even a small place to squeeze themselves into as long as they were in the middle of the city or close to their place of work instead of coming all the way to Narela,” he added.

In response to the low demand for its housing projects, the DDA has tried to sweeten the deal for allottees by giving them more options.

“When the DDA flats were not successfully sold through the earlier (lottery) rounds, they started offering flats to people by ‘choice’ in 2020,” said Satendra Singh, a Narela resident and shop-owner.

Singh was referring to the decision taken by then lieutenant-governor Anil Baijal, where for the very first time, applicants were allowed to choose the location of the flat (floor level etc.).

This was possible if they were successful in the draw of lots conducted by the DDA, which is the agency’s usual practice for implementing its housing scheme.

Another step that was taken more recently because of “poor response” from homebuyers was the relaxation in the EWS house allotment scheme. It involved allotting the EWS flats on the basis of the family income being less than Rs 10 lakh per annum instead of the earlier condition that the applicant’s annual individual income should be less than ₹3 lakh. This was done by the agency to “dispose of its unsold inventory”.

‘Poor planning’, connectivity are major issues

As far as development goes, Narela got a headstart in the late 1970s, when the construction of its industrial town was initiated. But it is still considered far from a desirable place to live.

While some say it’s because the “planning is all out of place”, others say the facilities in DDA houses are “sub par” and that it was useless for the government to keep constructing new towers without populating the ones already completed.

Last year in October, the DDA had approved schemes of around Rs 825 crore for Narela, including construction of a water supply lines, storm water drains/sewerage, boundary walls, street lights, and so on.

“In annual budget 2021-22, a significant component of the expenditure was earmarked for Narela sub-city…as it is a priority area,” a statement by DDA had said in a statement.

DDA budget receipts show that the agency had allocated Rs 200 crore each in 2017-2018, 2018-2019, 2019-2020, and Rs 207 crore in 2020-2021 towards Narela. However, the actual spending has been in deficit, the documents showed. 

Residents told ThePrint that their day to day lives are still beleaguered by issues related to “poor planning”.

“Look at our sewage system that has been blocked because of all the construction in the area. The latrine water flows right back to our homes. It can be a source of many diseases,” said Kumar, quoted earlier, showing the leakage to ThePrint.

Sewage water stagnates outside a housing society in Narela | Sukriti Vats | ThePrint

Businessman Dev Kataria, who owns two DDA flats in Narela, was doubly disappointed.

“No one is attending to the dust pollution created by construction projects and the factory so close to our houses — not the Pollution Control Board, or Delhi government, or the Centre,” he said. “People here are not living because it’s simply not liveable.”

Another common grouse is a lack of connectivity.

Narela has one DTC bus stop called Narela Terminal that hosts buses going to 24 different routes. However, the closest metro station, Jahangirpuri on the yellow line, is at least 19 km away and takes take anywhere between 30 to 50 minutes to reach.

“There have been efforts made like planning for the metro line but change hasn’t happened yet. The metro will make more people come here,” said resident Noor Fathima.

According to her, Narela has a lot of issues because it is an “out area” and thus not developed like Rohini and Dwarka.

While there are a couple of shopping centres here, they are of the more basic variety, and the closest theatre is about 11 km away.

“There is no entertainment here, like theatre and malls. Everything is very far away… either in Rohini or Janakpuri, which are about 15-20km away. There is only a small Narela market from where people get all their things,” Satendra Singh said.

Speaking to ThePrint, K.T. Ravindran, senior academic advisor at the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), an autonomous body under the ministry of urban affairs, conceded that Narela had not been as well-planned as Dwarka, which he said had been “reasonably successful”.

A vegetable vendor on a deserted road in Narela | Sukriti Vats | ThePrint

“Dwarka is more seriously planned in a way that it has better amenities,” he said, adding that it also had “better connectivity”.

Ghosh argued that for any place to be successful, two things are needed — good schools and good hospitals. There seems to be an adequate number of private and government schools, but the number of hospitals appears to be insufficient.

“My children go to Kendriya Vidyalaya but it has limited seats so all students cannot get admission there and some of them can’t afford fees for private education. There is one hospital in the vicinity, but don’t get proper service there. They just give referrals for serious patients to go to other hospitals,” Singh said, speaking about the amenities near Golden Apartment.

Speaking to ThePrint on condition of anonymity, a former senior DDA official, who was a part of their planning department in the early days of the sub-city project in the 90s, said he was still unsure why Narela never became popular. According to him, the location is “fantastic”, it has “all the facilities required”, and also has “good connectivity”.

“When this project was decided, the metro route was supposed to go through Narela, later it was diverted to Rohini. We thought it would be taken in a next phase. So, the Narela project was planned in anticipation of the metro line. But despite that, there was already a railway line linkage to Delhi. Local trains are there, right? There is a big Bawana industrial area on one side, and the Narela industrial unit on the other. So it’s also a work centre,” he said.

When asked about why people were reluctant to move there, he said that it was all about choice and maybe if “other developments” like the metro had taken place at a faster rate it might have made a difference.

‘Hub of crime’

Narela’s ‘disconnectedness’ from the rest of the city and the poor infrastructure here have made it a nursery for crime, residents claim.

“During the night outside the apartment complex, I have a constant fear that someone might catch me in the dark. This area is very unsafe, there are no lights outside, and even if I am in a vehicle with my family, it’s very scary,” Noor Fathima said.

Ram Veer Yadav, who has been living in Narela for two years, also feared for his children and wife because it gets “too dark” in the absence of street lights and theft is common.

“Instead of malls and markets, there are alcohol shops. The thieves snatch purses, sell their contents and buy drinks for themselves,” he said.

Ravindran also said fear of crime is one of the major reasons why people baulk at moving to Dwarka.

“I have heard of many cases of dacoities, breaking in, and other crimes. One reason is that Narela is close to the border, so it can be an easy escape route for thieves. Another problem with the place is no last-mile connectivity, which means people would have to walk to most places,” he said.

Official stance: metro, road coming soon

The DDA has maintained for a while now that Narela is a “priority area for development” and that major improvements are afoot.

Asked about the claims of residents, DDA spokesperson Bijay Shanker Patel said that their issues sounded “contradictory” since they were complaining about lack of development on one hand and too much development-related construction on the other.

“It takes time to build so many houses. Those houses will lead to development. DDA is not a real-estate company… if we won’t develop these less-accessible areas, then who will? Private companies won’t invest in remote places like this,” Patel said.

He gave the examples of the success stories of Dwarka and Rohini.

“When you see Dwarka you feel good, other parts of Delhi look congested. That is what DDA has done. We have built many facilities, look at the Rohini Sports Complex — many don’t get such benefits,” he said.

Earlier this year, the DDA had acknowledged that the housing schemes were “less preferred” than the other sub-cities, but that metro connectivity would change the status quo.

To this end, it was reported this April, the DDA had given Rs 130 crore to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) to expedite the construction of a new line in Narela.

In 2019, Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had announced that the plan would get approved in the next few months.

He had said that one of the major “concerns of people who purchased DDA flats in Narela’s G-2 and G-8 sectors was lack of public transport”, and the corridor “will help Narela, which has earned the sobriquet of a ghost town, as a majority of flats constructed by the DDA there are lying unoccupied”.

However, a senior DMRC official told ThePrint on condition of anonymity that the Rithala-Bawana-Narela metro corridor has not been approved yet by the Centre, and that the finer details would be chalked out only after its go-ahead.

“The Rithala-Narela corridor is awaiting approval from the government. As per the proposal, this corridor comprises 22.9 km with 19 metro stations,” he said.

The former senior official from DDA (planning) quoted earlier added that road connectivity was also expected to improve.

“As a planner I believe it has got all the facilities required, location-wise and connectivity-wise also as the Urban Extension Road is also coming up now,” he added.

He was referring to upcoming “Delhi’s third ring road” that was planned a decade ago and was going to ease the traveling from the extreme northern end of the national capital to South Delhi through IGI airport a “breeze.” In its 2022-2023 budget, the DDA allocated Rs 725 crore for this road, which is expected to improve the commute from the three sub-cities to other parts of Delhi.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: Who plans Indian cities? Development Authorities who still follow colonial masterplans


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