Chandigarh losing its edge
Illustration: Gaurav Sood

Chandigarh’s fringes are being ravaged like never before. Thousands of illegal constructions have come up, destroying the greens meant to shield the city. The Punjab Capital Periphery Control Act seems to have lost its relevance. The Act requires to be recast if the city’s natural cover has to be salvaged. Aditi Tandon and Chitleen K. Sethi report 

Widespread encroachments

As age catches on with Chandigarh, jungles of concrete are slowly moving in and gobbling up the greens around it. The concept of planned urban development that formed the very spirit of the city’s Master Plan lies in shreds as lure of the land entices speculators to flout laws.

Farmhouses in Kansal flout the Periphery Act.
Farmhouses in Kansal flout the Periphery Act. 
— Photo by Parvesh Chauhan

With open lands vanishing from its fringes, the city can’t but succumb to the perils of growth in the 21st century. Even as an old hand involved in its conception cries out in desperation, "Watch out, its lungs are choking," no one seems to be paying any heed. Chandigarh’s periphery stands a silent witness to its desecration at the hands of hungry land grabbers.

The extent of violations in the 1362 sq km periphery area (72 per cent in Punjab; 24 per cent in Haryana and 4 per cent in UT) is massive: UT Estate Office sources estimate that 472 acres of the unacquired land is currently under periphery violations. The majority of the violations are in Mauli Jagran (150 acre), Daria (75 acre), Burail (50 acre) and Palsora (40 acre).

Against the rule: A housing complex at Sarangpur village
Against the rule: A housing complex at Sarangpur village. — Photo by Parvesh Chauhan

Haryana, though silent over violations, has a much larger proportion of land under the Punjab New Capital (Periphery) Control Act infringement, and Punjab, which is still assessing the damage as per directions of the High Court, has still larger chunks supporting illegal growth.

Passed in 1952, the Act prohibits erection and re-erection except for purposes of agriculture and other activites subservient to it. Rough surveys however suggest that about 40,000 illegal constructions dot the entire periphery, even as Haryana continues to build in Panchkula and Mansa Devi Complex and Punjab goes on with the expansion of Mohali. Short of funds, Punjab and Haryana are resorting to violations to make up for their cash crunch by selling prime periphery land at handsome prices.

Officials admit their hands are tied down when it comes to enforcement as many VIPs and politicians own plots in periphery areas. A serving Chandigarh MC councillor owns land in Manimajra, which he has allegedly acquired through plotting. Before the Estate Office could take action, the Mayor asked the Office not to take over the said land.

A senior functionary at Punjab Urban Development Authority (PUDA), Mohali zone, admitted that hundreds of illegal colonies had emerged in the periphery zone. The government is now working to freeze illegal growth. "I have passed 7000 demolition orders but enforcement is difficult as retired/serving bureaucrats, police officers and people holding gubernatorial posts own lands in these areas," he said.

So grave is the situation that the Act formulated to save UT’s periphery from unplanned growth today lies in tatters. At this pace a day will come when not an inch of open land would be left in UT’s periphery. Punjab and Haryana have already been advocating that the Act should be repealed. While Chief Town Planner Haryana Surjit Singh labels the Act redundant, a Subordinate Legislative Committee, headed by the Deputy Speaker, Punjab, recently almost directed the government to abrogate the law. With politicians promising regularisation of illegal structures, the situation is only turning worse.

Punjab has failed to check unregulated construction in periphery villages like Baltana, Naya Gaon, Dakoli, Zirakpur and Kansal. Due to PUDA’s policy of least resistance to illegal colonising, there’s a difference in the property rates in Punjab villages under the periphery zone and the UT villages adjoining them.

Baltana in Punjab reportedly has no agricultural land left. One acre here costs Rs 1 crore. In contrast, in UT where implementation of the Act is still stringent, the cost of land in Raipur Kalan, adjoining Baltana, is just Rs 15 lakh. A similar difference persists in property rates in periphery villages of Nayagaon (Punjab) and Khuda Alisher (UT). Attached with Estate Office UT as in charge of Periphery, Balraj explains the disparity, "We conduct regular demolition drives which prevent land prices from escalating, but Punjab allows a free hand to colonisers."

Till July, 2004, UT Land Acquisition Officer S.K. Setia had passed 685 cumulative demolitions orders in 22 UT villages in the periphery zone. Most of them were in Kishangarh (114), Hallomajra (111) and Manimajra (100).

Officials say there are about 4000 illegal structures in UT’s periphery. Violations are rampant in Khuda Jassu, Khuda Lahora and Sarangpur where a multistorey building is coming up in violation of Chandihgarh’s Edict. Till now, UT has registered only three cases for Periphery Act violations. Interestingly, illegal structures that numbered 1000 before elections rose to about 4000 after elections, courtesy politicians, who assure regularisation of unauthorised growths.

Pawan Kumar Bansal, MP, is a proclaimed votary of the extension of lal dora. Habitation outside lal dora (adabi area) is said to be four times higher than within it. The shift is explained by availability of cheaper land outside lal dora where one marla costs just Rs 60,000. Inside lal dora, the same plot costs Rs 1.25 lakh.

Pained at the scenario, MN Sharma, the first Chief Architect of UT, says, "We are slaughtering the Act to please the high and mighty who own plots in the periphery zone. It was to save the greens and provide for nutrients that the Periphery Act came in 1952. Unfortunately, violations came faster."

With repeated infringements of the Act, some planners in Punjab and Haryana are now questioning its validity, especially in the wake of the growing number of violations. Haryana calls for updating the Act, while Punjab has long been contemplating its repeal.

Private builders in Karoran and Nadda villages of Punjab have raised constructions till Patiala ki Rao, besides raising plinth levels of plots obstructing the flow of rainwater. These villages house four big housing societies– Shivalik Nagar, Dashmesh Nagar, Adarsh Nagar and Gobind Nagar. Gulmohar Complex has come up in Kharar, violating the Periphery Act.

Senior HC Advocate G.S. Grewal, who won the "Anandgarh" township case against the Punjab Government, says: "Punjab recently acquired land in Sohana to build another residential complex. The Chief Administrator, PUDA, said profits from the five sectors would be saved to build PUDA offices. This shows how profitable colonisation is for PUDA. Illegal growth thus suits a cash-strapped Punjab."

With the High Court recently pulling up Punjab for repeated violation of the Periphery Act, a committee headed by Chief Secretary is working out ways to regulate growth. PUDA is also video-graphing the periphery zone to determine the extent of violations. The committee will submit its report shortly. The focus will be on the evolution of a Master Plan and identification of green belts. Meanwhile, PUDA has been demanding more enforcement staff. PUDA Mohali Zone has just two junior engineers to look after one lakh hectare of land. — A.T.


Periphery Act needs changes

In the Brief Review of Work Done in Chandigarh since November 1966, M.S. Randhawa had noted: "Out of the 10,649 plots sold in Chandigarh, only 5265 have been built upon and 5384 are still lying vacant...To keep developed urban land un-built is a national waste. Notices were issued to persons who had not built homes and as a result of this, 1056 houses were built."

For a city that was to be the harbinger of all that is modern, it seems that Randhawa, Chief Commissioner of Chandigarh, was having problems in finding takers for this modern experiment, even 16 years after it was started.

On the anvil

Residential constructions have come up outside the lal dora in Naya Gaon village
Residential constructions have come up outside the lal dora in Naya Gon village. — Photo by Parvesh Chauhan

The Punjab Government proposes to divide the periphery into zones — residential, recreational, institutional, industrial — to prevent unregulated and haphazard growth. However, eco-fragile zones in the periphery covered under the Forests and Land Preservation Act would not be altered.

It also proposes to levy a development charge and a land-use change fee for every permission granted to develop the periphery. While the latter would accrue to the state exchequer, the former would be put into a separate "Periphery Fund" for improving the physical infrastructure in the region.

Significant relief for the original inhabitants of the periphery villages is envisaged in the draft Periphery Policy. It is for the first time that such a feature has been included. Hitherto proposals had been confined merely to broad parameters for change of land use for elitist activities like farmhouses, sports, tourism and high professional education.

The new provisions would make it easy for the villagers to go in for construction for bona fide residential purposes within 100 metres around the village. This facility would, however, be available only to a landowner, who is able to establish that he has been actually residing in the village for over 10 years. The state government is also trying to woo the periphery panchayats by offering them 50 per cent of the land use change fees for the development of the respective villages. The remaining half is also proposed to be used within the periphery for regional-level infrastructure.

The Chandigarh Administration plans to acquire all open areas in villages and have a "green wall" around the city, which will effectively put a stop to construction outside the lal doras of the villages. The concept to have only green areas in the future has been mooted by UT Administrator Justice O.P. Verma, who is in favour of having parks, green areas or gardens in these open places. — C. K. S

And it was probably for this reason alone that Randhawa allowed the first breach into what was supposed to be the sacrosanct green wall around Chandigarh’s countryside, preserved and guarded so cleverly by the Punjab Capital Periphery Control Act, 1952. By 1966, the city and its feeder villages needed some relaxations. A host of exemptions were given out to those who had land in the periphery and wanted to take part in activities subservient to agriculture.

"The main idea behind this control (on the periphery) was to curb the growth of slums along the roads, which to a large measure, has been successful. This control has, however, been unimaginatively worked and has stifled the development of the countryside, which feeds Chandigarh with food grains, fruits, vegetables and milk,’’ wrote Randhawa in Chandigarh: The Problems of a Growing City in 1967.‘‘Consequent modifications in the policy have been made and greater freedom has been given to farmers to build farm houses, tubewells, cattle sheds and poultry sheds. Type plans for farmhouses have been prepared by M.N. Sharma and S.D. Sharma, architects.... Thus the capital would be provided with a green belt specialising in mixed farming. Unlike in Delhi, this green belt would be really green," he added.

However, with the re-constitution of states in 1966, while Chandigarh’s periphery remained the 16-km belt around the city, constituting 1,362 sq km of a single geographical belt, its administration was divided between three governments. And, this division was going to have far-reaching effects on the future of Chandigarh.

‘‘Periphery being fragmented lost its relevance with Chandigarh going out of the purview of the respective states. But Chandigarh, now the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana, came under tremendous population and development pressure. The periphery also became ripe for development. In order to take advantage of the development potential, Punjab and Haryana set up Mohali and Panchkula within the peripheral area. This started an unending exploitation of the periphery, which went on gaining momentum. Large-scale unplanned and unauthorised structures came up in the area,’’ points out city-based architect Jeet Kumar Gupta.

While city architects blame governments for lack of will to enforce the provisions of the Act by grossly misusing the powers vested under Section 11 of the Act to permit land use change, they concede that governments have also been dealing with a rapidly increasing population. Chandigarh recorded the highest growth rate (140 per cent from 1961 to 71) among Class I cities of the country. In 1991, Chandigarh achieved its targeted population of 510565 persons with a growth rate of 34.48 per cent, to become the only city to achieve the planned population for four decades. The population went beyond the target in 2001 when Chandigarh urban agglomeration recorded a population of 8 lakh with a density of 7903 persons per square km — the second highest in the country after Delhi. The population in slums was recorded at 10,7098 in 2001. The result was most visible in the periphery, which became a concrete jungle with over 13000 structures inhabited by a population of over 2.5 lakh.

And while Le Corbusier’s prophecy — that if a city and its periphery were to interchange their basic functions, it would lead to anarchy — came true, none of his followers seemed to have an idea of how to grapple with the ugly sight that Chandigah’s periphery was turning into due to substandard, unplanned and irregular semi-urban growth. ‘‘Various development pressures that the periphery came under could have been absorbed within the existing settlements in the periphery. The effects of the capital city’s growth could have been studied incorporating the already existing towns and villages in the area. This approach could have guided development forces to remain within the existing settlements without the need for establishing news towns and settlements. The focus, however, was to have new towns,’’ points out Gupta.

Punjab, with 74 per cent share of Chandigarh’s periphery, has been trying to hammer out a comprehensive Periphery Policy since 1998 but only the decision of setting up Zirakpur Nagar Panchayat (NAC) has seen the light of day. The most unimaginative and politically motivated decision of the Punjab Government was to blindly regularise all those structures that came up before December 1998. The decision not only played havoc with town planning but also encouraged further construction in the area.

"And this is exactly what the government is planning to do once again as part of its periphery policy. How can Chandigarh allow such a thoughtless policy to take shape? Instead of formulating a policy that will freeze all construction in the area and maintain the periphery’s sanctity, the Punjab Government wants to take advantage of the situation... and exploit the ready captive vote bank of unauthrorised inhabitants," says M.N. Sharma. But the government’s line of reasoning is different. "The proposed policy will be transparent and people-friendly. It would encourage low-density development of the periphery for institutions, sports facilities, tourism-related infrastructure and farmhouses. This would ensure a kind of self-policing of the periphery, since it was felt that "freezing" the entire area as "agricultural zone" wasn’t possible either from a pragmatic perspective or from the point of town and country planning," says K.B.S. Sidhu, Secretary, Urban Housing and Development, Punjab.

‘‘The entire approach to managing the periphery area needs a change. However the new plan should not be evolved individually by UT or the partner states. It should be decided collectively for its effective implementation. The content and intent of the Act would need a drastic change keeping in view the ground realities. The new policy should shift the focus from conservation to development and lay emphasis on a few potential areas rather than the entire periphery. It should aim at preserving the character of the periphery rather than allowing haphazard and unauthorised growth in an isolated manner," says Gupta.

— C.K.S.