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The ‘rise’ of Delhi: How land policy changes ushered in new high-rise apartment culture

Private real estate developers like DLF, Unity, Parsvnath, Godrej, TARC and others are changing the skyline of what was traditionally a low-rise city.

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New Delhi: Till a little over a decade ago, luxury high-rise apartments and penthouses were associated with metros like Mumbai, Bengaluru or Hyderabad, or the “millennium city”, Gurugram. In the predominantly low-density Delhi landscape, they were a rarity.

But times have changed in the capital. As have building norms. There has been a spurt in luxury high-rise residential apartments over the past 13 years and these behemoths now, more and more, dot Delhi’s skyline thanks to a handful of private developers.

With the city bursting at the seams and facing an acute land shortage, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the central government decided to change to keep pace with reality. Delhi’s ‘masterplan’ was modified in 2013 and height restrictions were liberalised, allowing developers to build more swanky high-rise residential projects in Delhi.

By offering these apartments in prime locations, private real estate developers like DLF, Unity, Parsvnath, Godrej, TARC and others are changing what was traditionally a low-rise city. The DDA, too, has in recent years loosened its grip over the national capital’s housing sector.

“The markets of Delhi used to be only two floors and all the houses used to be single-floors, now they have all grown four times,” Rajeev Talwar, former CEO of DLF and now an advisor with the same firm, told ThePrint.

“Your low-rise residential colonies or such buildings were 10 floors, like the 50-year-old one on Feroz Shah Road. Four times that would be a 40-storey building. So, I think it’s in keeping with the times. Think about the population at the time of Independence and the population at the turn of the millennium and you’ll have your answer.”

In 2009, DLF became was the first commercial real estate developer to come up with a high-rise complex in Delhi with Capital Greens, a 39-floor structure in Moti Nagar.

According to Harsh Vardhan Bansal, owner of Unity Group, it was DLF that inspired others to enter the market.

“[The high-rise culture] wasn’t there in Delhi before that. For peaceful living, it was becoming important to live 30-40 metres above the ground to avoid noise and air pollution. Our architects who surveyed many other countries’ infrastructures advised us to go for high-rise buildings. I also think Delhi deserved the kind of development seen in Dubai and Singapore,” said Bansal.

“Moreover, before Covid, people were not so concerned with home living, but now they want spacious and luxurious spaces for themselves since work from home has become the norm,” he added.

Bansal’s Unity is the group behind The Amaryllis in Karol Bagh. With four towers, each one 182 metres and 47 storeys high, the residential complex has been labeled the ‘tallest building’ in the city.

The features and comforts of such luxury apartments run the gamut. DLF Capital Greens offers the least expensive options, with its 2/3/4 BHK luxury condominiums ranging from Rs 1.9 crore to Rs 9 crore. The most expensive are the Leela Sky Villas in New Patel Nagar, with 3/4/5/8 BHK “5-star branded residences” starting from Rs 6 crore costing approximately Rs 50 crore for an 8 BHK. DLF’s King Court residences fall in the Rs 10-30 crore range.

While Leela Villas’ charges are based on amenities which, they claim, are on par with extravagant hotel experiences — offering housekeeping, laundry, concierge, valet room service, spa, helipad cafe bar, and the highest glass-bottom pool in the country — the price tag of King’s Court seems to be based entirely on its coveted location in South Delhi’s tony Greater Kailash 2.

Okhla’s Godrej Prima, TARC Tripundra in Pushpanjali, Unity’s Amaryllis in Karol Bagh, M2K Victoria Gardens in Azadpur and DLF Midtown in Moti Nagar all fall in the Rs 2-10 crore range.

While changes in land policy have helped nurture the capital’s high-rise culture, there are experts who argue that this easing of building restrictions and privatising development is also a consequence of the DDA “failing” in its duty to provide adequate, good-quality housing.

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

From ghost towns to luxury complexes

Bansal spoke about how land acquisition in the most sought-after areas was made easy after Delhi’s “polluting” industries were shifted away from the city, as mandated in the Industrial to Residential (ITR) set-up given in the Master Plan of 2021. Under this, industrial lands that had become ghost plots could be converted into residential, commercial and IT areas.

“There used to be Swatantra Bharat Mills in Karampura where DLF built its project. One NTC mill was in Azadpur, on which M2K’s Victoria Gardens came up. Karol Bagh, where our Amaryllis was constructed, used to have housing for those working in the Delhi Cloth & General Mills (DCM),” said Bansal.

A Supreme Court order in 1996 had directed all the “hazardous/ noxious/ heavy industries” operating in Delhi to be relocated to other towns in the NCR to reduce pollution and traffic congestion. They were also promised compensation, and a list of suitable estates was given to them in areas like Noida, Alwar, Meerut, and Loni.

“Delhi is recording heavy population growth since 1951. As the city grows, its problems of land, housing, transportation and management of essential infrastructure like water supply and sewage have become more acute. Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. The city has become a vast and unmanageable conglomeration of commercial, industrial, unauthorised colonies, resettlement colonies and unplanned housing…The only way to relieve the capital city from the huge additional burden and pressures is to deconcentrate the population, industries and economic activities in the city,” said the order.

Amar Sarin, managing director and CEO of TARC, spoke to ThePrint about how the land policy changes have been beneficial for all the developers, including his group, since its project TARC Tripundra in Delhi’s Pushpanjali Farms is also on land that was previously home to an industrial unit. He added that the central government had also opened other avenues that helped them build high-rises.

“So, land parcels over 3,000 square metres have been allowed to go high-rise. The bylaws of both the DDA and the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) have been made quite favourable by incentivising us with FARs (floor area ratio) and extra ground areas. It paves the way for us to make ultra-luxury apartments for buyers,” said Sarin.

“It has also become easy to get sanctions. The authorities in Delhi have become quite liberal with allowing this, especially when you do development like we are doing, by providing safety and security in the complex. What’s now required are better roads, connectivity and better water supply by the local government; otherwise, everything else is in place,” he added.

FAR is the ratio of a building’s total floor area (gross floor area) to the size of the piece of land upon which it is built. In 2014, the FAR for plots measuring 750 square metres to 1,000 square metres was hiked from 150 per cent to 200 per cent, while FAR for plots measuring 1,000 square metres and above was enhanced from 120 per cent to 200 per cent.

Similarly, ground coverage was increased from 40 per cent to 50 per cent for plots of 1,000 square metres and above, and remained at 50 per cent for plots of 750-1,000 square metres. According to the Master Plan 2021, unnecessary controls like height were removed for optimum utilisation of land.

“The development control norms i.e. ground coverage, FAR etc. of respective use premises while allowing redevelopment/ reconstruction on the individual industrial plots shall be adhered to and there shall be no height restriction. The height shall be as per the requirement of the Airport Authority of India/ Fire Department,” reads the plan.

A senior official from the DDA said, “First it was only Old Delhi, then came other areas like Vasant Kunj, Jasola, South Extension, and then the sub-cities like Rohini, Dwarka and Narela, to accommodate the rising population”.

“When there is housing demand, then supply is also needed. If you go abroad, you see high-rises in the middle of the city, then the outer areas have houses that get shorter and shorter. In Delhi, the centre of the city is Lutyens’. By what policy can we throw people living in Lutyens’ out and make high-rises instead?” he said.

He added that vertical development was also required since Delhi is a landlocked city with fixed boundaries, and that’s why the Supreme Court gave builders permission to build on industrial lands along with other benefits.

Also read: Highway upgrade, droughts in one state affect housing demand in another, study shows

DDA’s failure?

According to K.T. Ravindran, senior academic advisor at Amity University’s RICS School of Built Environment, although the change in Delhi’s landscape was inevitable, the DDA failed in its fundamental duty to generate housing. This was no excuse for privatising development, he added.

He also spoke against the population argument, saying that if there was so much demand, why were there no takers for government apartments in Narela and other low-income housing in the city that’s lying half empty. It was, he added, because of the quality of construction and overall management.

“There is quite a mess of management and lack of governance. Introducing all these schemes, removing height restrictions and such, are all a cover-up to hide their failures,” said Ravindran.

“Height restrictions can only be removed if the infrastructure that you provide for those buildings has an enormous capacity to carry new growth, which includes a gamut of services — like water supply, roads and sewage treatment — that come under the government. The areas for development/ redevelopment are being chosen in arbitrary ways. Unlimited infrastructure has been allowed to be built, but there is no delivery of urban functions. First, increase its capacity to provide that, and then go ahead and increase your built form,” he added.

Many residents of DLF Capital Greens have complained about the toxic fumes that arise from the nearby Najafgarh drain. One such resident, Pawan Kumar, 43, told ThePrint about how it severely affects the air conditioning and other appliances in his home. “The smell from the drain is one problem. Then the toxic fumes coming from it react with the AC pipes and affect them, so the AC needs thorough maintenance every year, which is an added expense,” said Kumar.

Unity’s Bansal mentioned that the industrial lands come with their own set of issues, such as roads not being properly constructed, the existence of jhuggi-jhopri (JJ) clusters and a lack of green areas. But he believes that in the coming years, the government will address these issues.

An urban policy and planning expert, who worked on the 2041 Master Plan draft, spoke to ThePrint on condition of anonymity and said the plan was encouraging these “group housing” formats (high-rises) in place of single residential units since land in Delhi is limited.

“For every group housing, 15 per cent FRA is mandatorily given for housing to the economically weaker sections — beneficiaries identified by the government (with half meant for community service personnel). A developer will be looking to make profit. They won’t be interested in social housing. So, it becomes natural for them to create high-rise typology,” he said.

This incentive, stipulated in the Master Plan 2021, has been hailed by the developers as the counter to critics who question them for not providing housing at affordable rates.

DLF’s Talwar argued that by 2050, Delhi’s population will be more than it can support, and high-rises will be crucial to ensure everyone has a place.

He also said that vertical development has been good for the city, especially in ensuring green areas, since horizontal development would take up more space that can otherwise be used to make such spaces.

However, when ThePrint spoke to some real estate agents who were dealing in the reselling of DLF and Godrej flats, it was found that the flats for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), found in one corner of the building complexes, are either rented out or sold by the occupants.

In projects like Parsvnath’s La Tropicana in Civil Lines, which came up in 2010 according to its project in-charge Paramjeet Singh, no EWS flats have been built.

“If you see the income criteria of people living in Delhi, this city has a lot of rich people. People with money will say that if they are providing employment to the poor, why aren’t they getting a proper house to live in? They would move abroad otherwise. Those who can afford those houses (high-rises) are buying them. This is economics. The government can’t control everything. There is affordable housing (provided by the DDA), and there’s a requirement for luxurious housing, too, — and someone needs to make them. We also must have something to show others,” said Srirangan.

He added that even the government has started building tall towers under new provisions, giving the example of the East Kidwai Nagar Redevelopment Project, a massive residential complex on Delhi’s Ring Road.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

Also read: Rental housing in India is so broken, tenants and landlords are even teaming up in Delhi


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