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The plans for the world’s next largest city are incomplete

  • Sarika Bansal, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-01-21 14:42:21 BdST

An aerial view of sprawl in Delhi, May 8, 2021. The tangle of cities and districts around Delhi is so sprawling that no canonical count of its population exists; estimates range from 30 million to 60 million. Atul Loke/The New York Times

Within eight years, Delhi is expected to surpass Tokyo to become the largest megalopolis in the world, making it the epicentre of a global phenomenon: Fifteen years ago, most of the world’s population lived in the countryside, and today, most live in cities. The United Nations says two-thirds of people will live in urban areas by 2050. Delhi is one of the most extreme barometers of this transformation.

Every two decades or so since 1962, the official planning organisation of Delhi has developed a master plan intended to guide the future development of the city. Last year marked the end of Delhi’s Master Plan for 2021, which was adopted in 2007 with hopes of “obliterating the slums, taming the traffic and importing a Manhattan-like skyline.” But architects, urban planners and other experts say Delhi’s plan has remained mostly on paper. Understanding Delhi’s present and future requires looking beyond the city proper, toward the complex ecosystem growing around it.

While the city of Delhi grew half as much as its planners were expecting — from 15 million to 19 million people — the megalopolis that has Delhi at its centre, known as the National Capital Region, has ballooned. This amorphous tangle of cities and districts is so sprawling that no canonical count of its population exists; estimates range from 30 million to 60 million. Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research and co-editor of the book “Colossus: An Anatomy of Delhi,” said it took him and his colleagues a year to even define the region's limits.

“If you look at night lights on satellite images, that is a good proxy for what urban India looks like, and that’s not as clear as what maps tell you,” said Rahul Mehrotra, founder and principal of RMA Architects. The “galaxy of settlements” revealed by these nighttime images, Mehrotra said, functions as a large conglomerate, including cities such as Gurgaon, 20 miles southwest of Delhi’s centre, and Noida, in the east, where glitzy high-rises and office complexes sit next to tin roofs and tarpaulin shelters.

The seemingly infinite sprawl of the region is the story of megacities around the world. People come and go across these messy boundaries, many looking to pick up work in the informal economy that pays most of Delhi’s workers. “We are bursting at the seams,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India. “We have to plan for it and have better infrastructure.”

Today’s Delhi National Capital Region has already outstripped its ability to provide what Muttreja calls “social infrastructure that improves quality of life”: clean air and water, sewage treatment, dignified housing and health care. The region contains seven of the 10 cities with the world’s worst air quality, according to 2020 data from IQAir, an air-quality technology company. How will the metropolis of the future cope with its exponential growth?


Delhi’s new draft Master Plan for 2041 envisions a megacity where unauthorised slums are razed and replaced with tall buildings with affordable housing units. It imagines a breathable metropolis with ample green space. It highlights the city’s economic potential as a startup hub and cultural capital.

But much of Delhi’s evolution is driven by the vast part of its workforce that is informally employed, an estimated 70%. “Cities are basically job markets,” said Reuben Abraham, CEO of the IDFC Institute, a Mumbai-based think tank. And when most of the jobs are informal — whether street vendors, cooks, waste pickers or construction workers — the area has to accommodate the daily flux of people moving between jobs and shelter, working out of homes and public spaces as well as offices and shops.

Conventional city planning as it has been practiced in Delhi and elsewhere is antithetical to that dynamism, many experts say. In practice, some argue, “planning” in Delhi is a euphemism for the state deciding after the fact what construction is authorised and what is not, a process critics say lends itself to inequity, corruption and shortsightedness.

The National Capital Region “has been developed not out of planning, but out of ‘regularisation,’” said Krishna Menon, an architect and urban planner who helped formulate the 2007 Master Plan. “We don’t do pollution studies, traffic studies. People say, ‘Let’s just go out and build it, and deal with problems as they arise.’ That’s shooting first and asking questions later.”

Land records in the Delhi National Capital Region’s tangle of jurisdictions rarely match reality, particularly outside established urban centres, said Tara van Dijk, an urban geographer at the University of Oxford.

In some cases, informal housing and development practices permit the region’s wealthy and well-connected residents to effectively secede into their own gated communities, Mehrotra said. “They use the amenities of the cities; they don’t pay taxes to the city because they’re outside city limits. They use the hospitals in the city, their kids go to school in the city, they commute with chauffeur-driven cars.”

If the National Capital Region is to realise its lofty aspirations, close observers of its evolution say its governance must encompass the entire region and be inclusive of all residents. “You cannot solve slums by wiping them out and putting them far away,” Menon said. “That’s just curing the symptom.”


While the gravitational pull of the city may be the headline of Delhi’s evolution, its fortunes remain deeply tied to its surrounding region and the country as a whole.

Even as the megacity grows, connections to rural areas remain vital. A troubled agriculture sector still provides primary employment for 60% of India’s people. Economic conditions, already difficult, worsened with two years of the pandemic, shaking the urban economy and sending numerous workers back to their home villages.

“As the recent farmer protests show, there are tensions in surrounding rural areas, from rising inequality to the difficulty of basic livelihoods,” Sircar said. The anxiety, he says, is evident in questions farmers are asking, like, “What will our children do? If we are not able to get them a job at a fancy firm, what is the economic future of our children?”

By the time Delhi’s next master plan expires in 2041, India will probably have overtaken China as the world’s most populous country. But its growth hides a looming trend: People are having fewer children in India, across regions and income groups, Muttreja said. In some parts of the country, fertility rates have fallen to — or have even dipped below — replacement rates. In the southern state of Kerala, people are having 1.8 children on average.

India is a young country, with two-thirds of its population under 35 years old. By midcentury, however, it could be approaching a population plateau. How that possibility might shape the largest city of the future is still unknown.

“The speed of population decline in India is staggering,” Abraham said. “Everyone is focused on the ‘up’ story. But that is reflective of India 20 years ago. What about the India 20 years from now? That’s the question we should be asking.”

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