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Urban Villages of Delhi at Risk of Natural Disaster

With incidents of earthquake getting more frequent in National Capital region, this article highlights how Delhi’s unplanned urban villages, already creaking under the burden off over-population and infrastructural shortages, would be most vulnerable to the risk of natural disasters. 

Urban Villages of DelhiDelhi is one of the largest metropolitan cities in the world. Between dense population and limited resources, it faces serious health, social, and environmental problems. Delhi, being the national capital, has had the privilege of planned development. But the unusual growth of this burgeoning megacity has set off all plans. The urban population has escalated from 8.472 million in 1991 to 16.75 million in 2011 census, which is substantial growth of more than 55 per cent. Such growth has put tremendous pressure not only on national resources, but has also increased risks of natural disaster. The city is dotted with all kinds of buildings and infrastructural facilities, ranging from very good constructions to extremely poor designs and constructions.

Delhi, being well-connected to all parts of the nation, has a rich mix of cultures. People from all over the country migrate to Delhi in search of better economic opportunities. Rapid population growth, fuelled by in-migration, has been the hallmark of creating a “top-heavy” structure of Delhi’s urbanisation. This has resulted in a continuous urban sprawl and deterioration of the urban environment. The situation is similar in most of Indian megacities.

The most pressing issue of urbanization is unplanned, haphazard urban growth and development of villages leading to urban villages.Delhi has at least 135 urban villages, all of which once existed as rural settlements (Lal Dora Committee, 2007).These are marked with high density of lower economic population, mainly migrants in the form of tenants. Urban villages are also characterised by unplanned buildings, narrow roads and by-lanes, lack of proper sanitation and drinking water, low cost business activities, and informal or unregistered business and manufacturing activities. Urban villages in Delhi are “protected” habitation lands, which have been exempted from the urban development authorities and are not affected by any building by-laws (Delhi Municipal Act, 1957). In a typical rural village, the village authority is well-defined. But in an urban village, there is no distinct political institution or governance structure. Each person tries to exercise authority, and it is the land mafia literally at work.

If one goes through lanes of urban villages like Munirka, Hauz Khas, Hauz Rani, Tughlakabad, Khirkee, Begumpur, Sangam Vihar, Sheikh Sarai and Nizamuddin, one finds that there is hardly any space for people to pass through the narrow lanes, leave alone vehicles. Animals like donkeys are used to bring in building material through these narrow lanes for construction. Rapid construction and stacking floors over floors, without undertaking any safety measures, is taking place in these areas. This is just a way for many land owners in these villages to maximize their monetary benefits. High income from tenancy is another factor which has led to haphazard and mindless construction of buildings. These buildings are of major concern in case of any disaster, as they have poor safety measures and the density of population in urban villages is very high.

These urban villages are home to thousands of students who migrate to Delhi for better educational opportunities as they are cheap and affordable.People from nearby places who migrate in search of work also reside in such villages. For instance, Munirka Village caters to lower middle class section of the urban population, with small-scale businesses mushrooming in every corner of the village. Its residents range from migrant labourers to students from all parts of India.

The seismic zoning map of India divides the country into four seismic zones, namely Zone II (MSK intensity VI), Zone III (MSK intensity VII), Zone IV (MSK VIII) and Zone V (MSK intensity IX or more), and according to map, Delhi falls under Zone III (earthquake intensities of VII MSK or more) (Shailesh et al, 2006). Delhi, being home to such large population and falling under high seismic zone, requires immediate attention, especially to such urban villages. There is urgent need for the government to look into urban villages. Urban planning bodies and urban planners need to function more efficiently in order to save these areas from becoming urban slums. The population growth of Delhi vis-a-vis the finiteness of environmental resources, stress on common property resources (such as ground water) and civic amenities poses serious threat to sustainability of the city.

As already mentioned, Delhi falls in the seismically active zone and might face an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 in a period of 50 years and there is 80% probability of magnitude 7.0 event in the region (Ghosh, 2008). Such high impact earthquakes will lead to insurmountable destruction of human lives, property and social fabric of the city. Growing population, ill planned habitat and non-engineered building practices have compounded the risk of many urban conglomerations. Thus, assessing the multi-hazards and risks of built structures, taking appropriate structural and non-structural mitigation measures, and managing post disaster events efficiently, are some of the challenging tasks of disaster management that the city needs to deal with.

In terms of construction practices, India has developed National Building Code (2005) and hazard-specific practices and guidelines. In spite of availability of such documents, enforcement mechanism, applicability and implementation is most deficient. Existing urban villages do not address safety requirements of build environment. Therefore, there is need to carry out seismic analysis of existing buildings to make them safe against earthquake forces using seismic retrofitting techniques. There is a need to develop suitable screening methods for seismic safety of existing buildings so that prioritization may be undertaken on the deficient buildings (Ghosh, 2008).

There is urgent need to check and control illegal construction in various urban villages of Delhi and to strengthen the emergency response capability in such villages. By making general population more aware of consequences of natural disaster and investing more in developing appropriate capacity development interventions – such as conducting mock drills by creating simulated situations across the city involving schools, colleges, metro-network, malls, markets, hospitals and road transport – we can test and check Delhi’s disaster response mechanism in the event of a high-intensity earthquake. An effective earthquake management system can reduce and make us better prepared for the consequences of such an event.

[Nida Yamin is a student at TERI University pursuing her Masters in Sustainable Development Practice (MA-SDP).] 


  1. “Earthquake Risk Mitigation Strategies”; C. Ghosh; National Institute of Disaster Management, New Delhi, October 2008; India.
  2. “Seismic Hazard Assessment for Delhi Region”; Shailesh Kr. Agrawal & Jyoti Chawla; Central Building Research Institute; Current Science; December 2006; India.
  3. Report of the expert committee on Lal Dora and extended Lal Dora in Delhi; January 2007; India; available at: (accessed on 24th April 2012)

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