Delhi’s well brought-up neighbour

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018

Premium offer: Greater Noida held out an amenity which the Capital could no longer afford—space Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Cruising zone: Traffic on the Noida-Greater Noida expressway is largely made up of private cars, and public transport is a rare sight Photo: Ramesh Sharma

The better-planned city with superior infrastructure, Greater Noida also mirrors the widening socio-economic divides that such projects frequently give rise to

Delhi is left behind, in every way, when you get onto the Noida-Greater Noida Expressway. The Capital’s unruly traffic, as also that of its upmarket neighbour, Noida, is past me. The driver swiftly shifts to the top gear. As cars zip by, it’s hard to miss the homogeneousness of the traffic. Public transport is a rare sight. However, all along the 25-km link road, flanked by half-done condominiums and infrastructural work, the Expressway remains green.

Enter Greater Noida, and it gets greener, the roads wider and the pace of life quieter. At 40 km from Delhi’s ITO junction, the distance factor was sought to be offset by dangling an amenity the Capital could no longer afford — space. Greater Noida is the better-planned alternative to Delhi and its immediate neighbours — a satellite city that did not grow thoughtlessly. Over two decades since the first drafts for the new city were drawn, the infrastructure, green spaces and parks, and quietude remain its forte. The expressway has shrunk travel time, but the limited public transport is a major put-off for many who may want to resettle here.

Developed initially as an industrial town, and now spread across 293 villages of Gautam Buddh Nagar district in Uttar Pradesh, the city mirrors the dichotomy that present-day urban development engenders everywhere. The Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority (GNIDA), set up in 1991 as the nodal agency for “planning, developing, regulating and operating” the area, went through a tumultuous second decade. Between 2008 and 2011, as many as 1,150 petitions were filed against it in the Allahabad High Court by the farmers and owners who gave up land for the project. The authority was directed to return land to the original owners in many cases. The agitations may have tapered off, but the faultlines between villagers and new residents have not been effaced.

Greater Noida was meant to be a modern city of international standards. Yogendra Narain, the first chairman of GNIDA, was tasked with starting an office and building a city. He began with one assistant, a sofa set and a telephone in one corner of the Noida Authority chairman’s office. “The success of Noida spurred the idea for Greater Noida,” says Narain. But the Surajpur-Kasna sub-regional centre, which evolved to become Greater Noida, had to be free of Noida’s flaws — namely, narrow roads, poor sanitation and haphazard overhanging electric wires.

Narain approached the Delhi-based School of Planning Architecture (SPA) to design the city’s state-of-the-art infrastructure. Roads that were barely 3.5m wide were expanded to at least 60m. The Surajpur-Kasna road was widened to 105m. Covered sewerages, underground electric lines, service lanes for residential areas and proper waste disposal were part of the plan. At least 23 per cent of the city was to be set aside for greenery. New sectors were named according to the Greek alphabet. “I wanted names nobody will like to change,” Narain says. From alpha and beta in the 1990s, the nomenclature has progressed to omega today.

Longtime GNIDA officials as well as Rekha Dewani, the authority’s first town-planner, recall the pioneering vision of men such as Narain and Brijesh Kumar, another CEO. Dewani, now planner for a private firm, remembers the day in 1999 when the staff shifted to their temporary office in Greater Noida — a brick building designed by HUDCO. There’s no better marker for the changing identity of Greater Noida than the authority’s own office. The landscaped, single-storey building will soon be left behind for a new multi-storey.

“The crux was to get all systems represented on paper,” says Dewani. Nothing escaped the purview of guidelines, be it the space for hawkers or the functions of resident welfare associations. “We had a whole lot of master plans; for landscape, transport, signage, roads, telecom,” she says, glad that these didn’t remain just on paper.

The industrial town was meant to be a hub for large-scale, technology-driven, non-polluting units. Though a few big names such as Escorts, Yamaha and Daewoo were already present in this region since the 1980s, others didn’t come flocking as the planners had hoped. “We worked on the old maxim that infrastructure precedes development,” says Narain. Not just industries, it proved tough to get even residents to Greater Noida. “Further, we had no funds,” he adds.

All too often, urban development comes at the cost of lost farmlands and livelihoods. Greater Noida was no different. Land acquisition proved tough, even in the initial years when development was slow, says Narain. “There was a great uncertainty among the villagers whether the upcoming industries would absorb the local youth. I went to each gram panchayat and talked to the pradhan,” he says. He organised an employment fair in the early 1990s that saw 80 villagers bag jobs in the neighbourhood industries. That helped bring the farmers around, as did the assurance of allotting 10 per cent of the developed land to them.

However, the new millennium brought many changes. The focus shifted from industries to housing. Building norms were changed and the floor-area ratio was raised from 175 to 350. Group housing projects took off at a feverish pace and skyscrapers became the norm. Litigations and farmer agitations followed. Narain was no longer chairman, but surmises two reasons for the bleak phase. “In a hurry to acquire land for housing, the ‘urgent need’ clause in the Land Acquisition Act was invoked. Once the clause is applied, the project needs to come up quickly,” he says. Moreover, the villagers watched with resentment as the land acquired from them was sold by builders at rates that were eight and 10 times higher. “The villagers wanted a share of it. Also, when land is acquired, farmers are not allowed to grow crops even if the work has not started. That resulted in a kind of psychological resistance. A credibility gap appeared between what the authority wanted and what the farmers perceived,” Narain sums up.

The view from Jyoti Kapoor’s 26th-floor, all-glass circular apartment is idyllic and surreal. Among the sights spread below is a golf course, a helipad, club house, swimming pool and spa. After 40 years in a posh South Delhi colony, a move to deserted Greater Noida has seemed unimaginable. Her semi-retired husband’s passion for golf was among a clutch of reasons that prompted the family to move a couple of years ago. “I was very unhappy initially. I had no friends. I was out of my comfort zone. Nevertheless, we thought we would give it a try,” she recalls.

Today, Kapoor’s interactions hardly extend beyond her expansive township and the links with her South Delhi neighbourhood is still strong. She is there at least four times a week meeting friends, picking up grocery or visiting her favourite beauty parlour. She rues the absence of upscale malls or cosy coffee-shops in her new neighbourhood. On the other hand, she’s impressed by Greater Noida’s competent medical sector. “I have settled down now. When you grow older, you seek a calmer life and Delhi was too crowded,” she reasons.

For 35 years, Uma Ukil, a teacher at one of Delhi’s well-known schools, lived in crowded Pitampura. “We lived right next to the main road, so getting to work was convenient,” she says. However, after retirement, Ukil craved quiet and Greater Noida fit the bill. “I considered Gurgaon (Gurugram). But Greater Noida was way greener and well-planned,” she says after two-and-a-half years in the new township.

Ukil has no regrets. She is self-sufficient and settled in her apartment complex. She has found a good house help, and amenities such as water and power supply are not an issue. Her groceries come from the chain outlets nearby. She shops at a few chosen retail stores at the handful of malls in the region. And for everything else, there is Noida. “There are autorickshaws right outside the complex. Also, there’s Uber and Ola [taxi services],” she adds.

Vandana Vasudevan moved to Greater Noida over five years ago, as it was nearer to her husband’s workplace, and was immediately struck by its inherent contradictions. Her society with a gym, tennis court and swimming pool stood on village land and she woke up to the sound of bhajans at the village temple, tinkling cowbells and birdsong. The deep divisions between her own urban life and the rural life beyond her gates intrigued her and Vasudevan’s book Urban Villager: Life in an Indian Satellite Town is an attempt at studying these inherent contractions. “Drive down and you’d see the wheat field of the farmer who hasn’t given up his land. But adjacent to it is a mall. The rural-urban juxtaposition is stark,” she says. Vasudevan would soon realise how blinkered this development has been. While her complex boasted the best amenities, the village next door didn’t even have well-laid roads. “Garbage remained uncollected, there was no sewerage system. We shared a pin code, and not much else.”

“Beneath the placid exterior, there was anger and resentment among those whose land it originally was,” says Vasudevan. The local community, too, was struggling to come to terms with the rapid change. Farmers who were reluctant to sell land felt pressured to do so when they saw others become rich overnight from their sale. Those who gave up their land also lost their livelihood, and struggled to find alternatives as most of them were uneducated. “They opened shops and bought big cars with the money they got,” says Vasudevan.

In 2013, Vasudevan’s society, built for 250 families, was occupied by four families. When her family returned recently after a couple of years abroad, they found 170 families were in it. These included many villagers who had sold their land and bought a couple of apartments with part of the money. The contradictions Vasudevan witnessed beyond her gates were now nextdoor; the power centres have shifted and the urban-rural, us-them divides are starker than before.

As Greater Noida continues to expand, Vasudevan wonders if supply is overshooting demand.

Law and order continues to be a worry. After sundown, the city is typically deserted. “Safety is a concern. There is a constant danger of getting mugged for mobile phones or laptops. No cops are usually in sight,” says Vasudevan.

In the next few years, connectivity to Greater Noida is bound to improve. The National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) recently released the first instalment of the sanctioned ₹1,500-crore loan for the Noida-Greater Noida metro line. “We released ₹400 crore a couple of months ago. A team will be inspecting the work’s progress and the line is expected to be completed by December this year,” says BK Tripathy, member secretary, NCRPB.

While the proposed airport in Jewar is off the radar for now, news reports mention plans for a heliport in the near future. According to a GNIDA official, the Noida Metro Rail Corporation has introduced new bus services to link Greater Noida and Noida. After the lull, new industries are trickling in and among them are Oppo, Intel and Haldiram’s. What the city needs now, the official points out, is greater enforcement to maintain the facilities.

N Sridharan, professor, regional planning, SPA, says Greater Noida has the best infrastructure and planning among all the satellite cities surrounding Delhi. The city’s decentralised sewerage system, he says, is a successful experiment. While it was developed to take the load off the Capital, the absence of job opportunities locally forces residents to commute the long distance to Delhi for work. Innovations needed to ease connectivity problems are sorely missing. “The option of a cost-effective inland waterway on the Yamuna hasn’t been explored. Crime rates too serve as a deterrent,” says Sridharan.

Narain advocates a more inclusive approach to urbanisation. “It is important to provide budgetary allocations for villages that are not acquired but fall within the boundary of a proposed city. There should be a greater inclusion of the rural population in the process,” he says. Narain also wishes provisions were made for a cultural avenue in the city. The green spaces may have shrunk, the traffic worsened, still residents like Vasudevan are convinced they made the right move. Vasudevan says, “I wouldn’t live anywhere else in India. Greater Noida has clean roads, is quiet and less polluted.”

Published on February 10, 2017

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