Published September 26, 2013
New Delhi (AFP) – Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi is to the Indian capital what Brooklyn is to New York City or Shoreditch is to London -- a bustling area of art galleries, bars, shops and 20-something hipsters.
But a court order last week that closed dozens of popular restaurants has thrown a spotlight on the rapid rise of a zone that is a microcosm of India's anarchic, unsafe and corruption-riddled urban development.
The restaurants were closed for five days by the National Green Tribunal, a government environment court, which found that 34 restaurants had failed to obtain emissions permits or build waste water treatment facilities.
"This problem had been festering for the past couple of months, but nobody took it seriously and now it has backfired," said Virat Chhabra, marketing manager of multi-cuisine restaurant Mia Bella.
"When push came to shove, the authorities forced us to shut down," said Chhabra, adding that the restaurant faced a loss of nearly 350,000 rupees ($5,600) over the weekend, when it usually swarms with middle-class professionals and expats.
The tribunal allowed Mia Bella along with 25 of the 34 shuttered eateries to re-open on Wednesday, provided they addressed the pollution concerns.
Hauz Khas Village houses about 75 art galleries, designer boutiques, bistros and bars, many competing for views atop colourful concrete buildings that overlook the ruins of a nearby 13th-century tomb built next to a lake.
The "Village" has expanded vertically at break-neck speed, with building owners adding floors for new bars and restaurants. In the narrow alleys at ground level, power cables dangle overhead while giant back-up generators hum in the background.
"This country works on money. If you have the cash or know the right guys, then your work is sorted. If not, then you toil for months, even years," the owner of one of the restaurants told AFP on the condition of anonymity.
This attitude has led to fears that fire and building regulations are routinely flouted in the rush to add new premises in the area, a bohemian alternative to the five-star hotels and shopping malls of the capital.
Many restaurateurs believe last week's court action was because they failed to line the pockets of local officials adequately. Several admitted to paying nearly 10 million rupees ($160,000) to obtain their licences when starting out.
Monthly they slip up to 10,000 rupees ($160) to the police, or hand over crates of beer, to keep the loud music blaring late at night -- a violation of a Supreme Court order that prohibits loud music between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am.
Pankaj Sharma, the activist who filed complaints against the restaurants in court, said tackling the waste problem was just the tip of the iceberg.
Concerns remain about restaurants illegally drawing groundwater from the area, the overcrowded parking, as well as air and noise pollution caused by diesel-powered generators.
"The place is a complete death trap. God forbid if ever a fire breaks out, there will be a lot of chaos," Sharma told AFP.
"The village went from a cultural hub to an eating hub and that would have been all right had these guys been able to sustain the place."
As in other business sectors, entrepreneurs complain they face a choice between paying bribes to secure the licences they need, or face a frustrating wait of months.
Emissions and wastewater permits are required along with licences for health, food safety, fire safety, pollution control, music and a "no objection certificate" from police.
"The intricate maze of multiple windows imposes a high and avoidable cost of compliance that benefits neither the industry nor the public," Samir Kuckreja, president of the National Restaurant Association of India, told AFP in an email.
"In fact, the delays in licence/project approvals alone take as much time as building out the whole facility."
Indian cities are expanding exponentially as the still largely agricultural economy grows and farming families leave ancestral lands in the countryside in search of jobs and better education in urban areas.
The UN's 2011 World Urbanization Prospects report predicts India's urban population will grow 28 percent from its current level of 377 million to 483 million by 2020. By 2030, it will have grown 60 percent to 606 million.
But corruption, a lack of enforcement of the byzantine regulations and inadequate planning and investment in public transport, housing and other infrastructure is leading to growing problems, as well as dangers.
Building collapses are a regular and deadly occurrence across India, with one in the financial capital Mumbai in April killing 74 people.