DELHI: Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), the country's largest privately owned company, has decided to go slow on its plans of constructing a gigantic 720,000 sq ft mall in a residential colony in south Delhi, following protests from an assorted group of upper middle class professionals who live there.
An RIL group company in 2007 had purchased a 4-acre plot in south Delhi's Alaknanda through an auction from the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) for about Rs 304 crore. Over the years, the company has obtained reams of licences from the authorities to build a six-storey mall with three-floor basement. The mall is slated to be opened in 2014.
But Reliance had not accounted for the determined opposition from a group of local residents that calls itself the Citizens Alliance and includes economists, doctors, architects, lawyers and teachers.
This group, which held a 1,000 people-plus rally last month to protest the construction of the mall, says visitors to the proposed mall will choke traffic in the small bylanes of the locality and create pandemonium for its residents.
It claims that the residents were expecting the plot to be used for common facilities such as tennis courts, playgrounds and swimming pools, and that they were shocked to discover a mall being planned at the site. A DDA spokesperson, however, disputes this claim and says this plot was always reserved for commercial purpose in Delhi's master plan.
A DDA spokesperson, however, disputes this claim and says this plot was always reserved for commercial purpose in Delhi's master plan.
Citizens Alliance has in the past few months petitioned Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dixit, BJP leader VK Malhotra as well as the Lt Governor of the city. While there has been speculation that Arvind Kejriwal was backing the protest, Ravi Kaimal, a prominent member of the Citizens Alliance, said this was not the case and the activist-turned-politician was not connected with their cause.
A person with direct knowledge of RIL's retail plans said the company had decided to follow a 'wait and watch' attitude, after the protests gathered momentum. "The company is the process of executing several projects. It has plenty on its plate. It is in no hurry to complete the Alaknanda mall. All its documents for the plot are in order," he said.
A Reliance official said the company was evaluating market conditions. "We can't say anything as we are not sure on the return (on investment). The proposed mall is being discussed and if it is not suitable, we will postpone it," he said.
An email sent to the Reliance spokesman on Monday did not elicit a response.
The construction of big supermarkets or malls in city centres is a controversial issue worldwide and has often led to face-offs between big retailers and local communities. Some big cities in the US such as New York and Washington DC have restricted the entry of Walmart, the world's largest retail company. But the opposition being faced by Reliance is possibly the first anti-'big retail' protest by local residents of a metro in India.
"In principal, if any project affects the communities, the communities should have the right to represent themselves and similarly the developer should also have right of its views. They should call an official negotiator and only then a conflict can be resolved," said KT Ravindran, urban designer and former head of Delhi Urban Arts Commission.
Indicus Analytics, an economics research firm founded by Laveesh Bhandari, a member of Citizens Alliance, has conducted a study on the proposed mall and its ramifications on the nearby neighbourhoods. It has concluded that parking slots for around 7,200 cars will be needed during weekends and holidays.
"The mall's parking lot could only accommodate about 500 cars. Where would the rest of the cars be parked? On the roads?" Bhandari said.
He added that the alliance has filed about eight applications under the Right to Information Act to various departments, including DDA, Delhi Urban Arts Commission, Delhi Police and other government agencies, and found that environmental, traffic and other rules had been flouted in clearing the mall project.
The proposed mall will share a boundary with a local school, whose principal is also opposed to its construction. "The mall will disrupt the amicable unison and unleash chaos with unwelcomed race for materialism and glamour. Such a situation would result in multiple social, educational, individual disorders and imbalances," said Anju Mehrotra, the principal of Kalka Public School, in a letter to Delhi's Lt Governor.