One of Vishvijay Rana’s fondest childhood memories is of taking his family’s cattle to bathe in their village pond in North Delhi’s Bakhtawarpur village. He recounted that he would ride their backs, and collect lotuses growing in the water.

Today, the pond is just a memory – it lies completely dry, with a short boundary wall around it. “We probably have the best ground water table in the entire city thanks to Yamuna ji,” Vishvijay Rana said, gesturing in the direction of the river Yamuna, which flows around ten kilometres away. Though a healthy water table would replenish ponds like the one in the village, he explained that “there is no initiative from any department to nurture this groundwater”.

A board in the middle of the dried pond announces that it is situated on “gaon sabha” land. This is a category of land that, under the Delhi Land Reforms Act, 1954, is jointly owned by a village, and comprises areas used by the community, including for the digging of wells, collecting forest produce or as burial grounds. The act vests the rights of usage of such common lands with the gaon sabha – the representative body that governs a village or a group of villages, whose executive arm is the gaon panchayat.

But blame for the pond’s mismanagement does not rest with the gaon sabha. In 1990, the Delhi government issued a notification that dissolved all the gaon panchayats constituted under the 1954 act, and transferred the ownership of the gaon sabha lands to the revenue department of the Delhi government.

With that, the divisional commissioner of Delhi, an officer of the revenue department, took over the duties and powers of the gaon panchayats.

Three decades later, it is clear that the Delhi government has failed in its responsibility to manage village commons – the pond being one example. As with many urban water bodies across the country, multiple authorities oversee different aspects of the pond’s management. In the case of this pond, while the revenue department demarcated the pond and built the wall around it, the irrigation and flood department constructed and manages the drains that lead storm water into the pond, and is thus responsible for water supply to it.

But, Vishvijay Rana said, there was no water in the pond through the year, “except on chhath puja when the MLA gets the pond filled with water tanks”. Further, he added, saplings planted by the revenue department had not survived, “since the department is not monitoring them”.

Decades ago, this pond in North Delhi’s Bakhtawarpur village was central to the community's life. In 1990, its management was taken over by the revenue department. Today, it lies dry. Photos: Vaishnavi Rathore

Since 2019, Bakhtawarpur’s residents’ fears about the mismanagement of their commons land have only deepened. Until that year, it was classified as a “rural village” within the National Capital Region. This gave it a unique status – it remained outside the purview of the Delhi Development Authority, or DDA, which is responsible for the planning and development of the city, and which is controlled by the Central government, represented by the lieutenant governor. In November 2019, the lieutenant governor stripped Bakhtawarpur and 78 other villages of the status of “rural villages”, and converted them to urban areas.

He did this by exercising powers under the Government of Part C States Act, 1951, which limit Delhi’s statehood, and categorise some key subjects, including police and land, as being under the control of the Centre – and thus within that of the lieutenant governor. This division of powers has been a politically fraught question: since they came into power in 2013, the Aam Aadmi Party has been demanding “full statehood” for Delhi, which would allow these key aspects to be under the state’s administration as well.

In fact, in a speech in 2017, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, had announced, “Whatever gram sabha lands are available in Delhi, will be kept open for sport activities.” He added, “It’s the public’s land, it’s your land, not the government’s.”

But the Aam Aadmi Party government did not have the power to stop the lieutenant governor from changing the status of rural villages in 2019.

Since then, residents of Bakhtawarpur have lived with the fear of losing access to about 639 bighas of land, on which currently, the DDA’s land transfer documents show, various public amenities and structures are situated, including ponds, roads, temples, graveyards, and wells.

“Now the DDA can do whatever is most profitable for them,” said Ritesh Rana, another resident of Bakhtawarpur. “Our biggest fears are that the gaon sabha lands will be used for selling plots for housing, while we want them to be used as a park, or a community centre.”

A board in the Bakhtawarpur pond states that it is on gaon sabha land, though it is under the Delhi Development Authority. Locals fear that large tracts of community land will be used for development.

The village’s apprehensions are not unfounded. The Delhi Revenue Department’s website lists data on the total area of gaon sabha land in numerous villages, along with the purpose for which these lands are used. According to this data, which Scroll analysed, 7,300 acres of gaon sabha land had been allotted till 2014 to different authorities for a variety of uses – this includes land allotted to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to build primary schools, to Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited to build offices and to the Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation to develop industrial units. But the largest chunk – about 4,700 acres of gaon sabha land across different villages, including Bakhtawarpur, in just North West Delhi – has been allotted to the DDA for the “Rohini residential scheme”, under which plots are auctioned to buyers from various income groups.

Experts cite the lack of consultation as a key concern with this approach to development. “How such common lands should be acquired and planned should be done through community participation,” said Anubhav Pradhan, a professor at IIT Bhilai who teaches English literature and urban studies.

He added, “For instance, if a more rural village prefers to have a food processing unit than an industrial unit, or an urbanised village might demand a public park than warehousing, including their inputs would be beneficial.”

Pradhan noted that the “lack of government will” regarding such community participation “has created this urban-rural divide in the city, and largely left Delhi’s villages behind on metrics like access to quality healthcare, schooling, and affordable housing.”

In South Delhi, one of the wealthiest corners in India, with high real estate value, village commons have been steadily encroached on by the rich and powerful who have built farmhouses and other institutions in the area. Further, large tracts of forest land, which were under the owenership of goan sabha have also been taken over by Delhi’s forest department.

Cut off from pastures, the traditional agrarian communities in villages like Asola, Bhatti and Fatehpur Beri that were once dependent on animal rearing and dairy farming, have wandered into insecure private-sector jobs. In Fatehpur Beri, many have opted to become bouncers for restaurants, clubs and lounges in Delhi-NCR, so much so that their village is now known as the “bouncer village”.

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The loss of Delhi’s village commons has its roots in the 1950s, when the Indian government began discussions to formulate a master plan for the development of the city. In the book Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism, Ravi Sundaram, a sociologist and professor at Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, notes that researchers who were working on the master plan called the early 1950s “an era of chaotic expansion of the city’s built form”, which saw a rapid influx of post-Partition refugees.

Soon after, in 1955, a cholera epidemic struck the city. The spread of the disease brought Delhi’s haphazard growth, lack of sanitation and congestion into parliament discussions. The government decided that a “master plan” was needed to manage the city.

“This was the Nehruvian state working, where the scale of everything was large and the purpose was to create a planned city,” said Dr Sushmita Pati, assistant professor of political science at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, and author of the book Properties of Rent: Community, Capital and Politics in Globalising Delhi.

The master plan for Delhi focused on acquiring land for public infrastructure, housing and industries, and it vested the responsibility for this work with the Delhi Development Authority, formed in 1957 as a body to develop the city and provide housing, infrastructure, and commercial and recreational space. With its broad mandate, the DDA’s functions overlapped with other bodies administering Delhi, like the Municipal Council of Delhi, and later, the state-level legislature, which was established in 1992.

In all, from 1959 onwards, the DDA planned to acquire 34,000 acres, which Sundaram notes in his book, was to be “the largest land nationalisation in Indian urban history”, and would give the DDA monopoly over land in Delhi. As of 2022, according to the DDA’s website, the agency had acquired approximately 1,18,051.23 acres land in the city.

From the 1950s onwards, the Delhi Development Authority implemented a master plan to develop Delhi, acquiring land for public infrastructure, housing and industries. Photo: Romil Lehakra/Wikimedia Commons

Significant portions of the land that the DDA acquired was commons, or lands under the ownership of gaon sabhas: between 1956 and 1964, DDA acquired over 17,000 acres of common lands in Delhi.

The sale of some of the land acquired generated substantial revenue for the DDA, but it also resulted in massive inequities in ownership and land use. With respect to the use of land for housing, through the 1960s, “50% of the land went to high income groups, and 11% to the poor”, researcher Minoti Chakravarty Kaul wrote in a 1990 paper.

In effect, large tracts of commons were being acquired but sold disproportionately to the rich. “While the DDA was supposed to have a ‘socialist’ mandate and ensure housing for all while planning the city, it became something else very quickly, which led to immense inequities in available housing,” Sundaram said in a conversation with Scroll.

Kaul wrote that “these policies coupled with rapid population increases have led to more than 1.5 million people living in squatter settlements, illegal sub-divisions, and temporary camping sites” in Delhi.

While landowners were able to sell their properties to the DDA for these industrial estates and receive compensation, castes that did not own land were at a disadvantage. Pati too, noted this in her book, writing that Dalits were hit “far harder” by this acquisition of commons in the villages of Munirka and Shahpur Jat, which she studied. She explained that these communities had settled on parts of such lands with the mutual consent of the villagers, but that once they were handed over to the DDA, “From being commons occupied by the Dalits, now it had become government land, illegally occupied by the Dalits,” Pati wrote. These families led precarious existences, with the fear of eviction looming over them constantly.

In recent years, gaon sabha lands have been gradually being encroached upon by “dabbang log” or influential people, as Ansh Tanwar, a resident of Fatehpur Beri, a village in South Delhi, observed.

He explained that he was referring to a variety of encroachers – from local residents with large joint families, to rich families from the city who built lavish farmhouses on these lands. “While most parts of such land are bought legally, these influential players start encroaching upon small parts in addition, which often end up being gaon sabha lands,” Ansh Tanwar said, as we drove under a dense canopy of trees with luxurious farmhouses on both sides.

The fact that these master plans fundamentally warped the nature of rural areas in Delhi was acknowledged in the 2021 Master Plan. “Due to the land constraint,” the document noted, “the areas earmarked as rural/agricultural in previous Master Plans have always been under pressure for utilisation for various urban activities and have virtually lost their original character.”

Pati explained that after the dissolution of panchayats, the responsibility for overseeing gaon sabha lands was passed around between “multiple other institutions – some central, some state, some parastatal” – the last referring to bodies or companies such as the Delhi Jal Board, which are not directly part of the executive, but are established by the government to perform specific functions.

The effect of this unclear allocation of responsibility is evident from the case of another pond in Bakhtawarpur. What was earlier a rainwater pond is where the sewage of five villages collects today, sometimes overflowing into the farms adjacent to it. “Just two months ago, the water came out and destroyed the spinach saplings twice,” said Munish, an agricultural worker, as she cut grass from the fields for her cows. The pond, filled to the brim with water hyacinth, was just metres away from the field. “What you see growing now is what the landowner planted the third time, imagine the loss he underwent!” she said.

After the takoever of gaon sabha lands, responsibility for managing them was not clearly allocated. This pond in Bakhtawarpur, once fed with rainwater, is where sewage from five villages collects today.

Residents of Bakhtawarpur have been raising the issue of the overflowing, unsanitary pond since 2010, but have constantly been directed to different departments. In a 2014 meeting between Delhi’s chief secretary and Narela’s member of legislative assembly, minutes of which have been accessed by Scroll, the issue was directed to the Public Works Department. As of 2016, as evidenced from a letter written by the then member of parliament from North West Delhi to the Public Works Department, work had not started.

Trying to follow up on the situation, Ritesh Rana, the resident of Bakhtawarpur filed a grievance with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi-North in 2018, to which they responded that the “issue pertains to Irrigation and Flood Department and Community Service Department”.

The 2019 conversion of the 79 villages to urban areas overseen by the DDA seems to have confused matters even further. In 2021, the block development officer (north), under the revenue department, wrote to the DDA about the pond, requesting them to “take further action”, since the entire gram sabha land has been “handed over to DDA due to urbanised village”.

Ritesh Rana is exasperated. “After we learnt that the lands are with DDA, we have been communicating with the officers, but they tell us that they are uncertain about which areas belong with them till they finish the demarcation of it,” he said. “We’ve been running behind this matter for twelve years now.”

Sundaram pointed out that this confusion has its source in Delhi’s uniquely complex governance structure. “The national capital region includes three different states and their political parties, along with it being a Union Territory,” he said. This impacts the governance of common lands too – as Pati noted, with several agencies managing gaon sabha land, “organisations themselves do not have clarity on who owns these lands.”

About gaon sabha lands in North Delhi, Budh Ram, deputy director of the DDA’s north zone said, “No work has been done on these gaon sabha lands that DDA acquired in 2021. These have been handed over to concerned engineers.”

He explained that the government’s planning department would have to instruct the DDA on what work needed to be done on different lands – “whether a public hospital or a highway or a petrol pump.” He added, “But it is not possible to give a clear timeline of when it will happen and for what.”

The effect of this confusion has been apparent across Delhi since the 1990 abolition of panchayats – numerous patches of gaon sabha land across the city have boundary walls around them, but lie unused, though residents have been told that they have been allotted to different departments for purposes such as building government hospitals and community halls.

In South Delhi’s Aya Nagar, a boundary wall and a gate stood in front of a vacant kikar forest. “This was gaon sabha land, which was given to develop a university here,” said Ansh Tanwar. “Residents of the villages nearby were happy that in this case the gaon sabha land was being used for educational purposes, since the closest college for us is about 15 kilometres away.”

But now, years later, “neither are they constructing the college here nor can we use the land for any other purpose like grazing animals, or a community hall”, he said.

In Bhakoli village, a similar boundary wall surrounds a vacant patch of land, which residents have been told is meant for a public hospital. In another village, Fatehpur Beri, an old pond lies dry.

A patch of land in Bhakoli village that residents were told had been allocated for the building of a hospital lies unused today. Other patches, meant for building community halls and colleges, are similarly vacant.

Despite the fact that people living in these villages form a sizeable constituency, their concerns aren’t taken seriously by political parties, they say. In the recent 2022 elections of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, for instance, none of the manifestos of the contesting parties mentioned any specific problems that Delhi’s villages face – apart from the privatisation of commons, these problems also include a lack of health and educational facilities. In protest, one village in north-west Delhi boycotted the MCD elections in December 2022 – not a single voter from the village cast a vote.

The Delhi Reforms Act, which recognised gaon sabhas’ rights, also identified “forests” as a category of land for which rights of ownership vested with gaon sabhas. With the sabhas’ dissolution, these lands, too, were handed over to the deputy commissioner.

But despite this transfer, residents of the villages continued to use the lands for their traditional occupations, such as grazing cattle and harvesting medicinal plants. “There was no restriction in using the forests,” Ansh Tanwar said, referring to a period between 1990 and 1996. It was only in 1996 that a blanket restriction on using the forests came about, which, he recounted, officers of the revenue department communicated to the villagers.

A road through forest land next to Fatehpur Beri. Once gaon sabha land, it is now under the control of the forest department, as a reserve forest. The loss of forest land deeply impacted livelihoods in many villages.

This restriction was imposed specifically in over 10,000 acres of forests in South Delhi’s ridge – a forested hilly area that is a part of the Aravalli range – which were further transferred to the forest department. This occurred as a result of a protracted public interest litigation that began against stone crushing units within Delhi in 1985. The petitioner in the case, which was called MC Mehta vs Union of India, achieved the objective of closing stone crushing units in the city, but continued filing multiple applications pertaining to other environmental matters in the same case over three decades.

Through these years, the central focus of the case shifted, ranging from polluting industries in city limits, to mining in the Aravalli, pollution in the Yamuna and protecting the ridge. In a 1996 order aimed at protecting the southern ridge, the Supreme Court directed that the ownership of “uncultivated surplus land” falling in the area – effectively forest commons – should be transferred to the forest department of the government of Delhi.

In the years after the order, several villages that were using and living in parts of the forests were served with eviction notices. This includes Bhatti Kalan, which is adjacent to the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, and where in 2006, “bulldozers came and demolished homes”, Ansh Tanwar said. “With lack of clarity on what land is demarcated for whom, many families around here live in constant fear of evictions happening.” Last April, in Aya Nagar, which is in close proximity to the sanctuary, 500 such families were served notice to vacate their homes.

Today, entry and exit into the reserved forests and the sanctuary are strictly monitored, and the villages are also barred from activities they once carried out on these lands. “In 1996, first we lost the forest, then the work that came from it,” said Rajpal Tanwar, a 49-year-old resident of Fatehpur Beri.

The repercussions of losing the land continue to be felt today. With restricted pastures, these Gujjar-dominated villages saw a sharp decline in their main source of income: rearing livestock and selling milk. “My father owned about 100 cows and buffaloes. Today, we have five,” Rajpal Tanwar said, leaning against his bike, to which was attached milk cans that he uses to deliver about 40 litres of milk every day. “We have to buy the fodder from Haryana or Uttar Pradesh, and it costs Rs 14 per kg.”

Rajpal Tanwar’s family once owned around 100 cattle. With the loss of forest pasture land, where the animals were grazed, the number has come down today to five, and he has to buy fodder to feed them.

Apart from the sanctuary, some of the forest is now a camp of the Territorial Army, which has a boundary wall and a gate manned by security. “Now, even to go visit our own temples inside the camp, we have to take permission from the army,” Rajpal Tanwar lamented.

Before this transfer, Delhi’s gaon sabhas were managing 10,397 acres of forest in the city – the largest of any other body or organisation in the city, as per data available with Delhi’s Forest Department, analysed by Scroll. Today, multiple agencies manage Delhi’s forests, which include the south, north and central ridge forests, as well as the newer category of “city forests”. Apart from the Forest Department, these include the Delhi Development Authority, Cantonment Board, and Municipal Corporation of Delhi.

Paras Tyagi, co-founder of a Delhi NGO that works with rural and urban villages of Delhi, observed that these developments “have taken away the ownership from gaon sabhas for forests and common lands, and have destroyed cultural heritage and self-respect of the inhabitants in Delhi.”

Apart from the loss of their lands, residents of many villages also said they were angry about the abolishment of the panchayat system of governance in their villages in 1990. “Every village will need a contextual solution to the problems they have been facing with gaon sabha lands and other issues,” Ritesh Rana said. “If the panchayat system was still continuing, we would have been able to develop such solutions involving the people affected.”

For instance, Rajal Tanwar explained, during the years that the village still had ownership of the forest, the sarpanch had suggested that those who had been cultivating some areas of the forests for generations could, with the panchayat’s support, begin the process of procuring land titles from the government.

“Our family would have gained from this decision,” he said. “But, we all refused it after the landless, cattle-owning families in our village suggested that their pasturelands would be lost if titles were given to a few. This kind of decision-making is not possible anymore.”

On the day I visited Bakhtawarpur, a religious ceremony was being conducted on a piece of gaon sabha land that is currently used as a garbage-dumping site. On land record documents, it is registered as land demarcated for a community hall. “Tired of constantly asking the MCD to clear this area and build a community hall and getting no response, we cleaned the area by pooling in money for this ceremony,” Vishvijay Rana said. “This is the kind of work that panchayats could have done.”

Residents of these villages also said that after the panchayats were abolished, the processes of raising and spending money have become less transparent. Earlier, gaon sabhas held the responsibility of deciding what development work would be undertaken in a village – they would receive money from private leases and the city administration and utilise it as needed. Now, Vishvijay Rana said, “With our village under the municipality since 1990, we are barely in the know of how much money is being used for what development in the village.”

Land in Aya Nagar where residents say a college was to be built. Before their abolishment, panchayats would have a say in the development plans of their villages. Now, they have little information about these plans.

As the “rural development” chapter in a report by the Delhi Planning Authority notes, after the revenue department took over gaon sabha lands in 1990, it gained control over some funds that were already in the gaon sabhas’ possession and deposited in respective “gram sabha area funds”. Going forward, it also gained control over funds raised through various uses of the lands, such as fees earned from leasing them out. The block development officers were given the responsibility of spending those funds for the development of the villages. But in Bakhtawarpur, for instance, the fund of Rs 51 lakh has been used for limited purposes, like “payment of demarcation of Gram Sabha Land, hiring charges of JCB if used for removal of unauthorised encroachments, and payment of advocates for defending cases on behalf of the gram sabha in various court cases,” according to information obtained by a resident in early 2022 through Right to Information applications.

“It’s quite clear now that apart from boundary walls, no further development has been done on gaon sabha lands,” Vishvijay Rana said.

His argument is bolstered by the fact that in a 2014 meeting between Delhi’s chief secretary and the MLA of Narela, where Bakhtawarpur is situated, the former criticised the directorate of panchayat, which falls under the administration of the divisional commissioners, and noted that after acquiring gaon sabha lands, the “directorate of panchayat has not utilised the money for development of the villages” and that “the status of funds received and development schemes taken up should be given to the public.”

In Fatehpur Beri, Ansh Tanwar said that since the transfer of their village’s gaon sabha lands to the DDA, “not a single rupee has been spent on the land’s development.” He added, “Who we should approach for these issues is also a question we deal with, because no such public meetings are held.”

The lack of accountability or citizen’s participation is also a problem of design with the DDA, whose mandate does not include any processes that involve public participation. “We do not have public meetings, but in case the district collector informs us that people are demanding a meeting, we then make arrangements for it,” DDA’s Budh Ram said.

Residents argue that transparency is crucial given that significant amounts of money can be involved – information that a resident of Bakhtawarpur obtained via RTI applications showed that villages in North Delhi have gram sabha area funds ranging from “nil” in Katewara, the village that boycotted the recent MCD elections, to Rs 220 crore in Bawana.

Researchers, too, have criticised the fact that the transfer of control over these lands to the revenue department was accompanied by a loss of transparency. In her chapter for the book Delhi: Urban Space and Human Destinies, social anthropologist Anita Soni wrote that the only way to ensure fair dealings in these lands would be to implement the 73rd amendment, which established panchayats, and return control of the lands to the bodies, led by pradhans. This, she wrote, is the “only way of stopping, and even reversing, the illegal sale of commons, by subjecting pradhans to scrutiny and public exposure by those interested in preserving the commons as their livelihood base.”

In a rapidly growing city, the acquisition of gaon sabha lands or commons by various agencies has stripped communities of individual livelihoods, and dashed their plans for the communal use of the land. “We are not asking for these commons to be only maintained as traditional uses like pastureland,” Ritesh Rana said. “We are also a part of Delhi, and we also want development. We are asking for development that can benefit our entire communities, be it open gyms, or parks, or community halls, and clean ponds.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.