Urban Vacant Land (Part 1 of 4)

The Phenomenon of Urban Vacant Land

A very little research and policy work has considered the vast untapped potential of the large number of small urban vacant and abandoned parcels of land that lie in the urban centers- India and abroad. Understanding the circumstances that create this situation will enable us to develop alternative policy mechanisms that promote redevelopment (Goldstein, Jensen, & Reisk, 2001).

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Gunwoo Kim, in his paper ‘The Public Value of Urban Vacant Land: Social Responses and Ecological Value’ explained the existence of vacant land in a city as:

“A variety of urban processes, including decentralization due to demographic changes, urban sprawl, de-industrialization, and people’s preferences for new types of residential choices have thus led to increased vacancy rates in urban areas. As people moved to the suburbs, the infrastructure provided and utilization of land decreased, leaving the urban core with remnants. De-population of the urban core increases vacancies in urban areas.” (Kim, 2016)

Typically, the phenomenon of vacancy of urban land can be simply understood through many processes (Pagano & Bowman, 2000). The financial causes of urban vacant land are attributed to declining of land values. The financial disinvestment hollows out the economy of the urban core and leaves it with insufficient economic activity to sustain itself. The institutional causes of the urban vacant land are directly attributed to zoning and land-use regulations. These in many cities are outdated and prevent land from being redeveloped in ways consistent with modern uses.

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Processes of urban renewal also leads to vacancy. While relocating the residents away from the urban core, often in isolated and poorly-designed public housing, the centrally located land is made available for redevelopment as residential, commercial and retail property. This process of gentrification as a means of urban renewal is not always successful. Many cities accomplish razing of old structures but not the redevelopment, leaving large tracts of vacant land and displacing local residents to less-desirable locations (Keuschnigg & Nielsen , 1996).

Various transport projects have also created vacant land in urban areas over time (Goldstein, Jensen, & Reisk, 2001). Government entities often use the power of eminent domain to take land needed for construction of new roads or rails. Sometimes this land is intended for auxiliary support for future expansion. In such cases, the land taking and subsequent acquisition and demolition of any buildings already happens, but the ultimate use of the land does not take place. Over time, this land either gets encroached, or keeps lying vacant.

Urban Vacant Land under Indian Railways

Indian Railways is the second largest owner of land in the country after Ministry of Defense. Indian Railways owns as much as 4.4 lakh hectares of land. 75% of the land is used for operational and service in infrastructure. Balance land is licensed for various purposes such as afforestation, Pisciculture, GMF scheme etc. Indian Railways also has more than 44,000 hectares of vacant land lying with no specified use (Land and Amenities Directorate, 2019). It constitutes nearly 10% of the total land that it owns. Hence, Indian Railways requires an efficient management to ensure safe and effective custody of land available with them and the land encroached by ensuring clear title, prevention of encroachments and early removal of encroachment of vacant land. And since the need for the land in Urban areas is ever rising, it is imperative to say that this land is very critical for promoting organized development in the cities. Because, otherwise the land is subjected to unauthorized settlements and slum growth.

Hence, planning for vacant land under the ownership of Indian Railways is a step towards harmonious Urban growth that has a potential to absorb population growth to some extent, provide for public space needs and institutional arrangements, and contribute towards limiting the urban sprawl to a great extent (Adams, Disberry, Hutchison, & Munjom, 2002).

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unauthorized settlements on vacant land

Statistics- Land Inventory (Rural + Urban)

Ministry of Railways (GoI) conducted land surveys post 2006 in order to identify the available land into defined categories. There are broadly seven of these categories under which land is numerated by the Land and Amenities Directorate– track and structures, afforestation land, land under grow more food scheme, commercial licensing land, land under the use of pisciculture and sericulture, encroached land, and vacant land. Following table shows the break-up of the areas in these respective categories, to help understand the focus of study- urban vacant land:

Table: Break-up of Land-use by Indian Railways (2014-2015 to 2017-2018) (Area in Ha)

Descriptions 2014-2015 2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018
Track and Structures Including Stations, Colonies 359000 364000 366000 366000
Afforestation 40000 40000 41000 42000
Grow More Food Scheme 3000 3000 3000 3000
Commercial Licensing 4000 4000 4000 4000
Other uses Like Pisciculture 8000 9000 9000 9000
Encroachment 1000 1000 1000 1000
Vacant Land 46000 52000 52000 52000
Total 461000 473000 476000 477000

(Area: In Hectare)

Source: Ministry of Railways, Govt. of India. (ON1962) & Past Issues

This makes it apparent that the encroached land, or the land adjoining the tracks is explicitly separate from the concerned land labelled as vacant land. Further, talking about the trend of existence of this land, there is a constant increase in area over the past few years. Presently, the reasons are unknown but this clearly depicts the severity of the situation that calls for the planning of concerned land. Following table shows the zone-wise trend over a period of ten years:

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Table: Railway-wise Approximate Vacant Land Area in India (Area in Ha)

Railway Zones As on


As on


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Central 6188 6188 2855 2738.81 2680.7 2293.77 2022.03
Eastern 3792 3792 2212 2245.69 2246.91 2172.8 2110.49
East Central 8620 8620 4299 4299.16 4298.43 4148.06 4094.75
East Coast 4707 4707 2193 2708.98 2840.04 3138.03 3011.28
Northern 9489 9489 8314 8120.36 11990.69 11612.4 11438.69
North Central 1079 1079 975 746.52 787.52 740.02 735.11
North Eastern 14352 14352 5772 5771.4 5770.37 5564.67 5564.67
Northeast Frontier 11718 11718 1305 1332.58 1401.65 1406.82 1410.45
North Western 5953 5953 439 437.69 1278.08 1277.35 1277.35
Southern 5673 5673 2576 2577.04 2721.98 2725.7 2741.44
South Central 5557 5557 1371 1364.9 1363.67 1284.49 1276.58
South Eastern 4467 4467 467 468.24 470.17 703.16 464.76
South Western 2255 2255 4133 3161.28 3331.15 3159.48 4662.15
South-East Central 9659 3162 4190.92 4245.18 4431.98 3142.72
Western 17970 17970 5549 5203.83 5875.9 5889.07 6258.54
West Central 1458 1458 487 486.48 621.12 617.39 617.45
Total 112937 103278 46109 45853.88 51923.56 51165.19 50828.46

(Area: In Hectare) Source: Lok Sabha Starred Question No. 383, dated on 30.07.2009, Rajya Sabha Starred Question No. 1698, dated on 07.12.2012 & Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No. 5273, dated on 05.04.2017, Question No. 2971, dated on 02.08.2017, Question No. 2355, dated on 26.12.2018.

Norther Railways has the highest percentage of vacant land, which is equal to 11438 Ha (23% of the total vacant land). Following break up shows the percentage breakup zone-wise:

vacant land under Indian Railways

The complete hypothesis entails the study of scope and brings about ideals for realizing the development of urban vacant land under Indian Railways.

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