Before Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000 and Dehradun became its capital, the delightful little town was one that time had forgotten. Education was its speciality with prestigious schools like the Doon School, the Rashtriya Indian Military College and Welham Girls among others taking in hundreds of children from all over India and the world. Other important institutions in Dehradun included the Indian Military Academy, the Forest Research Institute, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Survey of India.
Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas and once known for its basmati rice and litchi orchards, a salubrious climate and plenty of greenery, Doon was also a retiree’s paradise. A short and comparatively mild summer, a brisk autumn and spring, and a cold winter kept people’s cheeks rosy and healthy.
But for the past few months those cheeks have turned red with anger at a proposal by Uttarakhand’s Congress-led government to take over 1,200-odd acres of land housing one of India’s first tea estates to enable the construction of a smart city. However sustained citizen participation and protest has managed to be strangely successful even as the government is in the middle of a defection crisis.
To put Dehradun into perspective, it was among the bottom five of the third Annual Survey of City-Systems with a score of three on 10. The 2015 survey examined 21 cities in 18 states and looked at how urban governance impacted the quality of life. That’s not surprising given that Dehradun has practically no public transport system, a very elementary sewage and drainage system and sparse public health facilities. What is mindboggling, however, is how anyone imagined that an open green area in the heart of the city needed to be destroyed in order to create a smart city?
The land the government plans to acquire for its project is part of the Dehradun Tea Company’s Harbanswala-Arcadia estate on the Shimla bypass. The tea itself, once believed to have medicinal properties, is largely forgotten as is the company that owns it. Rumours suggest a developer has bought the land. But there are still tea bushes and tea workers who, like their compatriots elsewhere in India, are seeking back wages and proper living wages. They also want the tea gardens to be thriving once again. In fact, in February, when the Union government announced its first list of 20 smart cities that will now receive funds from the Centre to aid development, Dehradun did not make the cut, and tea estate workers celebrated that failure.
Besides the issue of livelihoods, there’s the question of the environment. Most of Doon’s tea estates fall in the upper catchment area of the Asan river and are home to over 30,000 trees. They sit on a thick bed of Doon gravel which holds vital groundwater. All of these will go if the area is concretised, as smart cites are likely to be.
Activists and local residents have held a series of protests to try and convince chief minister Harish Rawat’s government to leave the tea gardens alone and improve the rest of Dehradun instead.
And now it appears that public outrage has worked. The first tranche of protests got the project scaled down to 350 acres and a commitment to increased “citizen participation”. Latest news suggests that the government has dumped the tea garden idea completely.
But not before the story got very murky indeed.
The state organised an online opinion poll from February 28 to March 15 to get public feedback for its smart city proposal. People were asked to go to the website mygov.in and vote. Several people complained that when they tried to vote, the system timed out and their votes did not register. In addition, the voting process itself was laborious since you had to register and get a password to actually vote.
The general feeling was that voting had been rigged to favour the greenfield option which would permit the destruction of the tea estates. AAP member Anoop Nauityal raised several public questions about the voting procedure.
Writer and commentator Raj Kanwar, a long-time Dehradun resident and an outspoken critic of the government’s ideas, said that the poll was a farce. “Its very format has been mischievously designed with achieving a pre-specified objective,” said Kanwar. “The division of the city into six zones is contradictory to the very concept of a smart city. When we talk of Dehradun as a smart city, we mean Doon as a whole and not in fragmented parts.”
There indeed seems to be a disconnect between what the city’s concerned and aware citizens feel and what the government wants. Florence Pandhi, secretary of the environmental NGO Friends of the Doon, pointed out that at a meeting held by the Mussoorie Dehradun Developmental Authority, Meenakhshi Sundaram, the officer in charge of the Smart City project, argued that as the gardens would not exist in 10 years anyway due to illegal encroachment, the government should be allowed to build a model city on the land to preserve and protect the area. “Such an ignorant and irresponsible statement highlights the attitude of the powers that be when it comes to conserving natural resources of the Doon Valley,” said Pandhi. “Deliberately, and wantonly, swallowing huge chunks of the green belt – an essential component for water absorption, photosynthesis and temperature regulation – will certainly see the demise of the town and the Valley.”
To put matters in perspective, last year, there was deficient rainfall in Dehradun and Mussoorie during the monsoon, and almost no winter rainfall or snow at the end of 2015 or in early 2016. Both are vital for the summer’s water supply. There is rampant often unregulated construction all over the city and the hills. Destroying a vital green belt is not being smart. Quite, if one may be so bold, the opposite.
As of now, the citizens of Dehradun have succeeded in stopping a ludicrous plan that would have benefitted no one except developers. If government planners are smarting, it is their own fault. If they had been less clever-by-half, Dehradun might have got holistically smarter sooner.
The writer is a resident of Dehradun. Her Twitter handle is @ranjona.