Once a picturesque town in the foothills of the Himalayas, Dehradun, the capital city of Uttarakhand, is now crumbling under rising population, rapid infrastructure development at the cost of ecologically sensitive areas, decaying water bodies and poor waste management.

The city’s inclusion in the Smart City Mission in 2017 has not been able to revive its fortunes much either. Situated between the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, the Dehradun valley is almost 70 km long. It has a history of being a fertile area abundant in agriculture and horticulture products, with the presence of dense jungles and scores of rivulets and canals making it a biodiversity-rich zone.

Many believe its downslide started once it became the capital of the newly-formed state of Uttarakhand in 2000 and over the past two decades, the picture of a largely undisturbed habitat quickly changed.

For instance, Mohabbewala in Dehradun was once known for its lush fields of basmati rice – a product that even gave the city recognition on the world map. Places like Majra, Herbertpur and Jogiwala also formed the Basmati-growing stretch in the southern part of the Doon valley. However, this product has almost vanished now. Today, high-rise commercial and residential buildings overlook the fast-moving traffic on the roads built on these erstwhile paddy fields.

“My father produced export quality basmati rice here until the mid-1990s. It was the pride and hallmark of our valley but time changed as this area urbanised. Growing basmati became difficult and financially unsustainable for us,” said 42-year-old Jitendra Singh, who lives in Mohabbewala.

The rapid growth in population and a construction boom over the past two decades caused a sharp rise in the property rates of Dehradun. Selling land to make quick money became a far easier way of earning for farmers than farming. Other factors also contributed to this change. As the climate of the valley changed and the availability of freshwater reduced, the cultivation of this special variety of rice wasn’t possible anymore.

“The entire ecology has changed. The cultivation of Dehradun’s famous type-3 basmati requires fresh running water. It does not grow like the normal paddy which can be cultivated in stagnated water. The plant [of Dehradooni basmati] is also bigger, so it needs extra care. This is not possible now in the changing environment,” said Dr Rakesh Shah, former chairman of state biodiversity board of Uttarakhand.

Majra – once a rice field, now a highway. Credit: Hridayesh Joshi/Mongabay

The urbanisation has also impacted the harvest of litchi in the valley. The sight of once-abundant litchi orchards is not so common now in and around Dehradun. The main reason behind such a change is an increase in population, which has shot up sharply over the past 20 years, putting an increased pressure on resources.

Overburdened city

According to the 2011 Census, the population of Dehradun city was about 578,000 while the population of Dehradun district was about 1.69 million. However, the population of the city is fast increasing and according to municipal authorities, the population of Dehradun city has now crossed 800,000. Civil society groups and experts actively involved in civic matters believe even this figure or estimation of the population does not represent the correct picture.

“Dehradun’s census does not represent the actual pressure on resources. Areas like cantonment, Clement town and Raipur are not shown as Dehradun population even though the city bears their population pressure. The actual population of Dehradun city is more than 1.2 million,” said Anoop Nautiyal, founder of Social Development for Communities Foundation, a Dehradun based environmental action and advocacy group.

Ironically, despite all development projects and plans it has received over the last two decades, Dehradun still has a legal status of being a mere “provisional” capital of Uttarakhand. A political demand to shift the state capital to the hill town of Gairsain in Chamoli district is still alive. Besides the construction of a token Vidhan Sabha and a few accompanying buildings in Gairsain that remain vacant, the entire development infrastructure has come to the “de-facto” capital city of Dehradun.

The need for housing and developmental activities has claimed a lot of land in the last two decades. Local experts said that after the formation of the state, the government also promoted the economic policies around the land development activities only and politicians fuelled the real estate market for big profits.

“I would say, at present, the only economic activity in the valley is real estate. Just look at the vast marshy area of the doon valley between river Ganga and Yamuna, which was highly rich agricultural land till a few years ago. It is being flooded with high-rise apartments and commercial buildings now. Even though this is a highly seismic zone, there are hardly any restrictions being observed by authorities,” said Lokesh Ohri, an anthropologist and cultural activist living in Dehradun for the past 50 years.

Maldevata is one of the last remaining canals in Dehradun. Credit: Hridayesh Joshi/Mongabay

No approved masterplan

Surprisingly, even after 20 years of the formation of the state, Dehradun city still doesn’t have an approved masterplan. In June 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court had scrapped the 2005-2025 master plan for Dehradun for not having the necessary permission from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

However, the planners in the state government cite the Supreme Court stay order – passed in July 2018 – to justify the implementation of the same master plan. “Since the Supreme Court has stayed the order of the High Court, the situation is restored as it was before the High Court order,” said Ashish Kumar Srivastava, vice chairman of the Mussoorie-Dehradun Development Authority or MDDA.

Shrivastava told Mongabay-India that MDDA is following a “green city concept” that will “disperse the population to reduce density”. “We do not want people to go from here to there for their small requirements. We are planning to have a concept of satellite township in this masterplan, so that the population can be disbursed and the city can be decongested. We also plan to encourage rainwater harvesting to save water and will bring total electric mobility to reduce the carbon emissions,” he said.

Dying water streams

Before the rapid development occurred in Dehradun, it was a land of rivers and rivulets along with a robust canal network. However, in the past two decades, the authorities have covered these canals to meet the demand for wide roads in the city. The insertion of pipes beneath the ground has replaced the natural canal system which would recharge the groundwater besides providing the irrigation and drinking water facility in the area.

“It is nobody’s fault. It was necessary to take such steps. To accommodate and control the increasing traffic, you need to widen the roads and you can’t do that without using these cement pipes. The maintenance without it was just not possible,” an Uttarakhand government official said, defending the administration.

In 2019, the district administration told the Uttarakhand High Court that 270 acres of area with rich water bodies including water streams and natural canals have been encroached upon for construction activities. Out of these 270 acres, 100 acres have been encroached upon in Dehradun city only.

Poor waste management

In June 2017, Dehradun was included in the list of cities selected for development as smart cities by the Central Government. In 2018, the Union Government told Parliament that the state received Rs 220 million, or Rs 22 crore, to implement this plan.

However, the city continues to face a number of problems, from poor solid waste management to inefficient sewage treatment. In 2017, Dehradun did not even figure in the top 300 cleanest cities of India under the Swachh Survekshan ranking. Last year, it slipped to 384 in the list of 425 cities across the country.

The water streams of Dehradun have also been badly hit by the rapid urbanisation of the city and poor civic administration. For instance, seasonal rivers like Bindal and Rispana, which once flowed through the heart of the city, have turned into drains full of filth and garbage. Now, a large amount of sewage is also being dumped in these streams.

Once a flowing river stream, Bindal is now a drain full of garbage and sewage. Credit: Hridayesh Joshi/Mongabay

The city generates more than 165 MLD, or million litres per day, of sewage but there is no clear idea that how much of this is being treated before it is sent back to water bodies. In 2009, while announcing the master plan for 2025, a total of eight sewage treatment plants with a total capacity of 138 MLD were cleared by the government. However, until 2017, the four operational STPs were treating just 18 MLD of sewage and more than 55 MLD was being discharged untreated in the water bodies.

“Sewage treatment is very poor and most of it is dumped untreated into water bodies...[including] the two seasonal rivers Rispana and Bindal. Media reports have regularly exposed the neglect and inefficiency of administration in this regard. We do not think more than 25% [of sewage] is being treated properly,” said Nautiyal.

The Uttarakhand government’s Environment Minister Harak Singh Rawat admits that there is “problem” in sewage and waste management. “We have the power to penalise the offenders and regularly issue a notice to municipal bodies and industries. The sewage or any pollutants should not be discharged in the river or any water body or even in the land. We try to keep a check on this,” he said.

Almost 70 km from the city, a check dam is being constructed on Song river to revive the dying rivers Rispana and Bindal. Credit: Hridayesh Joshi/Mongabay

Rawat said that the government is trying to revive the “dead” water streams by constructing a riverfront similar to the Sabarmati riverfront in Gujarat. The Vice-Chairman of MDDA also confirmed that plantation is being done in the catchment area of these “troubled” rivers and the government is building a check dam on Song river in Raipur area, which will rejuvenate the rivers besides supplying drinking water to the city.

Green campuses

Despite the many problems, there is a silver lining. The green cover of Dehradun is still protected largely due to the presence of several institution campuses in the valley. The lush green campus of the Forest Research Institute of India, Indian Military Academy, Wildlife Institute of India, Forest Survey of India and the Indian Institute of Petroleum Dehradun, along with many other training and educational campuses, harbour plants, bird species and even wild animals.

“This makes Dehradun one of the most forested capitals among most states in India. Although there is no structured monitoring protocol for the existence of birds, but we believe that there are more than 300 different species of birds in the 10 km periphery of man-modified city of Dehradun,” explained Dhananjay Mohan, the director of the Wildlife Institute of India and a keen bird watcher.

Forest Research Institute of India is one of the institutes across Dehradun that provide green cover to the city. Credit: Hridayesh Joshi/Mongabay

There are more than a dozen such institutes in the Dehradun valley. Some of these institutions are spread in thousands of acres and are quite well maintained. “A lot of the [natural] habitat has been lost as the city developed, particularly the naalas, bushes and ravines. With the loss of such habitat, the number of birds living in these areas must have dwindled. However, the positive side is that we have many quality institution campuses in Dehradun. These campuses provide a lot of greenery and forest cover which has allowed the birds to flourish in the valley,” Mohan said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.