How Doon was my Valley
The move to make the quaint old green town of Dehradun a smart city can ravage its sensitive ecology
Rakesh Agrawal Dehradun
Smart cities were a dream sold to the voting masses in 2014 by the BJP. Less than two years after it came to power, the central government has started working in earnest to make this ‘real estate’ promise a reality. It has selected 98 cities across the country with the intention of developing them into ‘smart cities’. Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, is among these ‘futuristic’ 98 cities. The Mussoorie-Dehradun Development Authority (MDDA) has devised a three-pronged strategy for turning Dehradun into a smart city. For this purpose it has earmarked 350 acres on the city’s outskirts.
However, locals have started protesting, as soon as the Uttarakhand government announced its plans to develop a dream city on a British-era tea estate in November 2015. The first to protest were the workers of the tea estate area whose jobs have come under threat. The tea gardens of Dehradun are in a decaying condition. And yet, these tea factories employ many workers. In mid-November, the workers decided to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Uttarakhand High Court against the government. “The High Court is sensitive towards the state’s environment and it will not let the government uproot lakhs of trees to build a concrete township,” said advocate MC Pant, president of Chai Bagan Mazdoor Panchayat. Lending support to the tea workers is the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the trade union wing of the CPI. “The state government’s labour department has become useless and is not interested in protecting the interests of the tea workers. They never inspected the tea garden, neither did they talk to the labourers about the project,” alleged Ashok Sharma, general secretary, AITUC.
We are emotionally attached to Doon and it can be made smart by improving its existing infrastructure and augmenting services like proper parking space, cycle tracks, footpaths and enough garbage bins, separate for wet and dry waste
Workers in large numbers united under the banner of the Tea Estate Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (TEBSS), and took out a protest march demanding that the state government should quash the proposal to build the smart city on the tea estate. These tea estate workers, many of whom have come from the Goodrich Tea Company, Vikasnagar, in the state, decided to gherao the chief minister’s residence in the second week of December. “Land use of the tea estate cannot be legally altered, and if it is done, tea estate workers cannot be compensated in any manner. The CM (then Harish Rawat), and BJP leader Harbans Kapoor are hand-in-glove in this game,” said Surendra Singh Pankti, retired IAS officer and leader, TEBSS. Environmentalists, academicians, writers and scientists have also raised their voice against building such a smart city in the tea estate.
Pankti has been supported by leaders of many political parties, besides grassroots activists. Many gram pradhans, ex-gram pradhans, retired police officers and even BJP leaders have raised their voice against this project. Responding to the allegations levelled against him, Kapoor said, “I never advised the CM to convert the tea estate into a smart city. I only said that there is no harm if a small area of the tea estate is acquired for this purpose.”
In contrast, the need of the hour is to make the existing, under pressure, ‘Doon’ city ‘smart’ by providing it infrastructure like proper sewerage facilities, rather than making a new area ‘smart’ and destroying its ecology in the process. Citizens of Green Doon (CGD), a community organisation, listed the environmental pitfalls of turning the tea garden land into a concrete jungle. “This project will hamper the groundwater recharge capability of the region; it will, in turn, create water-logging,” said Dr Nitin Pandey, president, CGD.
Heritage and culture lovers were also miffed. “The heritage buildings and memorabilia of the British era will be gone forever,” said Reenu Paul, President, Rajpur Community Initiative. A Doon-based student activist group, Making a Difference by Being the Difference (MAD) questioned the establishing of such a ‘smart city’, referencing the 1989 Government of India notification which declared the Doon Valley an ‘Eco-Sensitive Zone’. “The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute of India’s (NEERI) report in 1996 especially refers to the remaining tea gardens of Dehradun as a must for the valley’s ecological stability and asks the government to protect it,” says Abhijay Negi, president, MAD. Indeed, NEERI had anticipated that unplanned urbanisation would lead to traffic congestion, deforestation, improper waste disposal-related problems, and so on – the very problems the city is facing today.
The CGD took the matter to the Uttarakhand High Court and sought a stay on the project. The court disposed of it, saying the petition was premature. Unfortunately, the government decided to ignore MAD’s letter requesting Rawat and the MDDA to rethink the whole project. The government went ahead and submitted its project proposal to the Centre on December 15, when the State Housing and Urban Development Society finalised a land deal with the Doon Tea Company, one of the three tea estates in the Doon Valley. It also entered into an agreement with Tongji University of China. While the government treated this MoU of the Chinese partnership as a feather in its cap, many questions were raised; the location of the smart city will border the sensitive Indian Military Academy (IMA), for instance, and raises security issues. Moreover, no details of this partnership between the Chinese institute and the Uttarakhand government have been revealed so far.
R Meenakshi Sundaram, Vice-Chairman, MDDA, justifies the project. “The Centre’s guidelines make it mandatory to have at least 250 acres of land for a smart city project. We initially chose 1,200 acres for it, but now the smart city project will be built in just 350 acres for which `500 crore will be given by the Centre at the rate of `100 crore per annum and we will generate the rest. It will make Dehradun a world-class knowledge hub.”
The truth is that the project has been scaled down from 1,200 to 350 acres (and now to 316), because of the protests. Besides environmental concerns, the basic question of financing such a mega urban development project remains unanswered. About `9,000 crore would be required to develop 350 acres of land, meaning the state government will have to approach HUDCO, ADB or the World Bank to finance the project. On January 28, Delhi released the first list of 20 smart cities for which funds will be available, and Dehradun failed to make it to this coveted list.
As the city faces the problem of crumbling infrastructure, garbage dumps and a concrete jungle replacing its once famous greenery and natural beauty, citizens have by and large voted against the ‘smart city’ coming up on a tea estate. Colonel BS Chhetri, a resident of Vasant Vihar, a residential area close to the tea estate, said, “We are emotionally attached to Doon and it can be made smart by improving its existing infrastructure and augmenting services like proper parking space, cycle tracks, footpaths and enough garbage bins, separate for wet and dry waste.”
Most residents in the city believe that the tea estates should be preserved to maintain the region’s rich Himalayan bio-diversity. “I shifted to Dehradun from Delhi as it has a salubrious climate and ample green space. But, over the years, it is becoming a concrete jungle. This smart city will herald its death,” said Jaya Kumar.