Last green Doom bastion is sacrificed at the altar of development

Smart cities where everything would be ‘smart,’ smart communications, smart transports, smart water supply and sewerage system, smart knowledge hubs, smart markets and entertainment paraphernalia and of course, smart residential colonies was a dream sold to the electorates in 2014 when the BJP lead National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was contesting the general election in India. Less than two years down-the-line, the Government of India (GoI) started working to realize this dream on the ground and selected 98 cities across the country. Dehradun, the capital of the Himalayan hill state, Uttarakhand, nestling in a picturesque, verdant valley, was amongst such ‘fortunate’ cities where the The Mussoorie-Dehradun Development Authority (MDDA), has devised a three-branched strategy for turning Dehradun into a smart city and has submitted a draft to the GoI that will be developed on 350 acres on the city’s outskirts—on the British Era’s tea estate, but only after a vehement protests by local residents, tea estate workers, environmentalist, NGOs and even politicians.

People starting protesting against it as soon as the Government of Uttarakhand (GoUK) announced it in mid-November with lots of hopes as originally the smart city project was eligible for the million plus cities and Dehradun’s population was about 5.6 lakhs as per 2011 census. But when Rajya Sabha member and ex-Mayer, Dehradun Municipal Corporation (DMC), Manorama Dobriyal Sharma, belonging to the Congress, met Venkaiya Naidu, Union Urban Development Minister to advocate Dehradun as a smart city in January, before her death, “As without Dehradun, smart cities cannot even be conceived,” she had pointed out. Then, Vinod Chamoli, Mayer, DMC; belonging to the BJP, also met Naidu and finally Naidu relented and decided to include capitals of all hill states into the eligibility criteria of a smart city.

Immediately, the GoUK announced to develop a dream city on 2,000 acre area on the tea estate and immediately the protests began.

First were the workers of this tea estate that is now just a shadow of its glorious past as the tea gardens are in a decaying condition and it has just three derelict tea factories. Still, they employ many workers and produce organic tea that is 100 per cent original Chinese breed purely organic and in perfect match with health considerations and is sold to the tea market in Amritsar. In mid-November, they decided to file a PIL in Nainital High Court against the GoUK for removing the green cover from the city by acquiring 2000 acre area of the tea garden to build the smart city, “High Court is sensitive to protect state’s environment and it will not let the government uproot lakhs of trees to build a concrete township,” says MC Pant, advocate and president of Chai Bagan Mazdoor Panchayat. He was supported by the labours’ union, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), “The state’s government labour department has become useless and is not interest to protect the interests of the tea workers and they never inspect the tea-garden nor talked to the labors about the project,” alleges Ashok Sharma, general secretary, AITUC.

Workers in large number restored to dharna (sit-in) near state secretariat and held demonstrations, “The GoUK has never did anything to conserve these tea gardens and now this heritage land is being sacrificed to build concrete structures that will also adversely affect the ecology of the city, which is already an earth-quake prone,” says Chitra Gupta, president, Dehradun tea garden association. The workers, united under the banner of Tea Estate Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (TEBSS), supported by Left parties took out a protest march against the smart city project in November and demanded that the state government should quash the proposal to build the smart city on tea estates, “The government had signed an MoU with private builders for the smart city in Dehradun to benefit them. This will make them rich at the cost of workers’ livelihood,” alleges Kamla Pant, convener, Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, a platform of state-wide struggling women. These tea estate workers; many had also come from Goodrich Tea Company, Vikasnagar, 30 km from Dehradun, and decided to gherao (encircle) the CM’s residence in the second week of December and accuse him of supporting land grabbers, “Land use of the tea estate cannot be legally altered and if it is done, tea estate workers cannot be compensated. So the CM, belonging to the Congress and the BJP leader, Harbans Kapoor, an MLA are hands in gloves in this game,” accuses Surendra Singh Pankti, retired IAS & leader, TEBSS.

He was also supported by the leaders of many political parties, besides grassroots leaders. “We’ll wage a fight unto finish to save tea estate,” declares Samar Bhandari of the CPI, “We’ll wage a struggle to review the decaying tea estate,” adds Jagmohan Mehndiratta, leader TEBSS. Many gram pradhans, ex-gram pradhans, retired police officers and even the BJP leaders raised their voice against this project, “I never advised the CM to convert tea estate into a smart city, but said that there is no harm if a small are of the tea estate is acquired for this purpose alongside protecting workers’ interests,” clarifies Kapoor.

Other political parties intensified the protest against it when many Communist Party of India (Marxist) members took out a rally to the Collect orate in early December, “Smart City Project will serve the interests of a few political leaders and realtors and wipeout the last remaining green & open space in the Valley,” says Surendra Singh Sajwan, member, CPM, Dehradun. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) also chipped in and staged a protest against the proposed land acquisition outside the MDDA office and alleged that the state government is developing this project to benefit building mafia and the would be devastating for the environment of the fragile Doon valley.

Then, intra-party feud appeared and the BJP started speaking on the issue with two votives: one, belonging to the faction led by Vinod Chamoli, Mayer, DCM, openly supported it, while others came out openly in its full-fledged opposition when Sehdev Singh Pundir, MLA Sahaspur, along with his supporters, held a demonstration at the MDDA on 13 December against the proposed smart city, “The MDDA has ignored common people’s and environment’s loss because of this an\d he will not let the state government to destroy the only green field left in Dehradun,” he thundered.

Soon, differences emerged within the DCM that was also miffed for the GoUK ignoring it and making the MDDA responsible for executing the project, “We, the corporators will register a strong protest during the board meeting over this project,” threatens Sushil Gupta, corporator ward Lakhibagh, adds Amita Singh, corporator, ward Mohitnagar, “The GoUK has totally sidelined the civic body and despite of we being at the heart of smart city planning, have been ignored. However, City mayor, Vinod Chamoli, chose to be cautious and hopeful, “Although, said the state government had not fixed the DMC’s role in the project but maybe, once they project goes ahead, we’ll be actively involved.”

This proposed smart city will be the final nail in the coffin of few surviving tea estates that produce green tea, which is all supplied to Amritsar, the sole and biggest centre of green tea in the country.

On the other hand, tea companies smelled the rat and began trenching their workers as they visualised a fat profit by selling their land as, DTC India Private Limited sacked some 59 temporary workers from Arcadia Grant and Harbanswala tea gardens of Dehradun on November 3, although, facing workers’ wrath, it has to retreat with a condition that 63 plus years old workers would have to retire and around 40 of these expelled workers were 63 or older. This policy, if implemented, would also affect permanent workers as many such workers are in this age bracket.
Environmentalist, academicians and scientists also raised their voice against building such a smart city in the tea estate. They feared that if it happens Doon will be waterlogged and can face Chennai like flood situation, not a baseless fear as the two free flowing canals—East and West Canals—also of the British period, has been covered for road widening, lush litchi gardens on Rajpur Road have been replaced by plush malls and multiplexes, Doon’s homes that once had sprawling cover of gravels on their porches, now have match-boxes homes with concrete floors and its two rivulets: Bindal and Rispana, have been massively encroached upon; so much so that even Uttarakhand Assembly is constructed on Rispana’s floodplain.
Citizens of Green Doon (CGD), a community organisation, listed the environmental pitfalls of turning tea garden land into concrete, “This will further hamper the groundwater recharge that will, in turn create water logging,” says Dr. Nitin Pandey, president, CGD.

Heritage and culture lovers were also miffed by this proposal, “The heritage of buildings, machinery and memorabilia of British Era will be gone forever,” fears Reenu Paul, president, Rajpur Community Initiative, another CBO.
They also presented the scientific facts that question the rationale of smart city. Doon based student activist group, Making a Difference by Being the Difference (MAD) questions the compatibility of establishing such a ‘smart city,’ with the 1989 Government of India notification which declared Doon Valley as an Eco Sensitive Zone. “The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute of India (NEERI), Nagpur report in 1996 said that all developmental planning of Doon Valley should be based on its carrying capacity and had prepared a blueprint for the same that had four developmental scenarios for the whole of Dehradun district till 2021 and it was sponsored by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and it 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 urbanization in Doon would lead to traffic congestion, improper waste disposal related problems etc, the very same problems, the city is facing today.
CGD then, took the matter to Uttarakhand High Court at Nainital and filed a PIL against the project and asked for a stay on this project. The Court has disposed off, not dismissed it, as the State Government assured the High Court that the law will be followed strictly whenever the State will acquire the land, although the Court considered the petition is premature at this stage.
They were also miffed that both common people and environmentalists were not consulted for the project, “They never talked to people and workers of the area and just took a few local politicians into the confidence,” alleged Karan Kapoor, member, MAD, “Uttarakhand has many environmentalists of international stature, but the government ignored them totally, Hemant Lovekumar, coordinator of U-Turn Foundation, another CBO, adds.
But, sadly the GoUK decided to ignore MAD’s letter in which they requested the Chief Minister Harish Rawat and the MDDA not to hurriedly comply with the December 15 deadline for submission of Smart City Project, and rethink over it.

The government went ahead and submitted it project to the GoI on 15 December when State Housing and Urban Developmnet Society struck a deal with Doon Tea Company, one of the three tea estates in Doon Valley, to buy land and shank the area from 350 acres to 316. It also entered into the agreement with the Tongji University of China and the state government. While the government treated this MoU of the Chinese partnership as a feather in its cap, many questions emerged like the one on security as the location of the smart city will border the sensitive Indian Military Academy. Then, no details of this partnership between the Chinese institute and Uttarakhand government has been revealed, also the background and role of the Indian partner of the university remains elusive.
R. Meenakshi Sundaram, Vice-Chairman, MDDA, the state government appointed nodal agency for implementation of the project, justifies the project, “The Centre’s guidelines makes it mandatory to have at least 250 acres of land for a smart city project, so we initially chose 1,200 acres for it, but now it will be in just 350 acres, for which Rs 500 crore will be given by the Centre for the project at the rate of Rs 100 crore per annum and we’ll generate rest of the funds. It will make Dehradun a world-class knowledge hub for the benefit of all.”

While, it is true that the project has been scaled down from 1200 acres to 350; ultimately to 316, it is not any favour by the GoUK, but it has to yield because of intense public pressure coupled with the stand of different political parties and put the ball in the court of the next government that will assume office in early 2017.

He went on listing the features of such a smart city like ‘smart energy,’ meaning round-the-clock electricity supply through an independent grid and solar power generation, ‘smart buildings,’ all with rainwater harvesting systems and fool-proof security arrangements, ‘smart health,’ with fully equipped government hospitals and air ambulance, ‘smart education,’ with student and teachers friendly schools, ‘smart traffic and transport,’ with wide roads, GPS equipped vehicles and electric vehicles and ‘smart environment,’ with pollution free air and greenery. “This will be executed in a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model and in a few years’ time, the city’s landscape would be completely transformed,” he promises.

Besides environmental concerns as such a move will turn the last green sanctuary on once green and pristine Doon Valley into a concrete jungle, the basic question of financing such a mega urban development project remains unanswered as about Rs 9,000 crore would be required to develop 350 acres of land, meaning to GoUK will have to approach HUDCO, ADB or World Bank for this as it has empty coffers.

Now, the Central Government has to take the final decision over it as it received only 85, instead of 98 such projects by 15 December and now Dehradun will compete with Dharamshala of Himachal Pradesh for this status and all eyes are on the Prime Minister when he would announce the first 20 such cities on the Republic Day and will release the funds for them.

Smart city may well be a dream comes true for the policymakers of Uttarakhand, but for the residents of Doon Valley, it could very well be a nightmare.

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About rirakesh

I feel a bit disturbed by the prevailing condition in our society, so I write: poems, articles & stories.
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