As global warming talks concluded recently in Paris and flood waters started receding in Chennai, the green city of Dehradun was getting ready to get chopped off – can you believe it – to become a smart city. When the Modi government had launched its ambitious 100 smart city nationwide project, there was a feeling of euphoria and hope amongst the champions of urban development.
The vision articulated at the citizen level was inspiring – urban shanties getting transformed into gleaming homes, seamless connectivity and utopian glitz riding high and mighty on the smart city razzmatazz. Promising unheard and unseen efficiencies in availability of basic civic services dazzled the would-be citizens of the futuristic smart cities.
They were told – just as glossy brochures of shady Gurgaon builders with photoshopped images do – that with the magic wand of smartness, life was about to change. Yet, the dream today lies in tatters in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. What remains are terrifying prospects of a 100 per cent man-made disaster in the making with fairly grim, and not so smart, lessons for urbanising India.
240 kilometres up north from the national capital of Delhi is the "once upon a time" quaint and quiet city of Dehradun.
Known for its sylvan surroundings and salubrious climate, the city and its charming magic are best described by the venerable author Ruskin Bond: "There was a wild flower, a weed, that grew all over Dehra and still does. We called it Blue Mint. It grows in ditches, in neglected gardens, anywhere there's a bit of open land....I have known it since I was a boy, and as long as it's there I shall know that a part of me still lives in Dehra."
Ditches in Dehradun today do not sprout flowers or weeds but are ideal hunting grounds for the unholy nexus of the mighty and corrupt with a flair and unrivaled penchant for the business of encroachment.
To come back to the smart city of Dehradun, little did anyone realise just a few weeks ago that the project would soon get mired in unseemly controversy. The state government decided in early November to acquire close to 2,000 acres of tea estate - imagine an area roughly 3km by 3km with rich bio-diversity - in the outlying areas of Ambiwala, Harbanswala and Arcadia Grant for the purpose of building the smart city.
Recent reports prepared by the Forest Survey of India point out to a reduction of 700 sq km of forest, trees and green areas in the state in only the last two years. Uttarakhand was ravaged during the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy as thousands had perished in the flash floods from the Choribara lake in the now snowcapped mighty mountains of the state.
Given this background and reality, one would have thought - and hoped - that the preservation of environment and natural resources would be paramount in the design and execution of large-scale development projects with the political masters and their mandarins in an ecologically sensitive state.
Yet, this was not to be! Employing close to a thousand people, the first backlash came in the form of protests relating to the jobs and land holdings of the workers from the tea estate. Environmentalists, civil society, socially aware citizens, students and political opposition have joined the sea of dissent.
Legal luminaries have pointed out roadblocks in changing the land use of the tea estates. The government is determined to complete the job and is ignoring the possibilities of developing the enterprise of tea. Best practices from other tea estates like Kausani, Champawat and Berinag in the state that could have been benchmarked have been placed at the altar of environmentally unsustainable urban development.
Suspect Memoranduns of Understanding (MoUs) with universities from China with apparently no urban experience in India are being provided large equity stake in special purpose vehicles being created in partnership with the state government.
As an avalanche of anguish shrouds the state due to the looming environmental crisis amidst allegations of bungling and financial impropriety, the founding principles of the smart city seem completely forgotten. Yet, the parallel, smart voiced narrative of the government of Uttarakhand offers esoteric illusions of grandeur, of knowledge towers, of cutting edge health-care and mass public rapid transport.
While the city continues to grapple with its never-ending civic woes, the newly formed Uttarakhand Housing and Urban Development Authority (UHUDA) has announced its intent to make four to six smart cities.
As governments across the country chase senseless real estate driven development over global warming and environment they could well remember the wails from Chennai and the declarations from Paris. This would be a sobering thought before the peddlers and merchants of smart living start cutting the first tree to build the smart city of Dehradun.