Uttarakhand: How stupid is Operation Smart City?

Not so smart cities, vanishing forests, rivers in peril, elephants in trouble — Uttarakhand in a sad nutshell

How smart is a city where internet services have been shut down for the last 20 days? (photo: eUttarakhand)
How smart is a city where internet services have been shut down for the last 20 days? (photo: eUttarakhand)

Rashme Sehgal

One of the Modi government’s pet themes has been the transformation of our capital cities into ‘Smart Cities’. Dehradun was no exception, being included in the Smart Cities Mission in June 2017. Ostensibly, the Mission would focus on ‘core infrastructure’ and a ‘clean and sustainable environment’ that would ‘give a decent quality of life to citizens through the application of 'smart solutions'. In other words, the upgradation of water, electricity and transport services would make the city a better place to live in. Has this happened? Does Dehradun now qualify as a smart city?

How smart is a city where internet services have been shut down for the last 20 days? The reason? A beautification drive launched by municipal authorities in honour of the Global Investors Summit held in Dehradun on 8–9 December.

In a truly inspired move to declutter the cityscape, all loose and dangling wires of internet service providers were cut. The ensuing broadband blackout continues to date. The fact that it affected critical operations in government offices such as the RTO, banks, GST offices, payment gateways at shops and business complexes does not seem to concern the state administration.

The aim of this ludicrous exercise was undoubtedly to impress our prime minister and home minister, both of whom held forth at the international meet. Who cared that the fallout seriously hampered the livelihoods of thousands of people (including this correspondent) who need an internet connection for work and other daily activities?

The Alaknanda River (photo: Wikipedia)
The Alaknanda River (photo: Wikipedia)

And there’s more. Uttarakhand is being heavily promoted as a tourist destination but the Doon valley, along with major tourist hotspots such as Haridwar, Rishikesh, Mussoorie, Nainital and Ranikhet have been steadily transformed into concrete jungles. Green spaces have been taken over indiscriminately by the local municipal authorities to make way for ugly shopping malls and unplanned colonies.

Traffic congestion has worsened, as have air pollution levels. Earlier, people sought refuge in Dehradun, hoping the salubrious climate would boost their health and spirits. Now, the opposite has happened. Dehradun has joined all the other cities that would do well to come with a statutory warning of being hazardous to health.


'Environmentally calamitous’

The Himalayas are often referred to as the Third Pole, being the third largest repository of ice and snow in the world after the Arctic and the Antarctic. Uttarakhand is graced by some of the highest peaks in the world including Bandarpunch, Chaukhamba, Satopanth, Kedarnath and Kamet.

No state in India, not even Kerala, can boast of so many rivers. These include the Ganga, Yamuna, Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and Hindon, to name a few. Not to mention the thousands of smaller streams that course through the forests and hills.

In a highly controversial decision, the Uttarakhand High Court has given permission for the mechanised dredging of these rivers. The professed purpose is to clear river channels, but the real objective is to make large quantities of sand available to the construction lobby.

Dredging is known to be harmful for rivers. Not only does it disrupt aquatic life, it also disturbs the natural habitat along the shorelines. It makes river banks unstable, and what’s worse, in an already flood-prone area like Uttarakhand, it increases a river’s propensity to flood. Another foreseeable danger is that it will accelerate the destabilisation of those bridges, river walls and culverts whose foundations are undermined by the deepening of river channels.

All in all, an environmentally calamitous decision, green-signalled for no acceptable reason on earth.


Elephants denied their right of way

December has proved to be a terrible month for the wild elephants of Uttarakhand. Not only has their habitat been shrinking rapidly owing to massive infrastructural expansion, existing elephant corridors are increasingly riddled by a network of new roads and rail projects being built at a feverish pace.

The forest department has not objected to a single one, despite the knowledge that safe corridors are mapped in an elephant’s genetic memory, passed down from generation to generation. When this map is altered drastically, the results are dangerous for humans and elephants alike.

A lone elephant in Rajaji National Park (photo: Uttarakhand Tourism)
A lone elephant in Rajaji National Park (photo: Uttarakhand Tourism)

Only a few days ago, a herd of elephants broke the wall of Haridwar district collector’s residence. In November, there were several instances of elephants crossing the main highways, including in Kotdwar, with car passengers seeming to take the presence of the pachyderms as a personal affront. Two weeks ago, a large herd of elephants was found walking along a main Haridwar road. Instead of sending for the forest department, the police arrived and used loud hooters to disperse them. Unnerved, they began running. One elephant fell and sustained injuries in the needless stampede.

An arrant lack of sensitivity on how to handle human-wildlife encounters was manifest when an elephant was crushed to death by a speeding train on the Lalkuan-Bareilly railway track on 12 December. A baby elephant walking alongside the mother elephant was seriously injured in this collision.

Fortunately, the Forest Officer arrived in time and managed to rescue the calf, who is presently being treated at a local facility. A week before this accident, another elephant was hit by a speeding train and is reported to have died on the spot. The railways has received clear instructions that trains should slow down when driving through forested areas. Why are railway authorities failing to ensure that these speed limits are strictly adhered to?


Juthi Devi (photo: Third Pole)
Juthi Devi (photo: Third Pole)

Staggering loss of forest land

Ashwini Kumar Choubey, the Union MoS for environment, forest and climate change, informed the Rajya Sabha on 6 December that Uttarakhand has lost 11,814,47 hectares of forest land during the last twelve months. This is a staggering figure for such a small state.

Announcing that other states had lost even more forest land — Madhya Pradesh 19,730.36 hectares, Odisha 13,303.79 hectares and Uttar Pradesh 2,512.64 hectares — is irrelevant given that these states are much larger in size than Uttarakhand.

Choubey informed the Rajya Sabha that this forest land diversion was unavoidable seeing that it was for irrigation, mining, road construction and defence projects.

Environmentalists in Uttarakhand have cried themselves hoarse to no avail. The unregulated, large-scale diversion of forests for non-forest activities has exacerbated the risks to communities and the ecosystems that support them.

Human-animal conflicts have also spiked as a result of the cutting down of forests. Uttarakhand, then part of Uttar Pradesh, was where the Chipko movement began, almost 50 years ago. The women of Raini village are now determined to continue the tradition and actively prevent their trees from getting felled. Juthi Devi, a daughter-in-law of Gaura Devi, one of the pioneers of the Chipko movement, attributes the increase in flooding and natural disasters to the rampant felling of trees in the state.

The villagers receive no support for their efforts from the state government. With young people migrating en masse to cities in search of jobs, the villages of Uttarakhand are largely home to the elderly. How long can the elderly eke out a living from a terrain which is becoming more disaster-prone by the day? Unless the state policies change dramatically, Uttarakhand will soon be nothing but a wasteland with ravaged rivers and barren mountains.

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