With 67 percent of Uttarakhand technically under forests and, owing to the stringent Forest Act unavailable to the local populace as well as the State Government for most activities, land is desperately scarce. It was one thing to deny access to forests, but under a misguided sense of ‘doing good’, the state legislated against changing the land use of agricultural holdings. This has meant a gross unavailability of land for even the natural growth resulting from population explosion and developmental needs. To make things worse, there is also a strong bias against permitting high-rise buildings, even though some relaxation has been made now in the rules. All this has made urban land prohibitively expensive and the target of all kinds of mafia, as well as property speculation. Many urban properties are also not available because of the unintelligent town planning, and unrealistic interpretation of the Forest Act.
The only way land can now be acquired is through various forms of grab, and breaking of a range of laws. People are being forced to deal with crooks to obtain housing, because it is not possible for legitimate players to operate. Owing to the disproportionate cost of land, entrepreneurial activity of all kinds is being discouraged because the numbers simply do not add up. The rich are having to build their Malls and multi-storeyed buildings by ‘aggregating’ and building over older constructions. All kinds of lies have to be told to get the plans through, resulting in the essential elements of design being overlooked. Since most of these are only available in the inner parts of the cities, congestion is increasing manifold.
On the other hand, the poor – desperate for a roof over their heads – make do with any open space, occupying whatever land they find vacant. So, not only public urban land, but also marginal and fringe areas such as strips on the riverside and, then, riverbeds are built over. They know full well that it is an invitation to disaster, but there is no alternative. Then they get comfortable, the rains hold off for a couple of years, and they invest all their earnings in some ‘pucca’ construction. If their numbers are enough, sometimes the government regularises these holdings and builds embankments that give a false sense of security. Then, when the flood does come, their life’s work is destroyed in the space of an evening. They are lucky if they get out alive.
The middle class has to make do with ‘colonisers’ carving space out of virtually nowhere – filling in natural ravines and seasonal water courses, dangerously obstructing the natural drainage and creating havoc in adjoining areas. They are backed by corrupt officials and politicians, as well as criminal elements. It is no surprise, therefore, that colonies get flooded every time there is a heavy downpour. The civic amenities that exist, such as roads, street lights, water lines, pavements, drainage, sewers, etc., are destroyed. It is very expensive to continuously repair them, so they are in a state of permanent neglect.
In the hills, this phenomenon is compressed into the far less land available, which results in the mind-boggling disasters that have now become commonplace. Can a normal mind even conceive of almost a hundred major buildings, comprising entire markets, dozens of hotels and multi-storeyed housing being swept away by the river? That is what has actually happened in Uttarakhand, and will continue in this manner in the near future.
All of this is because the state has failed to develop a realistic policy on planned urbanisation. It is a fact that India needs only one percent of its land for developmental growth, no more. In Uttarakhand, because two-thirds of the land is not available, this number would go up to about 3-4 percent. If the Quixotic law on agricultural land use change is reformed, all these problems would go away. Land would also become much cheaper. There is no other solution.