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Living Under Siege



‘If you see a crime, ring police at 112!! If you are hungry, eat Maggi at Hungry Horse!’ I know it doesn’t rhyme. But then, nor did the sticker on and rear of the car.

Built for bullock-carts carrying rotund barrels of beer, the motor-road to Mussoorie was one of the finest ways to get to a hill-station in northern India. It was built long before motorized vehicles had put in an appearance. But not today- it’s been reduced to a mess.

As if on cue, the headlines jump at me: ‘147 shacks identified on the Dehradun highway!’ ‘So what’s new?’ You shrug and move on, not batting an eyelid at the whole new LEGOtownship that has sprung up along the roadside.

‘How much do you charge by the minute?’ a still-all-there friend of mine, in his eighties, needles the owner of a shack who, he has heard, lets out rooms by the hour.

No rooms really, just seedy saw-dust cubicles for Happy Hour where boozing-cruising is the order of the day. Result? A national highway is clogged by vehicles. It’s as if someone had ripped up the pages of the U.P. Roadside Land Control Act which prohibits all building or re-building within forty-five feet of a road and laws are followed but only in violation.

Every serial offender carries a certificate from a village Pradhan or Zila Panchayat, who have no powers to grant permission. As I write, politicians in election mode, regardless of their party affiliation, plead in favour of self-employment.

I find that in 1995, the year that Uttarakhand was born we had 42000 vehicles registered in the State. Now there are twentyfive lakhs! Add another crore visitors coming in from outside the state, and you get an inkling of what we are up against. Recently, much has been made of an elevated road to Delhi. “In under three hours you will be in Dehradun!’ What they forgot to mention is the fine print: on reaching here, it will take another three hours of wrestling with the city’s endless trafficjams.

Below me, a permanent haze hangs over the valley. ‘Inverse air currents trap pollutants between the Shivalik and the Himalaya,’ the Bandhopadhya Committee Report had warned fifty years ago. In answer we cut down the Doon’s last few, hundred-fiftyyear-old lichi orchards. Closer to home, in Mussoorie, we destroy saplings planted by the Eco-Task Force as mandated by the Supreme court in a reforestation drive following the closure of the limestone quarries. No matter where you look, slums mushroom overnight in a nightmare gone all wrong.

A contractor-builder combine is hard at work slithering through the loopholes and getting permissions. Step one: Get your map passed as a residential property. Step two: Get the authorised person to affix his signatures and you have a brand new hotel. Needless to say such conversions have been specifically banned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests since 2001. But who’s listening?

Recently, below the Tehri Bus-stand, a dozen cottages have sprung up on spindly stilts, teetering precariously on a sixty degree slope.

‘These will collapse in the next earthquake,‘ I reason with the owner.

‘Never mind!’ he says cheerily. ‘Compensation will follow!’

And that is precisely why I get so hot under the collar.

There are hotels without space for parking a single bicycle and a simple walk down the Mall, is a game of Snakes & Ladders played among vehicles that are parked cheek by jowl along the road.

‘Make more money!’ is the New Age Mantra. Avarice has replaced good sense as we slaughter the goose that lays the golden eggs.

‘In Mussoorie, we have two kinds of cars: those that are scratched and those that are going to get scratched!’ For these narrow lanes were not meant for traffic. On the other hand, the contest of the last Great Hotel Race erases all memories of the beauty that attracted tourists here in the first place.

How long will the mafia of a few hundred hold us hostage? ‘Is this the legacy we shall leave behind for our children?’ shudders Senior Advocate Ranbir Singh, shaking his head in disbelief.

(Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.)