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(Un)Smart City Dehradun

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By Satish Aparajit
Dehradun, the city of ‘green hedges and grey hair, in a beautiful location where rolling hills, narrow roads and breathtaking views of nature abounded, is now a thing of the past. Merciless destruction, haphazard growth and concretisation with little regard to urban planning are slowly turning this city into a slum. The process of degradation began with the formation of a separate state of Uttarakhand in 2000 and continues at an accelerated pace. In parts of the city, glimpses of the glorious past can still be seen.

Making Dehradun into a smart city began in 2017 and was supposed to be completed by 2021. This process continues with all its travails. It has further exacerbated the downward spiral of the city. With the formation of the Hill State, funds flowed in for various development projects and instead of “Sabka saath, sabka vikas’ the leitmotif became “Apna vikas”. Mindless destruction of the forests, National Park areas and the hot water spring of Sahastradhara, to name a few, have all become fodder for greed and not need, of this erstwhile idyllic hill state. At Sahastradhara, influential people have acquired land and built pushtas (retaining walls) and resorts, even swallowed up forest land with little regard for environmental preservation. Hillsides are just being lopped off. The stream seems to be on its last journey to a dry bed. The development of the state is not visible; just a concrete jungle. The authorities have gone overboard, damaging the national park by getting highways and state roads to pass through. The national park and forest land is regularly getting a hair cut benefitting builders and real estate developers. Thereby, reducing the ownership rights of the wildlife and increasing man-animal conflict.

The advent of the smart city was meant to enhance the quality of life for the common person and make it even more attractive. Sadly, the reverse is true. It is not only becoming an eyesore but also less liveable, and navigating the city has become a nightmare.

Let us examine what has contributed to the mess that will slowly but certainly consume it and choke nature’s bounteous state.

Urbanisation
The state had already seen a huge influx of displaced people from Tehri as land was carved out for them. With Dehradun becoming the state capital of UK and Garsain remaining notional, the former became flush with funds. With it there was an inflow of people from the hills seeking employment as well and officials of the administration of the newly formed state. The demand on land burgeoned and, thereafter, began the indiscriminate plotting with no concern for a master plan. As land become dearer, high-rise buildings came up. The stress on the facilities and infrastructure increased.

Roads & Traffic
Most of the main roads were built during the colonial era. They have been widened to their limit. Suicide alley near the Clock Tower has been widened but with the phenomenal increase in vehicular traffic this has made negotiating this and all the roads a nightmare. The start and finish of the school day are utter chaos as schools have mushroomed all over the city. The police are quite inept at controlling traffic. Along with home guards, they stand at critical places but wave their hands indiscriminately without an idea of the pile up. Traffic lights cause less traffic jams.

According to statistics, Dehradun has almost 2 lakh registered cars and another 2 lakh cars of a floating population on weekends and holidays that causes a stress on the already congested roads. Not to mention the vikrams and e-rickshaws that move with scant regard for rules. A knock here and there from them is all in the course of their routine to race to their destination and cram as many passengers as they can. Bus stops are located at traffic lights. One such is at the Rispana Bridge – even Vikrams, e-rickshaws are parked there. This delays movement and further adds to traffic pile-ups. The labour market in the morning hours makes it impossible to navigate as only one lane is all that is left for commuters, and this happens at a number of places in Dehradun. At a roundabout, the rule is to give way to traffic on your right but people driving from the opposite side do a u-turn short of it and cause further jams, clogging free left turns and moving into the zebra crossing to be the first to race across. These are just some of the travails – the list is endless. All this happens under the nose of the traffic police, which finds itself helpless. The solution, however, lies in the public as well as police and home guards to be trained and more educated about traffic rules.

Dehradun like any other small city suffers from the VIP syndrome. MPs, MLAs, Ministers, police officials and bureaucrats have police escorts with sirens blaring. Not only do they scream, shout at the public but threaten them to get off the road. And, of course, traffic lights do not exist for these so-called VIPs. PM Modi during his first tenure had issued clear guidelines on the use of sirens and beacons on the VIP cars, but it has remained at the level of ideas. Many a time, ambulances get stranded because of this so-called VIP movement. When the Uttarakhand Assembly is in session, the roads are dug up to create barriers with scant regard to the fact that it inconveniences people who live beyond the Rispana. Diversions are created so that the members of Assembly have smooth passage but create traffic jams on all connecting roads. A large police force is deployed outside the Vidhan Sabha and at the barriers but with little or no help to normal commuters. However, the traffic takes care of itself. The police force has nothing to do most of the day but stand around the assembly building – sheer waste of time and energy to guard whom? The cars in the CM’s convoy are probably as big as that of the PM of India or more, when there is no threat from any possible known sources. But the basic idea seems to be politicians and bureaucrats showcasing their power to the hapless common person. Wonder why we elect these people.

The visit of President Murmu to Dehradun was a boon as the city got a makeover and areas that were an eyesore were adorned with green shade nets. These swayed in the breeze and hid the dug up ugly face and dirt lying along the roads of Dehra. The police were at their efficient best and traffic sailing smoothly. Why oh why does it need to be for show and not reality, is my lament. What happened to Swacch Bharat is anyone’s guess.

The hoardings and billboards with the faces of politicians at important intersections distract and at times obscure the view of the traffic light. Photo shoots of leaders and their minions during festivals and birthdays on road signs are strung across the city, defacing it and causing a traffic distraction. “Wah re wah, hamare politicians remain in the realm of hoardings and do not even sit for the few designated days in the assembly as was evidenced during the winter session of UK in December, 2022.

Parking poses another problem, as people park on the roads, even though the administration has parking attendants who monitor the paid parking. A huge parking facility has come up near Ghanta Ghar but there is general apathy to use it. Two wheelers and sometimes even cars sail down the narrow alleys of Paltan Bazaar. Why the government is loath to stop vehicular traffic here is anybody’s guess. Coffee houses, malls, all contribute to the challenge of parking and once again the enforcement authorities are trying with strict measures to help as they are imposing fines and towing away vehicles. But not all offenders can be penalised as everyone seems to know someone in the Government, be it a minister, MLA, bureaucrat or even those on lower rungs of the ladder.

Footpaths have almost ceased to exist as they have got swallowed up in the parking abyss and walking is no longer a pleasure.

The city seems to be in a downward spiral with its traffic woes. Are there solutions that will make this city truly smart? I have some to offer. I was part of a team that was exploring ropeways for Sikkim, Naglanad and Mizoram for urban mobility, a creative solution to reduce pollution and enhance mobility. This could be carried out in a phased manner: –

The first phase could be from the Railway Station, through Paltan Bazaar and up to Dilaram Chowk. One other route could be from Paltan Bazaar to Doon Hospital and the Court/Tehsil offices.

The second phase could extend from Dilaram Bazaar to the Mussoorie turn off. No vehicle should be allowed to go to Mussoorie except for essential services / ambulance / police, armed forces and government vehicles only for essential jobs and not ferrying family members. Of course, local residents of Mussoorie would be exempted.

For phase one and two, provide 4, 6, 8 and 12 seater golf carts for commuting to various locations. These are battery operated, so no pollution. This will give additional revenue to Government.

Multi storey parking: The need of the hour. Again, this could also be made in a phased manner. First, make one 500 cars/two wheelers parking adjacent to Doon Club that will cover part of Paltan Bazaar and Rajpur Road. The next car park should be at the Mussoorie turn off catering to 500 cars and two wheelers. Provide electric buses for visitors/tourists to commute to Mussoorie. Only residents of Mussoorie should be allowed to use their private vehicles; and one car park on Chakrata Road for 300 cars/two wheelers.

Shift the capital to Gairsain: If Dehradun is to be saved, move the Capital to Gairsain. Facilities have already been created there. The issue is the authorities would not like to move away to the hills.

Tree Plantation: Unfortunately very little is being done to make Dehradun green again, except for photo ops at which politicians, senior bureaucrats are seen planting some sapling that disappears no sooner it is planted. This requires serious consideration. In fact, local people must aggressively pursue it and make the loss good without bothering what the authorities would do to curb it. Remember, most authorities have no time for the wellbeing or development of the state but only for their individual prosperity.

While there are numerous problems, there is still hope. Let us all common people come forward and strive to get Dehradun back on the rails to its past glory. Wake up people, wake up.

(Satish Aparajit is a retired IAF Wing Commander and Shaurya Chakra awardee.)