Opinion » Comment

Updated: April 27, 2012 01:54 IST

Carved up and sold off, the northern hills are dying a slow death

Mrinal Pande
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'UNCAPTIVATING' UTTARAKHAND: A 2009 photograph of a part of Nainital.
'UNCAPTIVATING' UTTARAKHAND: A 2009 photograph of a part of Nainital.

Bulldozers have flattened the landscape in and around Nainital, leaving history and heritage to be vandalised by rapacious builders.

So, the notorious land developers' lobby in Uttarakhand has managed to sell off even the historic Kushavart Ghat at Haridwar to a private party. This public bathing facility in Har-Ki-Pauri was ordered to be built around 1780 by Ahilyabai Holkar, philanthropist queen of Indore, and has since been managed by a trust. After the surreptitious and illegal sale came to light this year, another detail emerged via the city corporation records presented at the district courts: the sale was executed for Rs.5 crore by none other than the trust.

Those travelling into Uttarakhand either from Garhwal or the Kumaon region can see entire hillsides denuded by hectic building activity. Many of the plots have been sold illegally and against the ecological norms set by the State government. Not surprisingly, in most cases the sale and purchase have happened with political blessings. The plains of Haridwar and Dehradun and even the once beautiful hill towns of Nainital, Almora and Mukteswar have already lost their pristine forest cover to illegal felling. The lush green has yielded place to palatial resorts and private bungalows built for the rich and the famous from other States. Inner cities, unsupervised by the municipal bodies which have approved the sales, are slowly turning into stinking overcrowded slums.

Influx of tourists

In the area described as Dev Bhoomi (land of the gods) in posters put up by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), local temples and shrines have turned into ugly structures thanks to largesse distributed by MLAs from the ruling party and their supporters among land developers and liquor barons. During a recent visit, one found the once beautiful and unpretentious 12th century shrine to Golu Devta, the local god of retributive justice, transformed into a shiny temple embellished with glitter and gold. Its pristine stone walls had been covered over with bathroom quality tiles (some of them carrying lurid religious motifs derived from calendar art). The outer walls of the shrine, surrounded for centuries with strings of little brass bells donated by humble believers, had been painted over in plastic emulsion paints. Nasally sung prayers over loudspeakers drowned out the natural music of the gently swaying bells. The priest was most effusive in his praise for the generosity of a notorious liquor baron-cum-land grabber, reputed to be very close to a top politician. “He is a great bhakt and his donation has transformed Golu Devta's abode Mataji,” he said, adding, “may god bless him.”

Nainital is a small tourist town with a complex history of migrations and religious conversions and reconversions. It was here that many British officials of the East India Company took shelter in 1857 when the plains erupted in gadar (revolt); the Resident Commissioner, Ramsay Sahib, urged them to stay put till the trouble died down. Up until the 1960s, the town was the summer capital of Uttar Pradesh. Even today, the Governor's residence sees an annual summer shift to the stately Raj Bhavan building in Nainital. But the summers are also when a horrifically unregulated influx of tourists arrives, armed with plastic pouches and water bottles that they leave behind, reducing the town to a stinking sewer. The developers have done the rest. A food court has come up next to the ancient temple of Nainadevi, the goddess of eyes and the guardian of the town. In the past, hill towns — even those built for use by the government and its highest officials during the summers — were so planned that locals and seasonal visitors could come together and live in harmony in an ecologically sensitive area. Visitors were expected to respect the freedom and dignity of the highlanders. Government employees in transit were not encouraged to import their requirements from the plains. Everyone learnt to live on what was locally available: rice, rotis, simple dairy products, various kinds of greens and potatoes and the luscious and plentiful local fruits. Even local bakers used local ingredients. Their atta (wheat)-based loaves and buns looked a bit puny but were full of good taste and nutrition. The “Fruit Preservation Centre” at Chaubatiya helped preserve fruits and also held classes for making home preserves. All that has disappeared.

Education and schools

Most hill towns had their own private schools. Few would know that up till the 1970s, the towns also had excellent government-run schools. To this day these are the only public structures with their own large and well kept playgrounds. This was where children once learnt the three Rs and practised hockey, football and cricket otherwise made impossible by the uneven local terrain.

How has the education story unfolded in Uttarakhand? Thanks to the middle class obsession with English medium education provided by private schools, most of the government schools in the hills are nearly dysfunctional. The teachers are well paid and the premises are large, but fewer and fewer students go to these schools because they teach in the Hindi medium. And even some of the good-hearted young couples who run NGOs for educating and empowering the poor of the area, have opted for private boarding schools for their own progeny.

A google search of Kushavart Ghat on Ganga yielded 4,99,000 results in four seconds. Not surprisingly, the majority of the results related to highland tours, hotel accommodation, luxury resorts and plots available for building dream houses. There was nothing at all about the mysterious sale of an 18th century Ghat under the very nose of a city corporation by persons unknown to persons unknown.

(Mrinal Pande is Chairperson of Prasar Bharati and was till recently Chief Editor of the daily, Hindustan.)

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What Mrinal has writen is true and therefore a reflection of the minds of the settlers who are moving into the hills of Uttarakhand where people from New Delhi and elsewhere want o have second homes.Architects have little or no kowledge of how to design homes in the hills and builders try to maximize construction on every available inch.The various develpment authorities set up by the Government are manned by engineers and planners from the plains who prefer to stick to the PWD concept of building housing whether it is in in New Tehri, Mussoorie or elsewhere. The building laws are borrowed from DDA and Uttar Pradesh and the once elegant concepts by British designers and inculcated by the local municpalities have been thrown into the rubbish bin.Trees are being felled unnecessarily, landslides flattened to suit the drawings of designers from the plains and no one seems to take into consideration the heavy damage to the drinking water and sewage systems.

from:  Sudhir Thapliyal
Posted on: May 2, 2012 at 18:21 IST

I visited Nainital, Almora, Pithorogarah, Ascot etc in 2007. i am
pained to hear that the mountains are being levelled to build hotels,
houses etc. Unless the town planning rules are stritcly followed such
irresponsible acts will flourish and we will be left with only
concerte jungles.

from:  M.Nagarajan
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012 at 18:25 IST

We who live in Nainital can truly relate to this and to the greed that
is ruining all that was once a delight for sore eyes. the green is
definitely vanishing and so are peoples farms.

from:  Suman Singh
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012 at 18:17 IST

Below Mussoorie hiisides are being cut and flattened to make homes and
roads for the rich and powerful. Sometime back even the hill between
Mussoorie and Rajpur was being denuded of its forest cover and babus
were making roads and trying to construct homes. Luckily Khanduri
stopped this. The Bindal river has dried up. Slums have come up on all
dry river beds. Building activity is going on at a feverish pace all
over Dehradun and adjoining villages. By damming the Ganga in so many
places it will disappear one day like the Saraswati.

from:  H. S. Deo
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012 at 13:52 IST

Its very sad that Hills become barren Land , With Concrete Development.
What we think that development attracts Money . It is True frequently
but not for the sake of Hills. Nature needs also its attention. Strong
regulation and bottom up development should be very much ease this Time.
And Yes I also Agree People Hesitate to talk in Their Cultured Language.

from:  Gaurav Negi
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012 at 13:22 IST

I fully agree with Mrinal Pandey. I visit Uttarakhand frequently and feel sad that in the last few years it's natural beauty has been destroyed by the land sharks and those wanting a 'mountain resort'. These people do not give a damn about the permamnent damage they are causing to these beautiful hills. In the first week of this month I visited Mukteswar and I was appalled to see the contruction activities goint around there. The same place was so serene and beautiful when I visited it in 2004. It's a shame that we Indians don't value our natural beauty and history. Look at Himachal Pradesh. even the deepest parts of the state have just contruction, ugly contruction and more ugly contruction. And what to say about the hordes of tourists coming from northern plains. they just want to chill out, play loud music, have fun for couple of days and then leave ugly marks of their presence in the form of plastic bags, empty bottles, and chips packets.

from:  Ajay Chaturvedi
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012 at 13:22 IST

Its true that the hills are loosing their natural beauty but i think
we only are responsible for it. Its our selfish wishes which drives us
away from hills. Nowadays every one wants to live in big city and the
people living in big cities often complain and keep on advising people
living in the villages about environment and degrading standards. This
all should stop at once. If anyone is really interested in saving what
we call our Pahari culture first he/we should feel pride in calling our self Pahari. I have seen people hesitating talking in their local language.

from:  Gaurav Bhatt
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012 at 11:11 IST

I agree in toto with all that you have said. Please return to Uttarakhand & let us all join hands to carry out a vigorous campaign to save our Land.Mere writing from New Delhi won't do!

from:  Lt Gen Dr Mohan Bhandari
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012 at 07:54 IST

Mrinal Pande has articulated the pain of all lovers of the pristine
hills of Uttarakhand. These hills carry stories from Puranas and Vedas
and millions flock there to experience the spiritual vibrations of
Tapas of sages and Rishis. There has been a sustained efforts by NGOs
and other interested people to stop this exploitation but foiled by
the strong political-builder lobby.
It is ironic that the end of the article, there is an advertisement of
Hotel Shivalik Almora. May be the locals should be encouraged to develop BED-n-Breakfast accomodations for the tourists and discourage big hotels and resorts in these areas. There are many Ashrams too where people can stay in a simple but clean surroundings.

from:  Dr. Ratna Magotra
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012 at 07:50 IST
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