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.)