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Only Downhill for Overbuilt Mussoorie

Special Report, September 19, 1997 (Times of India)

ON the 2nd of September, Mussoorie shut down. Three years ago, the police had shot Uttarakhand activists who had assembled off the Mall. The building from which the police had fired has been painted black and renamed Shaheed Sthal, the Martyrs’ Memorial. The memorial service, conducted this year by two pundits, two Christian priests, a granthi and a mullah, was no longer an outburst of hatred against the police and their political mentors. The Uttarakhand movement is now developing a deeper, more integrated, persona: a definite cultural ethos is emerging, binding the people of the many districts of Uttarakhand together.

In 1994, the simmering discontent against a perceived exploitation by politicians and administrators had erupted, triggered by a provocative diktat by the state government. Henceforth, it had decreed, the educational reservations for OBCs would be raised from five per cent to 27 per cent. Since OBCs account for only two per cent of the population of the area, Garhwalis and Kumaonis see this as a move to deprive them of even the limited opportunities available to them in their impoverished hills. Students, their sisters and mothers took to the streets. The PAC fired. And the once-peaceful movement was baptised in blood.

Prime Exploiter

The memories of that firing are still fresh. The bullet holes in the walls have been carefully preserved. There is no forgiveness for those tragic events but a growing realisation that anger is not enough; there must be a determined opposition to exploitation.

Today, most people in Mussoorie identify their prime exploiter as the Mussoorie Dehra Dun Development Authority (MDDA). Set up, ostensibly, to `develop’ a town which had been proud of its civic services for more than a century, the MDDA is seen as the principal architect of Mussoorie’s destruction. The Uttarakhand Joint Action Committee recently sent a message to the vice-chairman of the MDDA expressing resentment “… at the continuing overbuilding in and around Mussoorie in blatant violation of all laws of the land…”

There has been massive overbuilding. A permanent population of about 35,000 has to bear the burden of an estimated 2.1 lakh tourists. Responding to this demand, `developers’, bloated with black money, have swarmed in. They have built hotels and apartments seemingly uncontrolled by the MDDA and often in blatant violation of the MDDA’s own conditions.

For instance, the MDDA prohibits construction within five feet of an electrical line. And yet, buildings have enclosed electrical poles. `No hill cutting shall be done in hilly tracts’ says another condition; hillsides have been excavated with impunity. `Construction shall be done on pillars only and no excavation and hill cutting shall be done’: buildings have been erected on hollow retaining walls which have then become additional, illegal, floors. And when buildings have been erected on pillars, spaces between the pillars have been filled in with bricks to make more, unauthorised, floors. `The debris accumulated during construction shall be utilised on site’: more often than not they have been dumped on the hillside in piles of scree, choking water-courses, trees and shrubs. And though the MDDA formally demands that “The applicant will have to plant at least ten trees of forest species in the vacant part of the said place”, this has not been done and, very often, cannot be done because there’s no room for such trees on the site.

Curiously, though the MDDA has demolished unauthorised structures in neighbouring Dehra Dun, it has shied off Mussoorie. All this has resulted in such an acute shortage of water that hotels have begun to tap open streams. One of these is below a ghat where dhobis wash their dirty linen. Mussoorie’s chronic water shortage is further compounded by the inefficiency of the state electricity board. It cuts off power even in the height of the season. Consequently, the pumps drawing water from our springs cannot work, the reservoirs cannot fill, adding to the problems created by an overburdened environment.

Role Model

An estimated 571 cases of sanctions for illegal constructions have been found in Mussoorie. After seeing the recent collapse of buildings in Gangtok and Darjeeling, locals worry that many, if not most, of these buildings will also come crashing down sooner rather than later. When this happens the two main industries of this area, tourism and residential schools, will be crippled. So will the economy of this town.

Such disasters might yet be prevented if unauthorised buildings, straining our earthquake-and-landslide prone hills, are demolished without delay. Mussoorie’s case is not unique though the response of its people could be. What the Uttarakhandis have started today could well serve as a role model for the citizens of Shimla, Darjeeling, Gangtok, Ooty, Kodaikanal and all the other tourist destinations being devastated by the builders’ cohorts. Clearly, only civic activism can protect civic rights.