May 31, 2003
Distinguished for its healthy climate, scenic beauty, and abundant amenities, Dehradun lies in the centre of the unique and ecologically sensitive Doon Valley, and currently serves as the provisional capital of Uttaranchal state. One of the larger urban agglomeration in the region, the city of Dehradun has served as an important gateway to the Uttarakhand Himalayas for decades. Bounded by the Yamuna and Ganges rivers to the West and East respectively and the Shivalik hills to the South and the Lesser Himalayan range in the North, the valley is about 72 km long and 35km wide. Recently, Dehradun’s sprawl has reached the periphery of the Mussoorie hill station, creating an urbanized corridor running the North-South width of the valley.
A quiet town at the turn of the 20th century, Dehradun has seen its overall population grow from a scant 28,100 in 1901 to 457,000 in 2001. The district itself has witnessed a population boom, starting at 180,000 in 1901 and passing 1,280,000 in 2001. Much of this growth followed independence when specific historic events and long term trends led to massive migration to the valley. Starting with India’s partition which led to the arrival of thousands of refugees from West Punjab, many other groups from Nepalis and Tibetans, to retired civil servants and military officers settled in the Doon Valley in subsequent years. Garhwalis, the native residents of the surrounding highlands have since shrunk to barely a third of the population.
Despite the cultural diversity these immigration waves have brought to the city, Dehradun and the Doon Valley as a whole have been disproportionately impacted by the accompanying average population increase of 44% per decade in the last half century. The end of century growth and the rising affluence of a sizeable section of the city’s population has been accompanied by a 100% increase in the number of motorized vehicles registered in the city in just the past decade, leading to bad traffic conditions and worsening air pollution.
Moreover, as many Dehradun residents can attest, pressures on land, natural resources, and preexisting physical and administrative infrastructure have combined to stress the city to the breaking point. The quantity and quality of water in the valley has sparked the most concern as population growth has far outstripped region’s potable water resources while crumbling infrastructure has severely endangered the safety of the water supply. Lack of garbage disposal facilities beyond spot incineration and the increasing use of non-biodegradable packaging, plastic bags, and containers have become real hazards. Rapid urbanization has also gobbled up valuable forest and agricultural land, sending temperatures soaring and even giving rise to dust storms. Slums have proliferated in such unsuitable places as dry river beds and encroachment has snarled traffic, despite periodic clearances and government initiatives to build new housing colonies for the urban poor.
The decision to make Dehradun a state capital seems so far to have only exacerbated these problems, despite new investments in refurbishing some aspects of the city. The state has also pressed ahead in establishing administrative institutions in Dehradun by expropriating office buildings and hotels for government usage. As such, the looming possibility of Dehradun losing its historic charms and becoming a “typical third world urban nightmare” will only grow unless basic principles of ecologically-sensitive urban planning are implemented and sprawl, land speculation, traffic congestion, and population growth are checked. Whether the recent municipal council elections will make much difference in restoring accountability and encouraging action in urban affairs, remains to be seen. However, it goes without saying that good urban governance can only be guaranteed by the vigilance and concern of an active and enlightened citizenry. Hopefully, Dehradun’s residents can rise to the occasion and save their city.