From doon to Boom

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Dehradun is getting richer, but at great environmental cost, says Saumya Tyagi

Towering landmark Concrete evidence of how green is giving way to grey in the heart of the city
Towering landmark Concrete evidence of how green is giving way to grey in the heart of the city
Photo: Usha

SCENIC DEHRADUN, the capital of Uttarakhand, has traditionally been celebrated for its boarding schools. Topping the ranking game was always Doon School, which counts some of the most illustrious Indians among its alumni, including Rajiv Gandhi, Vikram Seth, historian Ramchandra Guha, novelist Amitav Ghosh and NDTV’s Prannoy Roy.

But like the city itself — which saw unrestrained real estate activity after it became the capital of Uttarakhand in 2000 — the learning experience the schools today offer is nothing like what it was till the 1970s, or even the 1980s. Postmillennium particularly, they were largely over-run by commercial institutions with no other goal besides raking in money at any cost. Indeed it took barely a decade for the city to substantially lose its spatial splendour — as people, sensing capital opportunities, made a mad rush to buy property there.

The old schools’ campuses, built on acres of verdant land, soon began making way for crammed buildings whose owners, like the real estate developers, had a single concern: making as much money as could be made in as short a time as possible. “In the olden days the schools were extremely conscious about producing quality. Today, things are distressingly different,” says a senior teacher at St Joseph’s School. The rapid commercialisation of education has seen the older-style schools being swiftly swamped by newfangled engineering and management institutes, airhostess training academies, and the like.

What is also new is the rapid politicisation of educational institutions. “All this happened after Dehradun became the capital,” points out Ajay Saxena, Associate Professor and Director of the placement cell at the city’s oldest college, DAV. “The muscle power behind college-level political leaders has increased a great deal, so they now have a much greater nuisance value.”

After 2000, real estate prices soared up to Rs 1 Lakh per square yard for Commericial properties

Consumerists all Paltan Bazar is the oldest and most vibrant market in Dehradun
Consumerists all Paltan Bazar is the oldest and most vibrant market in Dehradun

The British era buildings had an ambience all their own. Most of it was classic Victorian architecture, housing mostly schools or hotels. Today, among the few heritage structures that survive intact is the clock tower in Paltan Bazaar at the heart of the city. This used to be a city of lavish bungalows with sprawling litchi and mango orchards, and many parts of it were thickly wooded. The streams that earlier ran along the roads have been neatly covered up to make more space for vehicles which clog the roads at almost all hours. The only respite is that one can still escape into the silence of the hills that are a mere 20-minute drive away.

The ravaging of the landscape was a foretold fact after Dehradun became the capital and people rushed to the valley to buy property. Says KK Soin, Managing Director of Kavi Constructions, one of the leading builders in the city: “The land prices in Dehradun were much cheaper then than they were in most other capital cities and, as there are still many good schools, family people made a beeline for it. Adding to the rush was its proximity to Delhi, which is barely 240 km away.

The per capita income of Uttarakhand residents — Rs 14,500 at the time of its formation — has peaked to Rs 41,000. And a survey done by the Union government says it is third nationally in terms of growth rate, and first among the Himalayan states.

 

Heritage threatened There are many old-style buildings like this, but in recent times, they have suffered from unrestrained real estate activity
Heritage threatened There are many old-style buildings like this, but in recent times, they have suffered from unrestrained real estate activity

AS REAL estate prices soared — at one point topping Rs 1 lakh per square yard for commercial property on centrally located Rajpur Road — the first casualties were the old majestic bungalows. Ugly concrete double-storey houses came up on their rubble, and those engaged in real estate — right from the petty broker to the landowner — earned crores in the gold rush that lasted till the start of the economic slowdown that began in mid-2008. It was only then that prices started to stabilise, as demand suddenly plummeted.

“Now the saturation point has been reached,” says Ashok Windlass, Director of Windlass Realtors and Developers, who recently completed a 112 flat project in Dalanwala, an upscale residential locality. “No new projects are coming up.” He also points out that the new state has not been able to address the issue of red tapism, which has kept away big firms

But in those eight years of reckless building activity, shops, beauty parlours and boutiques began to pop up overnight out of garages and spare rooms to service the population influx, creating major retailing opportunities. According to recent estimates, the population is expected to reach 6.57 lakhs by next year. However, what has remained nearly static is the city’s infrastructure. The municipality’s first master plan was formalised only eight years after the state’s creation; and even thenm it had no relevant solutions to offer.

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