Development at what cost?

Jun 05, 2013, 07:40 IST | Ranjona Banerji

Dehra Dun is no longer the sleepy town of schools and retirees it once was

Dehra Dun is no longer the sleepy town of schools and retirees it once was. Ever since it became capital of Uttaranchal, which then became Uttarakhand, it has been on an upward growth trajectory. In the past decade, the little shopping area of Jakhan, mid-way up on Rajpur Road, has become unrecognisable.

Green lungs: Mumbai can breathe because of the few open spaces it has and of course, the Borivili National Park. File pic

From the two all-purpose shops we had christened Sanjay and Smiley, there are now innumerable choices, including an excellent supermarket. Malls are on their way. There is already a multiplex close by and another one coming. Dehra Dun proper already has its own malls of course with all the expected brand names.

But an essential part of the charm of Dehra Dun is that it lies in the foothills of the Himalayas. Nature plays a big role in what makes it special. It’s something we forget when we get into development mode. Whatever Dehra Dun gains by becoming more developed, it will lose if it ignores the climate and the environment. If the hills are razed and trees are lost, Dun will become just another ugly urban wasteland, beset with problems.

The battle currently being fought over the future of the racecourse is in many ways also being fought over the future of Mumbai. The 8.5 lakh square metres of open land in Mahalaxmi belongs to all of us. It helps keep Mumbai alive — even if you have never been there and never factor its presence into your life.

This has nothing to do with horses running around tracks. It has to do with the fact that the land around the racetracks is open and undeveloped. Mumbai can breathe because of the few open spaces it has and of course, the Borivili National Park.

The Shiv Sena wants part of the land back from the Turf Club to build a theme park for the benefit of Mumbai’s citizens. It doesn’t want the club’s licence to be renewed. Gambling is evil, mainly rich people do it and it can seduce poor people to ruin. Fine, if that’s your argument no matter how one-sided and unconscionably sanctimonious. Don’t have a racecourse. But don’t pretend to be bothered about the moral health of the people while you sacrifice their bodily and mental health by getting rid of a healthy lung. Don’t look at the racecourse through the rapacious eyes of a builder-developer. Look at it through the eyes of a citizen who needs the city he or she lives in to be alive.

The racecourse story sounds very close to the zoo story or even the Marine Drive story. In fact, it just reads just like a moneymaking scam. Come up with some development or ‘beautification’ idea. Make up committees that travel all over the world looking at options. Get cosy with your favourite builders and developers. Then concoct some massive redevelopment plan which runs into millions of rupees. The zoo was saved by some dedicated tree huggers and lovers. Marine Drive was ruined.

While on it, how could I forget the convert-the-maidans-to-Central Park story? Again, after foreign trips and millions of dollars, Mumbai would have its own little corner of New York, because our maidans are not good enough you know as they are. Thankfully, that idea vanished. Gyan Prakash’s incomparable Mumbai Fables tells the compelling story of how Mumbai was cheated in the Backbay Reclamation project, first by the British and then by we the people. Nothing, you realise, has changed that much. By the way, anyone seen the promised pond in Nariman Point, which was to alleviate all sins?
One can only hope that Dehra Dun — and other smaller cities — will learn the lessons of how big cities have suffered from unbridled growth. Of course, that’s a false hope because Bombay did not learn and Mumbai will not learn. We’ve hung on to our few green open spaces by the skin of our teeth and some wonky good luck. If we lose the racecourse space, let’s not kid ourselves; we will not gain a theme park. Just one more development scam and scandal.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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