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GURUGRAM: RETHINKING PARADIGMS OF DEVELOPMENT

Striking a balance between development and environmental sustenance has ignited many debates without concrete solutions – it's time to apply brakes on swift development and rethink ideas of prosperity with an eye towards achieving global sustainable developmental goals

As the cool October breeze signalled the coming of winters, flowers would begin to blossom and the aroma of blooming jasmine trees handsomely donned the wide streets of the city. October in the national capital was once known for its charm.

As India progressed, its reflection was most carefully witnessed in its capital. The large urban landscape of Delhi expanded to what is now popularly known as the National Capital Region (NCR). In the process, urbanisation surpassed the expectations of not only the local governments but even its planners. NCR is now a vital powerhouse fuelling the nation's economy where global standards are set as important parameters of success.

It has become the headquarters of some of the world's most valuable companies – largest factories of mobile phones, two wheelers and four wheelers, plush condominium societies, state-of-the-art highways, alongside a host of small-scale industries that are ensuring job creation.

The exponential growth of NCR has led to a situation where with an estimated population of 30 million by 2030, it will displace the Tokyo region as the largest urban centre in the world. In the growth model of NCR, Gurugram has often captured the imagination of people, nationally and globally, for its sudden rise to prominence. No wonder the story of Gurugram and its growth is a compelling subject that is being explored in various books and films.

In 1991, the population of the city was pegged at 1,25,000 which increased to 8,76,000 within a decade. In 2011, Gurugram's population crossed the one million mark and, in the present context, the estimated population is said to be between 2-3 million. In contrast, Gurugram was not accorded a municipal category by the British as the population of the village was less 5,000 people in 1885.

On October 28, 2018, thousands of residents congregated at Aravalli Biodiversity Park, a 350-acre area which has more than a large amount of green space located just on the outskirts of the national capital. The Aravalli Biodiversity Park is often cited as a unique example of a citizen-led effort in collaboration with the public agencies to restore a denuded Aravalli site into the form of a forest. What is considered to be a pristine habitat for over 400 species of native plants and animals, a part of the northern Aravalli range may soon become extinct if a certain section of the lobby has its way.

In order to reduce traffic congestion, there are plans to build a bypass that will provide an alternative route for the commuters of Delhi and Gurugram. Coincidentally, the public agencies on their part can also cite examples showing the significance of going ahead with the project.

On November 5, 2018, on the auspicious occasion of Dhanteras – the first of the five days of Deepavali, lakhs of vehicles were stranded in a traffic blockade on National Highway-8 in Gurugram. The traffic jam extended to a distance of six kilometres.

Traffic jams are not a new phenomenon for residents of NCR. But there have been numerous occasions where the traffic on the Delhi-Jaipur highway stretch at Gurugram has turned out to be scary and deadly for its residents

On July 28, 2016, 46 mm of rain in just three hours was enough to stall Gurugram and its busiest route of NH-8. Lakhs of commuters, who were travelling back home in the evening, were stuck in a jam that lasted for more than 18 hours. As a result, most of them had to spend their night on the road.

This incident that highlighted the dismal state of public infrastructure in the city prompted not only the state but also the central government to take action. In a span of two years, underpasses and flyovers were built at the major traffic intersections. Most projects were duly completed before the deadline.

However, in this regard, there were also certain repercussions. More than 6,000 trees have been felled by the Haryana forest department along the highway. This is not for the first time that there has been massive cutting of trees along NH-8. Earlier too, from the period of 2005-2008, a large part of the green cover was removed for the widening of roads.

NH-8 is just one example to illustrate the adverse effect of development on the environment. The compulsion of development and expansion has always been chosen by authorities and, in a way, has also been accepted by the citizens of a growing, ambitious city.

The unregulated real estate development in Gurugram has led to a gradual decline of the forest cover of the Aravallis. A major reason why the Aravallis is exploited and continues to be plundered by the real estate sharks in the city is the lack of delineation which prevents the Aravallis in Gurugram to be declared as forest area.

Along with the lack of proper delineation, dual laws also prevent the forest conservators from protecting the forest area of the Aravallis. Presently, according to the Indian Forest Act, only 4 per cent of the area of Aravallis in Gurugram is notified as forest. The Punjab Land Conservation Act allows 25 per cent of the green cover of Aravallis to be defined as forest area depending upon how dense the vegetation is. The delay by the public authorities in declaring the Aravalli Biodiversity Park as a forest may result in the range being damaged further as NHAI plans to build a bypass through it.

Technically, it is still a gair-mumkin-pahar, which allows the authorities to use the area for development and can be described as an uncultivated wasteland which cannot be held, occupied or used for agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and poultry farming, among others.

Ironically, Delhi, which has 10 times the population of Gurugram, has a much higher green cover than its neighbour. If the havoc of the 2016 showers of rain in Gurugram was not enough, in August 2018, nature again took its revenge. The newly-constructed underpass at Hero Chowk in Gurugram filled with water of more than 30 feet became a telling image. The condition yet again highlighted how the man-made ponds and water embankments that once drained out the city's excesses have now been made extinct to encroachments.

Built by the Britishers, these water embankments not only drained out the water but also brought rich silts into the region from the annual flooding in the Yamuna River. Most of these bunds have now become extinct. The ones that are surviving continue to remain in a neglected state. Among the over 460 ponds spread across Gurugram district, 208 have dried up and 186 lay dirty.

Even as there has been a ban by the court to dig bore wells, there are over 15,000 illegal bore wells that have been dug up in Gurugram. In most areas of the city, the groundwater levels have fallen to as low as 50 metres. This alarming decline in water levels in the city was also brought up by the National Green Tribunal in its deliberations.

"Gurgaon is the metaphor for new India, rising maniacally from below through the efforts of its spirited people, almost despite the state," asserts prominent author, Gurcharan Das.

The price of development and its adverse impact may have been felt in Gurugram but it is not the only metropolis. Recently, residents of Bengaluru, Mumbai and even New Delhi have come out on the streets and, in turn, stopped the authorities from felling trees for new developmental projects. Alas, the debate over sustainable development in a metropolis seems never-ending with no concrete solutions in sight or implementation.

Piyush Ohrie

Piyush Ohrie

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