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Making India's mountain cities more liveable
Updated:Oct 17, 2017
 
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By Anne Feenstra
 
Ruskin Bond’s first novel ‘Room on the Roof’ describes in vivid detail how life in the hills around Dehradun used to be. Bond, who is based in Landour, Mussoorie, since 1963, captured the imagination of countless readers as he painted a picture of an era gone by. 
 
With time, Mussoorie, once fondly called the "Queen of the Hills", has changed dramatically. The population has grown 500% to almost 40,000 and the floating population (students, tourists, students, workers) is about the same number. Mussoorie was never designed for this. Water is a problem, so is garbage, sewage, while arguably, traffic congestion and air pollution have become the biggest threats for a sustainable and liveable Mussoorie. Surgical masks are being used on days of severe air pollution, when at least something as basic as fresh mountain air should be a non-negotiable commodity. 
 
While all demographic figures are predicting that cities in South Asia will keep growing, with predictions that show Delhi will have 96 million people in 2050, there is a lack of research done on Indian mountain cities. 
 
The ecological well-being of the mountains is directly linked to peoples’ lives in the plains. Indian Mountain Initiative (IMI) has, since 2011, carved out a role as India’s most important platform for the mountain people. It is urgent, as these – once upon a time - cute fairytale hill stations for the ruling elite do not seem to function any more. With demographic predictions, migration pattern realities and the existing government’s push for rapid urbanization, the ecological, social and cultural pressures on the mountain towns/cities of India is spinning out of control. 
 
On the ground, dedicated people like Anoop Nautiyal (Dehradun), Priyadarshinee Shresta (Gangtok) and Roshan P. Rai (Darjeeling; that went from 20.000 to approx. 150.000 urban inhabitants) are taking initiatives to put important improvements on the agenda, but much more hard work is needed. 
 
More research needs to be undertaken and actual situations need to be mapped. Every mountain town/city should have a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) combined with more accurate information from actual field surveys. 
 
The watersheds and drainage densities should be mapped. Now, the demand in peak season Mussoorie is 14 million litres per day. Being on a ridge, that water is not available. 
 
Sloping maps with gradients need to be prepared as it is not advisable to build on land with slopes that are steeper than 30 degrees or more. For Mussoorie, that means that 80 % of the land is actually un-buildable. Without an accurate 3D-map, it is not possible to enforce legislation and ensure that the polluter pays. All this and more information should translate into clear landslide susceptibility patterns that must be communicated to the communities and public. 
 
As the Dean Architecture CEPT, I could initiate new collaborations between architecture and planning teachers, who usually (and historically, thanks to the British) lean towards conducting research in the plains. Sites were taken up in Sikkim, Uttarakhand and in Sindhupalchowk, the epicentre of the 12 May 2015 Nepal earthquake. It is also good to see that the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture 2017 (Paris) was awarded to engineer Sonam Wangchuk, who is on a mission to start a ‘mountain people’s university’ in Ladakh. It would include the disciplines of planning and architecture.
 
I recently visited Aizawl, capital of Mizoram, at 1132 m. altitude, that presently houses a quarter of the state’s population. IMI and Mizoram Sustainable Development Foundation invited me to present some work at the sixth Sustainable Mountain Development Summit held there late September. 
 
I presented several cases including a process called Mussoorie 2040. After months of research, mapping, interviews, site visits, we built an accurate physical three-dimensional model of the town. It was inspiring to observe that long-term inhabitants said this was actually the first time they were able to understand their own town and their challenges. 
 
Info-graphics provided information about water consumption and waste production by the permanent inhabitants of Mussoorie and how that dramatically changes in peak tourist season. 
 
Every day, 27.000 kg of waste is produced.  It was quite unsettling, as Mussoorie also has no places for re-cycling or up-cycling of waste.We added the fourth dimension (time) to develop future scenario models that could offer long lasting positive impacts on the sustainability and liveability of Mussoorie. The scenario-thinking strategies we introduced are based on three basic rights for any mountain town/city:
 
1. Pure Air 
2. Smart water
3. Organic City
 
During my stay in Aizawl, I documented some patterns in the city in the early morning and late at night, to not miss any part of the SMDS VI. 
 
With many earthquake zone 5-challenging constructions, I found the city quite pedestrian friendly, with amazingly spectacular perspectives and a buzzing vegetable market.
It was a pleasure to observe the truly honk-free traffic of Aizawl; let more mountain cities follow this example, please. 
 
However, density of traffic in the winding narrow roads of this hill-slope town was on several occasions still so high, that I shamefully followed Mussoorie’s traffic peak season habit and put on my own surgical mask to breathe. 
 
Indian policymakers, politicians, civil bodies and shop/hotel-owners will all need to stand up and fight for the basic rights for the mountain towns/cities. Very hard work is needed to get more sustainable water practices in place, while all mountain cities should strive to become 100% organic. Let us start with the most fundamental; clean air!
 
(The author is a Dutch architect, designer and town planner who now lives and practices in South Asia. He can be contacted at annefeenstra7@gmail.com)
 
 
 
 
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