Rural India is becoming a replica of chaotic Indian cities

February 1, 2021

By: Archana Vaidya

COVID pandemic induced work from home has afforded a hitherto unknown flexibility to a  certain section of society who can work from anywhere as long as they have access to a fast  speed internet connection. We as a family also took advantage of an otherwise gloomy  situation and relocated from the cooped-up life of an apartment in a metropolitan city to the  pristine mountains of Himachal Pradesh (HP) for an extended period of time.  

The very thought of misty mountains and fresh crisp air rejuvenates smoke stung city eyes  and pollution filled city lungs. There is absolutely no comparison in the quality of life that one  enjoys in the mountains to the one available in a city, where all the amenities on offer are  negated by pollution, congestion and chaos. However, this time since we got to stay in the  mountains for a relatively long period, we faced the grim reality of life there as well.  

HP provides water to both the Indus and Ganges basin and is home to five major river basins  i.e. Sutlej, Ravi, Beas, Chenab and Yamuna, besides many more small tributaries and water  channels. The state produces excess hydro power and sells electricity to neighbouring states.  It sounds absolutely reasonable to expect that in a water and electricity surplus state, there  would be ample daily water supply and no power cuts at all, except of course when the  weather would act up and a fault occurred in the supply line due to accidents. To my dismay,  the village where we were staying, which is located in Kullu district, only got water every  alternate day. I could not make my peace with the fact that in Delhi, with its high-density  population and no water source of its own, we get water supply daily while here in the hills, which are the source of water for many other states, people were not getting a daily supply.  There were also frequent power cuts, or load shedding or local fault as the complaint office  would like you to believe, without any notice. This is something that people living in  metropolitan cities thankfully do not have to deal with anymore and so are not used to it.  During our twelve weeks stay in the hills, we realised that we had to keep our gadgets always  fully charged because the power could go off anytime and there would be no guarantee of it  being restored within any certain time frame.  

To my amazement people living in these areas are completely adjusted to such outages and  an alternate day water supply. They just don’t complain and even when the electricity would  go on a perfectly sunny morning without any obvious reason, people would patiently wait till  10 a.m. when the officials would report to work and wouldn’t particularly bother to try  register a complaint if it happened post 5 pm in the evening. There is absolutely no  expectation of good governance. People behave as if the water and electricity supplies are  something that we need to be grateful for and also as if we, the consumers, do not pay for  these services. I was quite taken aback when I figured that well to do, educated, resourceful people also do not behave and conduct themselves like citizens of a free, democratic country.  To me they seemed to behave like subjects of the government and I felt as if we still hadn’t  completed the transition from being a country ruled by a foreign power to a country ruled by  our elected representatives, who we choose ourselves and can throw out of power if they did  not deliver. To my exasperation, people seem to be resigned to their fate and do not feel any  anger or frustration; no one feels that it is their right and they can take to task the people  responsible for providing these services. According to them, these were bigger and not local  level issues, which obviously could not be solved at the village level and also since no one  responded so there was no point complaining. 

While we were happily driving towards the hills thinking of a clean, quiet village, my husband  who belongs and goes there very often, was warning us against getting super excited. He  knew well that though we were getting out of a hell hole for sure, we were not headed to any  pristine untouched mountain village. I knew the village would have its own challenges and  was willing to embrace them but air pollution was the last thing I had on my mind. I had  anticipated that there would not be any system for waste collection, but here I was wrong. It  was heartening to see a service, though still in its infancy, for door to door garbage collection  which claimed to collect garbage on a daily basis though was somewhat erratic. Lots of people in the village apparently did not avail of this service, I assume primarily due to monthly  payment of Rs 200. When I walked around the village to see how clean the village was, I felt  sad and angry at the indifference, ignorance and callousness of the people as there were  garbage heaps all around. Water streams and local water channels were clogged with all kinds  of waste. These streams are snow fed and used for irrigation and water for cattle, still people  seemed unperturbed. 

I figured that most of the collected waste, after recyclable plastic was taken out, was transported straight to Rangari, a village near Manali, where the district had its only waste to energy plant (WTE) and also a landfill right at the bank of river Beas. The WTE plant does not, as of today, generate energy as the incinerator and other necessary machinery required for generation are still not installed at the site. The site is producing RDF (Refuse Derived Fuel) and some of it is being sent to cement plants in the state which are under an obligation to use up to 1% RDF as a part of their fuel mix. This arrangement works on an ad-hoc basis as there does not seem to be any regular dispatch of RDF to cement plants. RDF is also supposed to be used for road construction but this hasn’t happened so far. The environmental consequences of using RDF for road construction in terms of leachate is still being debated, which is a separate question that needs to be addressed at the policy level. The fact that the landfill was at the bank of the river was in absolute violation of the existing legal mandate in this regard.

WTE Plant at Rangri Near Manali town and Beas River 

Let’s now come to the problem of air pollution in the village, sounds incredible, right? We had  a flour mill about 200 meters downhill from where we lived and we were absolutely  dumbstruck to see white plumes of pollutants come out from this mill every day in the  afternoon. There were days when our parked cars were covered in fine white dust when we  woke up in the morning. We just couldn’t believe that we had to deal with Respiratory  Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM) in this village also. We were told that was happening  unabatedly, with impunity, for many years despite complaints from local residents. The  matter had to be taken up with the State Pollution Control Board authorities. It is still not  resolved but I believe certain amends are being made by the owners of the Mill on the  prodding of the authorities and I intend to pursue this matter till an efficacious solution is  found. I wonder how and why in the first place a flour mill was given permission to be set up  in the middle of a village and why was it not anticipated that it could be a cause of serious air  pollution to the ever growing population of this ever growing village.

White dust cloud can be seen 

While we were driving towards our village I was appalled by the construction activity  happening all around on our way, especially once we reached the mountains in HP. To me, it  seemed that the mountains were being mercilessly massacred in the name of development.  Every few kilometres there would be a stone crusher mauling the mountains and producing  stones for more construction. I have had the good fortune of travelling a bit around the world  and have seen how people/governments in the west have maintained their mountains and  how they have still preserved the narrow roads of erstwhile eras to preserve the ecology and  the integrity of their environment. Here we want four lane roads going everywhere without  having any care about the carrying capacity of the mountains which are being ripped apart  and hollowed out at every possible place. The image that I had in my mind from not very long  ago was completely shattered and I started to feel like a helpless, mute spectator to the  process of annihilation of our mountains being carried out in the name of development and  prosperity.  

To my disappointment the village where we have a house now resembles a bustling Kasbah which is bursting at the seams and is spreading like a wild poisonous ivy in all possible  directions. The market of the village, which is on the national highway, resembles a by lane of Karol Bagh or any old city market where buildings are made on top of each other,  essentially on every and any available space. This unplanned, unregulated construction has largely happened in the last few years and has changed the face of the village beyond  recognition. 

We as a nation talk of planning, development, sustainable environment friendly growth and  here we are losing out on an immense opportunity where we could ensure that at least our  villages and small towns, which are witnessing unprecedented developmental activities and  construction, don’t face the same fate as our cities. Alas, they are going down the same path  and the authorities might wake up only when there would be nothing left to plan or regulate.  I wonder how laws are implemented and who is responsible for ensuring that they are  implemented, because as per the mandate of the existing laws there has to be some space  left between the road (depending upon whether it is a national highway or a state highway)  and where construction can start on the side of the road. Why are concerned authorities not  alert when such construction starts to happen and why don’t they hold people accountable  for such unpardonable lapses? It was quite disconcerting to see that numerous gargantuan  buildings were coming up on the sides of the national highway without attracting anyone’s  concern or attention. Absolutely no one is bothered about setbacks, access to the building,  areas to be left for common use etc. while constructing such humongous buildings.  Agricultural land is getting sold every day and the same being converted into plots of smallest  possible sizes and sold for making unregulated, unplanned buildings. There is absolutely no  distinction between residential and commercial areas as it is a village and there is no  requirement of a minimum area on which a building can be erected. Forget about land use  planning, if we could somehow manage and regulate this catastrophe of haphazard  construction from happening, it would be a great achievement. 

There is a gram panchayat in the village and one wonders whether it would have the  wherewithal in terms of vision and manpower to deal with the problems that this so-called village is facing. I am afraid that most people in the village don’t even understand the direction  that they are headed in and are very happy as long as there is development happening around  them; unfortunately this is the only template of development that they might be familiar with.  To have shops, big buildings like in a city, a mall if possible, big brand showrooms is what  development is thought to be all about. Sure, it does generate employment but what kind of  employment, for how many people and for how long is something no one thinks about.  Unplanned construction is happening relentlessly without any care for anything except  maximization of individual profit because it is a village and falls out of the jurisdiction of the  planning authorities’ mandate. By the time the village becomes an urban area and recognized  as one by the system and thus comes under the radar of urban planning there would be  nothing left to plan except managing the chaos.  

For short term gains long term well-being of the area is being compromised unbeknown to  most living there. We need better equipped , more accountable schools and health facilities  which deliver quality education and health services to all, reliable and regular electricity and  water supply, clean air, sustainable environment friendly development and other government  services appropriate for a largely agrarian economy e.g. agriculture, horticulture extension  facilities etc., so that we create better opportunities for the young to be able to covet for a  better life. 

I am sure this is not just the story of this one village, it is the story of many villages in Himachal  Pradesh and in India as well. The point that I am trying to make is that why do we first allow  the problems to not only develop and fester and then try to manage the problem or find a  solution. Why can’t we envisage that since we are a developing country and are in the phase  of growing very fast, we need to regulate our growth for it to be sustainable and useful for  everyone.  

We know that out of the 121 crore Indians, 83.3 crores live in rural areas while 37.7 crore live in urban areas (as per the Census of 2011) and we still do not feel the need to bring rural  areas under some kind of regulation or planning so that we can stop haphazard construction  activity in the name of development. Some states like West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu  apparently do have some rules but I have no idea about their implementation and efficacy. 

I always used to wonder in the realm of ground water management as to why do we wait for  a certain zone to become critical before the law kicks in and regulation starts to happen for ground water extraction. This kind of management sounds counterintuitive and has produced  disastrous results in terms of most of the country designated as critical areas due to the overexploitation of groundwater. Why don’t we apply regulatory tools for judicious use of water  in the first place and regulate groundwater abstraction for public good. The same story to  my mind is being unfolding as far as unregulated, unplanned construction activity is  happening in rural villages which are outside the planning areas. The authorities should wake  up before the situation becomes critical and nothing much except mitigation can be done.

Archana Vaidya is a Natural Resource Management (NRM) and Environment Law consultant and an advocate. She is an Oxford Gurukul Chevening Fellow and was one of the founding partners of IELO, a law firm. She has co-authored books and writes on various issues related to natural resource management and environment law.

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