The board of the Reserve Bank of India, a newspaper informed us, would be meeting in “idyllic Mussoorie” this week to discuss, among other things, the diminishing strength of the rupee. Now, it is difficult to predict whether the central bank will be able to devise an effective strategy to put the muscle back in the Indian currency. But it is fairly certain that the board members are unlikely to enjoy much of an idyll, as the report has suggested.
Unless the writer of the report was plain ignorant or being ironic, idyllic is the last adjective anyone who has visited modern Mussoorie would choose to describe it. Dump would be a much more accurate descriptor, especially since you get to contemplate – free of cost! – the ribbons of garbage and effluent cascading down the mountainsides of the Garhwal. It is one of the incredible wonders of nature that the hills retain a stunning beauty despite this wilful desecration.
In many ways, Mussoorie is representative of everything that is wrong with Indian tourism and the domestic consumer of its services. It stands for the collective abdication of responsibility across the board. It’s a story that can be repeated across the country’s myriad hill stations, once the manicured, exclusive retreats of the colonial sahibs and their rich Indian compradors and hangers-on. To be sure, the stasis began soon after Independence, but it is fair to say that the speed of deterioration has been directly proportional to the growing wealth of India’s rapidly emerging consumer class.
In Mussoorie, the rapid descent into urban purgatory is doubly ironic because it has occurred despite the presence of one of India’s most prestigious institutes: the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, the training ground for India’s civil servants. To be sure, LBSNAA, to use the long, clunky initials, is an attractive campus — no doubt our central bankers have partaken of its delights. But it is an oasis in a desert of Dickensian dirt and neglect that only the blind can ignore.
It is almost a commentary on the quality of modern India’s civil services that the administrators of LBSNAA have not been able to make the institute, with all its implicit power, an agent of active civic reform in Mussoorie. In almost mocking contrast and a few hundred feet above is the salubrious Landour, a cantonment area that represents everything Mussoorie could well have been.
The temptation to suggest that the defence services are more efficient than the civil services is almost too hard to resist. But the message is actually a larger one. Sure, the army is the mover and shaker (or rather enforcer) of Landour’s pristine beauty. But this enforcement has created a virtuous circle with hoteliers, house owners and even schools and missions collaborating to keep it that way.
To be sure, it’s a perpetual uphill struggle, to use a weak pun, given the gay abandon with which India’s new-rich holidaymakers, stuffed into diesel-guzzling SUVs, ignore Landour’s many waste bins and litter the roads. In Mussoorie, by contrast, no one’s even bothering. The haphazard emergence of hillside slums and glass-and-concrete monstrosities precariously perched on slopes in blatant contravention of environment and safety norms, the rutted roads and piles of refuse suggest the absence of a civic organisation of any description.
Imagine, then, my surprise, when efforts at research yielded a Mussoorie Dehradun Development Authority. It was, a website informs us, established in 1984 with the “objective of planning and development of the city” (the two are described as “twin cities”). MDDA’s objectives, the perky prose continues, are “to check the haphazard development and degradation of natural environment, to sustain the glory of the city and to build further upon it”. It has described its mandate as a “colossal task”. No kidding.
The next few lines deserve to be reproduced in full if only to offer unalloyed amusement for anyone who has visited these ugly, polluted, deteriorating “twin cities” in recent years. “MDDA is a local decision making agency and it is totally self-sufficient, capable of undertaking all sorts of activities for well planned [sic] urban development. The challenges before MDDA are massive and diversified, as Dehradun / Mussoories [sic] requires an integrated development process, which has to be inexpensive, functionally utilitarian, environmentally healthy, recreationally adequate and aesthetically appealing.”
The gap between written intent and action is so visibly wide as to suggest collusion with realtors and local businesses rather than disciplinary collision. But then, that is true of much larger institutions too. Why blame small-time civic officials only when mega-refineries tom-tom their “green” initiatives even as they destroy maritime environments; when multinationals put out robust reports about forest renewal but neglect to say that most of this replanting has a high mortality rate. Or when a global beverages company cynically says it will install waste bins only in areas that will attract public attention. Civic life and the environment have been the biggest casualties of India’s growth, but with so much money to be made, it is doubtful if anyone in power really cares.