Smart city can wait: First fix the basics

By Lobsang Wangyal

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 8 November 2015

Last week there was a world paragliding competition at Billing, two hours away from McLeod Ganj. I was unable to go, so I can’t comment on how it was organised. I hope the infrastructure was good and it went well, and that the participants from the world over will be happy to return for more gliding.

The more popular tourist destination is McLeod Ganj, which as part of Dharamshala will come under the Indian government’s 100 “Smart City” plan. But I have no idea whatever “Smart City” means.

Lately McLeod Ganj is hyped so much in the Indian media as a beautiful, serene, and peaceful place, perfect for a time out for holidays. But the reality is the opposite. It is not peaceful, it is not clean, it is not serene (it used to be) — not a perfect place for holidays at all now.

First of all you’ll be welcomed by a filthy and incomplete bus station, even though the McLeod Ganj bus station was started ten years ago. China managed to make 2500 km of railway track on the remote and difficult Tibetan plateau in three years, and it works and being used, an engineering success. But here’s one bus station that is still not complete, and in addition is dirty, littered, with pools of waste water and urine.

Running sewage

In recent weeks Jogiwara Road has been flooded with septic overflow. This has been a recurring thing for several years, but now is the worse it’s ever been. It covers the whole width of the road, so that you are forced to walk in it, and get splashed by cars going by. It extends for at least 50 metres of the length — from Chocolate Log to the far side of Lungta Japanese Restaurant, past guest houses, restaurants, and shops.

The stench is strong and unmistakable.

This sewage is flowing right next to the drinking water pipes laid on the side of the road. You are tracking it in on your shoes when you enter shops and buildings from that part of the road.

All the complaints that people make to the authorities fall on deaf ears.

Everywhere in the town there are tanks under the roads connecting the sewage pipes. They are often capped with a smaller, wrong size, lid. On Jogiwara Road, they are not even covered with proper lids at all, but are capped with dirt and stones, through which the sewage bubbles.

And this just in: As if they have heard my thoughts, just this morning we see three people working on clearing the blockage. And they are using a plumber’s snake with bare hands, with no masks or protective clothing.

Traffic nightmares

Taxis drive at full speed through the narrow roads of the town, blowing their horns, with no consideration for people walking, not even old people with canes, or children.

McLeod has only two narrow streets, easily congested by increasing traffic. But then people speed up instead of slowing down, and blow their horn even though nothing can be done. Horn should not be permitted at all. Blowing horn in McLeod Ganj — what for?

Also because of this, McLeod streets are not pleasant to walk or linger, so there is less shopping, less going to restaurants and caf├ęs.

A good initiative by the authorities is the construction of a link road from Bhagsu road to bypass the centre of town and ease the traffic nightmares. It will follow an old dirt road that goes to a school and village. A few years ago a bridge collapsed on part of this upcoming link road. Then a few years later, a new bridge was built. It was built 100 metres downhill from the road. In fact it’s not even connected to any road at all. People are still using the original dirt road, having made a dangerous path across the landslide. Could anyone please tell me the “Smartness” of a bridge that’s not connecting any roads?

The new link road is going to take another few years as only one unit is slowly working on it. It has already been two years. The construction area is less than two kilometres long.

Garbage and litter

Locals and tourists drop their litter wherever they feel like. People spit on the street where people, including children, are walking, sometimes right in front of them as they pass by. Shopkeepers sweep out their shops and entrances into the street, instead of picking up the sweepings and putting in a bin.

There are a few big dumpsters on the edges of town which are always overflowing with garbage. (There is one at the Temple circle, very disrespectfully right across from the Temple.) Instead of letting garbage overflow from the dumpsters, only clearing them once a day, and instead of letting the litter pile up, and only picking it up once a day, there should be continual cleaning throughout the day. A few people should be employed in taking care of the litter and clearing the bins before they overflow.

Hangouts and Internet

Then, if people here want to get together and enjoy themselves, let alone just to hold a dance party you have to get permission — which is normally not given. Journalists are eager to report on such public parties, as if it was something terrible, unthinkable, and the next day it surely appears in newspapers. It is only young people having good times, it is not something terrible to be regulated and gawked at.

The much-hyped covering of McLeod Ganj by wifi is only a token gesture. McLeod covers only about one square kilometre, and the installation of access points by Jionet Internet in the Smart City scheme is limited to a only few spots, reaching a limited number of people. One access point is dubious in that it is mainly serving one big hotel. The rest of the town, Tipa Road and Jogiwara Road, are totally ignored. There is a need for at least a few more access points around the town to make the service really useful and meaningful.

Felling the trees, and earthquakes

So much is said about the entire region sitting on an earthquake fault line, but still the local “entrepreneurs” ignore this fact, and the authorities approve huge, non-earthquake-proof buildings. To make space for all these new buildings, many trees have been cut down which are essential to the ground stability as well as the beauty and quality of life in the area. And it continues even today.

The trees are protected by law in Himachal Pradesh, but many violate the law without any fear or concern. Felling the trees and cutting the hillsides have become a cause of landslides, as McLeod Ganj receives heavy rainfall during the monsoon season. Luckily none of these slides have occurred in populated areas — so far. In the event of an earthquake these big buildings will wreak havoc.

The newest building going up in town is built in a large imposing style that doesn’t fit the area at all. The locals don’t appreciate such a monster structure in their midst, and wonders if it is within the permissible law. It is so big that not only should the owner of this building be made liable for any deaths and damages resulting from collapse of this building in an earthquake, the authorities who approve them should also be held responsible and tried.

Now since there isn’t much space left for any further construction, the municipality should develop plans for the remaining space to be open spaces, smaller parking lots, and buffer space to avoid the domino effect of neighbouring buildings collapsing on each other in the event of an earthquake.

Smart City is possible!

Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand, is not even a Smart City. But the city’s streets and sidewalks are not only free of litter, they are washed every day. Everywhere are people with gloves and brooms, hired by the local municipality to keep places clean. People don’t spit in the road and don’t drop trash everywhere. Drivers drive within the lanes, wait for people to cross the street, don’t blow the horn. The huge city of Bangkok is more quiet and peaceful than the small village of McLeod Ganj. Now what in India is really a “Smart City”? Would it be at least what it’s like in any small village in Thailand?

Before the dream of a Smart City, we would rather have the basics fixed. On that we don’t need excuses. Authorities who are incapable of providing and fixing the basic needs could give way to those who could make things work.

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