A visitor to Aizawl, state capital of Mizoram, will drive through hills wrapped in green and swathed in mist. But as she nears the capital, the landscape changes. Multistoreyed buildings jostle for space, clawing towards the sky. There are no fields or parks to play in. And, for a hill town, there are very few trees or hedges lining its lanes.
Yet, if Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to achieve a “Swachh Bharat” or “Clean India” by 2019, he could look beyond Ahmedabad and its new, splendid riverfront. He should probably visit or send his top functionaries to Aizawl, which holds just above three lakh people or a third of the state’s population. The Aizawl example is especially relevant to our growing and collapsing hill towns, dotting Uttarakhand, Himachal and the Northeast. In spite of a difficult past, the people of Mizoram have registered significant achievements in the field of urban cleanliness and the rest of India could learn from them. Mizoram’s high literacy rate — it comes third, after Kerala and Goa — and its rich social capital are major factors in this process.
There is not a speck of dirt or plastic on the streets — men and women cleaners can be seen at work early in the morning, wearing gowns and masks, brushing the roads quietly and piling the refuse into trash cans. Aizawl must be the cleanest city in India. There may be vehicular exhaust fumes, but never that peculiarly foul smell of an Indian city in the plains — the stench of urine along roads and footpaths.
It is also perhaps the most orderly. The traffic moves at a stately pace even during rush hour. No one blares their horn — music is played instead. There are no reports of car owners exploding in road rage, and people don’t jump the queue. Prohibition was recently lifted, after a passionate debate. Even when it was in place, the church was broadminded enough to allow the production and sale of local wines, which can be bought at grocery stores lining the roads. In addition, in all the decades that I have been visiting, I cannot recall anyone even raising their voice at another person in public, whether that person is a shopowner, driver or policeman.
The tangle of concrete buildings in Aizawl seems to stand in contrast to the attitudes of the people. But one needs to keep in mind that there has been no cadastral survey, the first step to building a planned city. There is also an invisible history that needs to be told.
In 1966, the Mizo National Front launched a set of raids after declaring independence. It overwhelmed most of Aizawl, then a district headquarters in Assam, and took over other smaller towns. The Indian Air Force bombed Aizawl and the town crumbled to dust. Columns of the Indian army marched into the town to relieve the garrison. Aizawl and the Lushai Hills district were “saved”, but they became the theatre of a 20-year bush war. The district was the centre of an evacuation drive: of a population of 2,80,000, not less than 2,20,000 were “regrouped”, force-marched, often at gun-point, to new settlement areas with acute food and water shortages. During this period, many settled in Aizawl, constructing strong concrete buildings. Though unplanned and whimsical, these edifices of concrete were perhaps meant to banish the memories and fears of the past.
Within the Northeast, too, there is much to be learned from Aizawl. Take Assam’s largest city, Guwahati, where planners and politicians have thought nothing of destroying Dipor Bil, an internationally recognised Ramsar Site for migratory birds, with encroachments, including a recreation facility and security camps. It could have been a great location for hikers and nature tourists, and a teaching centre for children. But a flawed politics and bureaucracy, the failure of the NGO movement and the forest department have all colluded in the lake’s degradation.
The once-green hills that ringed Guwahati now teem with buildings and human activity. The roads are filled with filth and sewage water. Today’s Guwahati is a towering monument to “unsmart” living and planning. Like Srinagar and the cities of Uttarakhand, the urban settlements of the Northeast seem ripe for a manmade disaster. Where streams and canals ran, people have built houses and commercial establishments, blocking the flow of water. Roads have expanded, and human and industrial waste clog the arteries of the cities.
A deadly band of greed, consisting of politicians, bureaucrats, contractors and the land mafia, is choking our hill cities. But after decades of abuse, nature is bound to strike back.
The writer is director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- So long as it’s red
There are too few contemporary histories of the Naxalite movement. This book, which includes revolutionary song and poetry, is a substantial contribution...
- Clearing The Air
An alarming rise in pollution levels underscores the urgent need for better regulation...
- The Assam type house
Because earthquakes don’t kill; the buildings in which we live do...