The Hills that make ‘Dakhan Chi Rani’

THE UNRELENTING EFFORTS OF A FEW VIGILANT CITIZENS ARE KEEPING THE “DEVELOPMENT” PROJECTS FROM BULLDOZING THROUGH. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER PUNEKARS?

15th March, 2021

Written by Aditi Alurkar

Artwork by Suryansh Srivastava

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Pune - the Queen of the Deccan (Dakhan Chi Rani). I left for Mumbai at the cusp of adulthood. Every time I came back, the city felt a little different. I could not quite put my finger on what it was, though I knew I felt it. 

A few months ago, amidst the lockdown I came across an online profile, dedicated to saving the hills of Pune. Intrigued, I began reading up and was shocked when I learned that a large chunk of the hill was to be demolished for development.

Then it came to me. An explanation for that feeling.

The city had a few more bridges, maybe even fewer trees. Shiny white buildings were erected along the roadside where I once spotted tiny hills. All gone. The most dismal part was that I wasn’t even gone for that long. 

Punekars are supposed to be proud folk. Then how are we letting go of these patches of our home that matter the most?

One such example is the Vetal hill (or as we call it, tekdi), a well spread-out region that has been divided into spurs. These spurs fall under the ownership of different institutions, where only a certain part of it is under the jurisdiction of the forest department. The hill’s fate holds sophisticated developmental plans of a transit route and a ring for one of these spurs. There is also a tunnel to be built to replace the others.

The peculiarity of this situation is that some of these projects (Balbharti road and the tunnel) were first proposed in 1987, and have been dissuaded by citizen activists starting then. Even so, their mention keeps cropping up in the development plans, keeping the people on their toes.

“Pune’s topography is defined by these Tekdis that provide 500 to 600 hectares of natural catchment area - the largest urban catchment area in Maharashtra. They are the most democratic and free-of-cost open spaces in the city and serve as a valuable community reserve, important for the physical and psychological well being of citizens.” said Dr. Sushma Date, a member of Deccan Parisar Samiti, who is now ardently petitioning to declare Vetal hills as a national heritage site.

Most of all, tekdis are a free space -- democratic ones. In a city filled with private lands, there is very little opportunity presented to its folks to assemble without a purpose or a charge fee, whilst shedding all social and economic barriers. If the few public spaces like hills were to vanish, stepping on most lands would turn into ‘trespassing’, this project would take away one of the last public spaces present in the city.

Recently, a wild kitten was found on the hill, an animal which I didn’t know is found in Pune. People encounter peacocks, leopards, owlets, several migratory birds and countless other animals thriving in the hill that is their home. An entire ecosystem leads their lives in the familiarity of the hills, which would all be demolished due to mere urbanist convenience. 

“ We have been trained to not think of proper alternatives to our current situations, no one is thinking in terms of efficient public transportations. The Pune Metro is already under construction, and yet other developments are being planned before giving the metro a chance.” added Uma Dongre, a Citizen Activist.

As of today, Pune must have an approximate population of 7.4 million. Out of these most know about the hill, few visit it daily and even fewer must be privy to the problem. It is worrisome how a handful of citizens are compelled to shoulder the responsibility of our city’s fate, while we remain in oblivion, or rather choose to do so. With fast-paced lives, it becomes easy to forget how such spaces serve a purpose greater than beauty; of culture, of nurture, and primarily of sustenance.

A positive note is that the trees have not been felled yet, there are quite a few logistics to cover before the first slab of concrete is laid, giving us time to not ‘let it go’. Which makes speaking up now all the more pertinent. Apathy tends to take over before the problem flares up, and once it is too late, pessimism rapidly follows.

This was exactly why I never spotted the steamrolling development until I returned after a long time. Though gradually, it keeps happening around us every single day. So, I now find myself asking the question, “Is this the most I can do in my capacities?” Because the next time I come home from another city, I hope to find comfort in the familiarity of Vetal tekdi.

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