Ajmer has decayed due to administrative apathy. Will smart and heritage cities schemes make the historical city any better?
Pratap Vikram Singh | February 11, 2015
Ajmer is arguably one of the most unsmart cities in India. The vast Ana Sagar lake built in the 12th century has become a pool of filth and scum. The famous shrine of Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti in old city sits amid muck, with surrounding lanes bursting at their seams due to the illegally constructed shops, restaurants and houses. Traffic management is abysmal and municipality is non-existent.
“A few years ago one could see the shrine from Delhi Gate, which is just a kilometre away,” says Om Prakash Sharma, a Naya Bazar resident. It is indeed a challenge to walk on this stretch now. The buildings and monuments built during the Mughals era are in a dilapidated condition.
Sharma has a keen interest in heritage owing to his three-decade career as a professor of history at Ajmer’s DAV college. Now retired, the 75-year-old sits at the neighbourhood newspaper stall that doubles up as a tea stall, reading the day’s news, till an acquaintance walks in, wishing him a good morning.
Soon, the day’s debate starts. Politics – national and local – is a favourite topic. Youth – how today’s young do not know anything – is another.
Occasionally the discussion shifts to the deteriorating health of the city. Sharma and his tea buddies discuss the city of their youth and how bad it has turned out to be over the years.
It was not so when Ajmer was a centrally administered state, but thedeterioration started when it became part of Rajasthan. “After the merger in 1956, the loot began. Ever since, politicians have successively furthered only their own interests,” says Sharma. The Ana Sagar lake receives untreated sewage from 14 drains, as the city doesn’t have a functional sewage network and treatment facility. Colonies have been built by the government and private builders on watershed and catchment areas. Lanes are littered with garbage and waste water flows all over.
The city’s aesthetics and traffic were the first casualties of massive encroachment around old city and the nearby markets, says Sharma.
The endless tale of woes might, however, end soon for Sharma and other residents, as the central government has announced to make Ajmer a smart and heritage city. Since the announcement, Ajmer has become a focal point of bureaucratic attention. Officials from Delhi and Jaipur are frequenting the city.
The state administration has asked urban local bodies, the Ajmer municipal corporation (AMC) and the Ajmer development authority (ADA), and other departments to prepare plans – a list of proposed and ongoing works for their respective departments.
The smart city
Although the plan to make Ajmer a smart city is still in a very nascent stage, the understanding within the government is to put in place a basic urban infrastructure, most of which has been stuck for years in implementation. Manjit Singh, principal secretary, local self-government, says, “We are mapping what all needs to be created in urban infrastructure in Ajmer. We will have a vision document by January. This will bring clarity to what work can be taken up under the smart city scheme.”
There are projects hanging for seven years. These include sewage pipelines network and treatment, water supply, lake conservation and slum rehabilitation. “We are updating plans related to city development, transport, sanitation and slums. We wish to lay sewage network in the next six months,” says Singh.
As of December, the local administration was busy spending the available funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru national urban renewal mission (JnNURM) for completing pending work, as the allocation for this year would lapse by March.
According to Chauthi Ram Meena, chief executive officer, AMC, under the smart city programme the government will provide 24-hour uninterrupted power and water supply. A reliable public transport, ring road, flyovers and smart traffic management are also being planned.
In an inter-departmental meeting held in Ajmer in the first week of December, Ashok Jain, additional chief secretary, urban development and housing department, asked ADA, AMC, public health and engineering and police departments to submit their respective plans by January. Anticipating lesser financial contribution from the centre, Jain has cautioned local departments to make plans as per their own revenue resources, as per an official present in the meeting.
Although the state government has proposed to include Ajmer city, Pushkar and Kishangarh – all of which fall under Ajmer district – under the scheme, Singh says the centre has agreed to include only the first two. The India-US Business Council, too, has showed interest in the smart city project. Though a few rounds of discussions have been held, the nature of council’s participation is not clear yet.
There are numerous challenges in making the historical city a smart city. One major challenge is the restoration of water bodies. In the late 1970s the state government constructed a residential colony, Vaishali Nagar, over the watershed area of the Ana Sagar. Unfortunately, for the last two decades monsoon rain was inadequate, resulting in drying up of the lake’s periphery. This led to massive encroachment; partly by government agencies.
According to Onkar Singh Lakhawat, chairman, Rajasthan heritage conservation authority, Ajmer used to have one of the best drainage systems. There were several water reservoirs – including ponds, check dams, reservoirs – most of these have been encroached upon, says Lakhawat, a former BJP MP.
Ajmer is located at a high altitude. “It looks like it is sitting on a camel’s hump. That is why the city doesn’t have a river. Except rainwater, there is no external source of water. All drainages have been illegally occupied,” says Lakhawat. Most of this has been done in connivance with government functionaries and contractors, he adds.
The magnitude of encroachment on the periphery of water bodies can be gauged by a study done by researchers working at Malviya National Institute of Technology (MNIT), Jaipur. According to professor MK Jat, civil engineering department, MNIT, the rate of land development in Ajmer has been much higher than the rate of population growth. Between 1977 and 2005, the population grew by 59 percent and land development increased by 200 percent during the same period, says Jat.
“Ground water has depleted significantly in last 13 years (from 1992 to 2005) from 1.19m to 18.1m. Ground water quality has also degraded,” Jat says in his study on “GIS based assessment of urbanisation and degradation of watershed health”. City lakes, the Ana Sagar in particular, have been reduced to filthy ponds. One of the reasons for this is the absence of a functional sewage system – pipelines and treatment plants. The pipeline work was started in 2002 by the Rajasthan urban infrastructure development project, a government agency. But half of the city still doesn’t have sewage pipelines.
A sewage treatment plant (STP) of 20 million litre per day capacity was built a few years ago at Khanpura, but it is only partially functional. Two more STPs, with capacity of 40 million litres and 13 million litres, have been under construction since 2007. Close to '100 crore has been released to the authorities.
The desilting of lake under the national lake conservation project was done in 2007-08 at a cost of '5.35 crore. The purification of water was done in 2009 at a cost of '63 lakh. “This should be done on an annual basis,” Meena said.
The old city around the dargah is crowded and filthy, except the dargah campus. A 30-foot wide corridor, Sharma says, could be created around the dargah.
“The malls and hotels which have mushroomed illegally should be demolished,” he adds.
All historical buildings and old havelis also need to be protected and conserved. The government senior higher secondary school at Top Dara, said to be designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1913, is in a shambles. The library, just opposite to the school, was established in 1904. “For the last three decades, it hasn’t had a librarian,” says Sharma.
Transport is another challenge. The old city is too crowded for buses to ply. It becomes more congested because of the railways crossings. “There are 14 crossings. When trains cross, traffic is stopped at 14 places. This could be avoided through a mix of bridges and relocation of stations,” Lakhawat says.
Ajmer’s green cover is threatened by sand dumped by storms from the west. When there is a storm in the neighbouring country it affects Ajmer. “There is a wide gap of 18 miles, 14 km from Pushkar in the Aravali mountain range. Desert sand also flies in from western Rajasthan. It is the biggest threat to Ajmer’s greenery. Agriculture and vegetation around Pushkar has been destroyed due to the desert. Massive forestation is required to prevent the area from converting into a desert,” he says.
The financial health of the AMC has to be looked at if the city has to become smart. It spends more that it gets from internal revenues. The major source of revenue is property tax, fees on conversion of land, and selling and leasing of land. The collection of property tax, the biggest source of revenue, is meagre. There are 1.10 lakh registered properties. Out of this, only 14,708 fall in the tax net, as they are bigger than 300 sq mt. Only 2,000 building owners, however, pay their taxes. This comes around '2 crore. Since 2007, there is a tax pendency of '30,68,41,446!
Populist moves are responsible for the civic apathy, AMC commissioner CR Meena says. Politicians often waive taxes to be paid by residents. Now this is a trend. No one pays their tax, as they wait for a similar announcement, says Meena. A smart Ajmer would require a financially smart corporation.
If the government addresses these challenges, Sharma says, Ajmer will be a smart city, even without most advanced software and hardware. “When the government restores water bodies and old (heritage) buildings, widens roads and lanes, removes encroachment, ensures cleanliness and greenery, Ajmer would automatically become a smart city,” says Sharma. This is achievable, provided there is political will, which has been absent so far, says another politician from the city.
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