RUDYARD KIPLING was in love with it, spending a month here every year between 1885 and 1888. Shimla featured in many of the stories he wrote for the Civil and Military Gazette, which were later compiled as Plain Tales from The Hills. Another famous writer Edward J Buck, the author of “Simla Past and Present”, lived here. And even if not many in the Congress today remember A O Hume, the founder of the party is still well-known here. His ‘Rothney Castle’, known as Sheeshey Wali Kothi, is located right next to Holly Lodge, Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh’s private bungalow, and is one of the architectural legacies of the Raj in these hills. With its fascinating history, peopled with a complex cast of characters including viceroys and their wives, civil servants, British architects and European gardeners, Shimla, which was the summer capital of the Raj for nearly a 100 years until India’s independence, is truly a hill station without parallel.
But the Shimla of today is no longer a place of retreat. It is now a haphazardly grown urban nightmare struggling to find its lost identity amid multi-storied houses, built over hills with leftover patches of deodar forest in between the concrete.
In the words of Raaja Bhasin, a noted Shimla historian and INTACH activist: “The post-1947 era have been particularly cruel to Shimla; a gracious lady who has aged, and wrinkled long before her time….”
Now Shimla is bracing for one more blow. In one big swoop, the government will regularise all unauthorised buildings and structural violations by house owners. More than 2,565 applications for regularisations had poured in after the government promulgated an Ordinance earlier this year. In the weeklong monsoon session of the Himachal Pradesh Assembly that begins today, this Ordinance will be replaced by a Bill that the state cabinet approved last week. The Bill includes several concessions not in the Ordinance.
The government describes it as a ‘’one-time” relief, but it is certainly not the first time that this has been done. Such relief under ‘Retention policy’ has been granted ahead of Shimla Municipal Corporation polls by successive governments, both Congress and the BJP.
Municipal Corporation officials say the applications for regularisation could cross 5,000 after the Bill is passed. There are a total of 26,000 buildings in the town and more than 540 cases of violations were already pending for action, including demolitions and major penalties in the court of Commissioner, Municipal Corporation. Once the Bill is passed to amend the Town and Country Planning (TCP) Act, the cases of violations will become infructuous.
Minister for Urban Development Sudhir Sharma says “the government’s move is neither unprecedented nor illegal. Over the years, buildings have mushroomed in every way possible. People defied the laws. Some did it unknowingly as the rules or norms kept changing.
Others did it out of greed. Mass demolition of all such buildings is neither practical nor advisable. Thus, we are taking a legislative route to grant one-time relief. Once this is done, it will be a full stop once and for all.”
But no one in Shimla believes that. Experts fear it will set the stage for a new round of violations by people who are now confident that the government always regularises them.
Shimla’s unplanned growth is the result of the absence of a masterplan since the 1990s. Barring a ban on constructions in 17 pockets of forest land called green belt, there are no restrictions on construction, whether houses, hotels or commercial complexes.
Any vacant place for a building, whether safe or unsafe, attracts occupation irrespective of soil conditions and geology. Government aqcuired no land to provide housing to an expanding population after 1986-87 when the Shimla Development Authority (SDA) facilitated setting up of New Shimla.
“The scale of violations, haphazard constructions and encroachments is glaring.There are no safe exit routes in case of emergencies disasters as every inch of space is sold and occupied,” said Mayor Sanjay Chauhan.
Says Sandeep Kumar, TCP Director: “Let’s be candid about taking the blame. We did not prepare Shimla’s development plan. It was all adhocism at work through an Interim Development Plan (IDP). Its provisions were amended 30 times, including changes in permissible storeys for a new building, setbacks, minimum plot area, FAR, constructions in some areas was frozen without giving time to general public, or few areas outside the planning areas were included in MC, etc. To undo all such flaws, only answer was this bill, which cabinet has now cleared.”
Even the provisions of the TCP Act 1977 were never enforced. For example section 16, which officials claim to be the life-line of the Act — it bars changing land use or carrying out any development of land without permission in writing of the Director (TCP) — has remained only on papers. Nobody stopped or monitored ongoing constructions or tried to maintain open spaces in the town. Shimla’s Bharari area on the North of the Ridge and towards south areas like Panthaghati, Bypass and Boulia are the latest examples of unplanned constructions.
The Municipal Corporation has made its own contribution by giving construction permissions in a pick-and-choose manner. Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh’s son Vikramaditya Singh was allowed to raise a multi-storey commercial Guest House in a banned area. A retaining wall at the site where massive digging was done, next to the heritage Holly Lodge, the CM’s private bungalow, caved in after the rains. One tree also fell down and a second looks like it may fall any time.
“Twenty other citizens were also granted similar sanctions as a private builder had also raised the flats in the same eco-fragile zone,” a senior BJP leader, alleges adding that Municipal Corporation acts only to favour politically high-ups and influential people. A city businessman close to a leading political family was given sanction to build a posh hotel in the non-construction zone, few meters away from the Secretariat.
Judicial interventions through PILs, or suo moto actions of the High Court, too, have not regulated construction or succeed in bringing about long-term reform for planned growth.
Even as the High Court has made it mandatory for Shimla residents to have a private parking space before getting a new vehicle registered, the number is still growing. Many get vehicles registered elsewhere in the district and ply it in the town. Lack of parking facilities has choked roads and lanes. Some areas are inaccessible even for fire tenders and ambulances.
“What happened to Shimla is not different from what other urban towns have gone through. Shimla was at its best until 1947. Growth of population, migration from rural areas for opportunities like jobs, schools, business, and finally, the invention of mass tourism — the hotel industry — have all resulted in chaos. We have taken the soul out of Shimla. Just see how landslides happen every monsoon putting the best of Shimla buildings in danger. Trees are falling, retaining walls are caving in. Are not these signals of a disaster? Even the slightest tremor could take Shimla down the khud,” warns B S Malhans, a conservationist, and member of the Shimla Heritage Committee.
Shimla, where over two lakh people now live, with a daily floating population of 20,000 to 25,000 in peak tourist season and around 10,000 otherwise, falls in the high-risk seismic zones IV and V. Experts have already alerted the state disaster management authority about Shimla sitting on a powder keg due to unplanned constructions.
Low-intensity earthquakes of magnitude 5 have hit Kullu, Chamba , Mandi, Hamirpur, Bilaspur and Lahaul-Spiti districts. The last big earthquake was in 1905 in Kangra. More than 20,000 people were killed in 7.8 temblor. Studies have shown that a region sitting on a seismic faultline experience a big one every 100 or so years.
Buildings have come up in the town’s most weakest, sliding zones like north of the Ridge, the Cemetery, Sanjauli, Sanjauli bypass, Chakkar, Katchi Ghati, Panatha Ghati and Bharari, all of which are vulnerable spots. Himachal Pradesh Housing and Urban Development Authority (HIMUDA) studies have revealed that 90 per cent of the buildings that have come up are structurally unsafe, and if regularised, will endanger hundreds of lives.
People have recklessly compromised on structural safety, blocked pathways, encroached forests, drains, covered nullahs, traditional gravity drainage channels, and dug into foundations of old buildings, rendering existing structures unsafe, but there has never been a safety audit.
Agencies like local Municipal Corporation have turned a blind eye. Revenue, Forest and Town and Country Planning (TCP) never question these violations. “Structural safety of most buildings has been compromised with impunity. No prior scientific study is done about the soil and hill slopes. Basic hill architecture and primary building safety norms are all overlooked,” says S K Sharda, a retired chief engineer, PWD.
Last year, Shimla finally appeared on the radar of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which ordered the setting up of an expert committee for a study on Shimla’s carrying capacity. The committee was also given a mandate to report on the status of 17 designated green belts, in which a ban has been imposed on all new constructions. Just before this, the Department of Science ,Technology and Environment got an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) done for 17 green belts .
The Committee, earlier headed by Additional Chief Secretary (Forest and Environment ) Deepak Sanan, and now by Principal Secretary (Forest and Environment ) R D Dhiman, has completed the study along with experts from National Disaster Management Authority, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, Union Ministry of Environment and Forest and Institute of Himalayan Research Research, GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, a Professor from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. It is to be submitted to the NGT soon, confirms Dhiman .
Shimla Deputy Mayor Tikender Panwar quotes three recent studies on hazard risk vulnerability assessment, city resilience index and rapid visual survey of the buildings. “The studies have recommended that it is high time constructions are halted. The city requires a masterplan for land use, tourism and transport. Structural assessment (safety audit) is must,” he underlines.
The solution to Shimla’s woes is to decongest the city. But plans to set up a satellite township nearby never moved beyond discussions.
The government never worked to shift some of the institutions / directorates or headquarters of the PSUs out of the town.
The first sign of hope for Shimla has come with the construction of the State Judicial Academy, a Rs 165-crore state-of-the-art complex, and a proposed National Law University and International Arbitration Centre at Ghandal, on the outskirts of Shimla. These will create the first architectural landmarks outside the town.
Raaja Bhasin, who often conducts ‘heritage walks’ and holds interactive sessions with schoolchildren on Shimla’s history and colonial past, believes the new generation of Shimla residents are the hope for the 150-year-old hill town. “They are going to be true torch-bearers. I am amazed to see a high degree of inquisitiveness and a cry for saving Shimla ‘s heritage,” he says.
But for now, it is an indication of the levels of complicity that there is no opposition to the state government’s move to bring in a legislation for one-time regularisation, or to the changes introduced in the Bill that are not in the Ordinance. The buildings will be regularised on “as is where is basis”, fee proposed has also been cut down drastically and those having availed benefits under earlier ‘retention’ policy will also be eligible. Only the town’s heritage area and green belt have been excluded from the Bill.
The Urban Development Minister says the government will amend the Shimla Municipal Corporation Act to make building violations a penal action henceforth. “Any person found indulging in illegal constructions in the town will face imprisonment, beside paying a heavy penalty. This will be a good deterrent,” he says.
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