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HomeFeaturesIs Shimla story over? Bengaluru-like jams, no water, collapsing buildings, swelling crowds

Is Shimla story over? Bengaluru-like jams, no water, collapsing buildings, swelling crowds

Stuck in time, Shimla’s struggling to find the right development plan that keeps its heritage fresh, environment safe, and meets the needs of its population.

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Shimla: Manoj Kumar was getting ready for work when his doorbell rang. It changed his life forever

On the other side of the door were the police. Within minutes, the 48-year-old Shimla-based shopkeeper lost his house and found himself standing under an umbrella on the roadside with his wife and children. They stood there dumbstruck as the building adjacent to their house came crumbling down. Kumar’s only crime was owning a flat in a building in Shimla. His family was among the many residents in the Kacchighat area who were vacated overnight in September 2021 as the Darshan Cottage – an adjacent nine-storey building was going to collapse.

“It was the worst time of my life, I don’t even want to recollect it. It’s torturous,” Kumar said.

He is one of the victims of Shimla’s poor development and callous neglect by the authorities. He couldn’t return to his home for a year because it is also a precarious structure that could meet the same fate as Darshan Cottage.

A threat to residents 

Shimla is stuck in time, struggling to find the right way for infrastructural development that keeps its heritage fresh, environment safe, and meets the needs of its swelling population.

As the biggest city in Himachal Pradesh, it has a population of nearly 3 lakh. Situated at a height of 2,276 metres above sea level, Shimla is struggling to accommodate people. Residents prefer to build a home in Shimla for access to better health and education. The city has been expanding horizontally but in a non-planned way. It has an additional ‘floating’ population of about 70,000 (According to the 2041 draft development plan) as well. The city experiences massive jams that can be as notorious as Bengaluru and is running out of parking space. To add to everything, it is running out of water too.

For almost half a century, Shimla’s infrastructure was based on an interim development plan formulated in 1979. City gullies were being carved out. The recent plan, the draft development plan for 2041 that was introduced by the Jai Ram Thakur in February 2022 government was struck down by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The lack of monitored development has brought Shimla to the brink of catastrophe.

According to the Hazard Vulnerability and Risk Assessment report (HVRA) by the Shimla Municipal Corporation (SMC), the city is staring at many building collapses like the one in Kachi Ghatti — 65 per cent of the city’s buildings are categorised under ‘high vulnerability’. The report says that anywhere between 5,000 to 20,000 people will die should an earthquake find its epicentre in Shimla.

“Even the townhall building, built in 1888, is earthquake-proof, but the newer ones aren’t,” said Chatranta Singh, the convenor of Shimla Upnagar Jankalyan Samiti and Shimla Sangharsh Samiti. “The northern slope of the ridge is sinking. The Grand Hotel West, Lakkar bazaar are going down.”

Reports of landslides are becoming a regular in newspapers. In July, another four-storey building in Chopal market had collapsed. 

The worst of its problems are evident in Shimla’s Krishna Nagar, an unauthorised slum area with a population of more than 4,000. It mostly comprises the labour class and migrant workers from other parts of Himachal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. The picturesque beauty of a hill station isn’t found here but maddening chaos engulfs the area with people not having enough to even properly cover themselves.

Also read: Guwahati’s Heritage Center is fueling new cultural energy — linking city, Brahmaputra, art

Increasing woes on the road

On weekends and during peak traffic season, Shimla can give tough competition to even Bengaluru.

“If I ever need to make it to the hospital in an emergency situation, I will never make it,” said Maala Singh, a former corporator living in the city.

The average speed of cars in peak traffic is just 10 km/hour. The city has one main arterial road (Cart Road) about 18-kilometres long, and municipal corporation roads stretching 74.8 kilometres connect Shimla to Cart Road. Ironically, Sir Colin Douglas Buchanan, the author of Traffic in Towns, Britain’s most famous town planner, was from Shimla.

Haphazard construction 

Shimla was initially planned to accommodate around 25,000 people under the British Raj, which was made possible by the colony’s immense wealth and scientific prowess.

After Independence, when Himachal Pradesh got statehood, all planning in Shimla took place on the basis of an interim development plan made in the year 1979. “The interim development plan has led to spontaneous development in Shimla instead of a planned one,” said Tikender Singh Panwar, a writer on urban development issues and former deputy mayor of Shimla. “The plan doesn’t have disaster risk reduction or mitigation strategies or a plan for mobility,” he added.

Nearly 90 per cent of all construction in Shimla is carried out on 60-degree slopes, which are against architectural and geological norms, making these buildings susceptible to natural disasters.

Walking around Shimla, one can see mighty tall structures even in the ‘core’ area. The Himachal Pradesh High Court, situated in the core area, is a 13-storey building, which hasn’t been able to carry out repairs ever since the NGT order was passed. It is an eyesore for its residents who never fail to bring up the building while complaining about their woes.

Published this year in February, the problems with the development in the city are spelt out in the Draft Development Plan-Shimla Planning Area 2041. A Zone IV seismic area, Shimla has buildings with ‘soft’ stories not only on the ground but on upper floors as well. A ‘soft’ storey is a level that is weaker than the floors below it. Buildings here are also made in irregular L, H, or U designs that can’t withstand earthquakes. They are also built in close proximity, which adds to the danger, as shorter buildings can end up pounding on the columns of taller buildings. About four per cent of the total population of Shimla lives in slums in sinking zones prone to landslides.

In 2017, the NGT had put a ban on any construction in Shimla’s green zones and allowed for the construction of only two storeys and an attic outside the core areas, saying that unplanned activities could lead to “irreparable loss and damage to the environment, ecology, and natural resources”. The tribunal had acted on the 2014 petition of environment activist Yogesh Mohan Sengupta.

The 2041 development plan, introduced on NGT’s orders, sought to provide some relaxation on construction in the city. The plan allows construction on privately owned land in green zones — 6.28 per cent of total green zones — provided no trees are felled.

It allows construction in the core areas and in non-core areas, and increases the number of floors from two-and-a-half storeys to three-and-a-half.

In July, the NGT struck down this development plan. “It is pointed out that the state of Himachal Pradesh trying to assume jurisdiction of Appellate Authority over the NGT, in breach of rule of law, not expected from a lawful government, which has to work as per law and the Constitution and not at its fancies as appears to be the case. The Chief Secretary should be personally held liable for prosecution for such patent illegal acts of the state authorities,” the tribunal said. “We find the observations and proposals in the plan of the state of HP to be patently illegal in view of submissions noted above,” it added in its judgment.

“The NGT has rightfully struck down the draft development plan,” Panwar said. “The draft development plan is a land-use document, not an infrastructure plan. It harps on the same old formula of dividing the city in zones, like in plains, it’s unscientific. It doesn’t speak about the mountain architecture,” he said. “For example, the area near Krishna Nagar is lush green forests, but they’re kept out of the green zone.”

Instead of taking a zonal approach, Panwar suggested that areas where mountains can withstand heavy construction should be identified. “The north-west region receives plenty of sunlight, which hardens the rock and makes the mountain suitable for construction of taller buildings while the south-west region, where sunlight isn’t aplenty, has damp soil. In those areas, there can be caps on the number of floors,” he added.

Also read: Dimapur to Kohima, Nagaland’s café boom signals one thing – there is peace

Residents struggle 

Avinder Pal Singh, 53, has a beautiful house in Shimla. His father, a bureaucrat, had bought sizable land in the city and constructed a home in the city in the late ’60s. These were plots auctioned by the municipal corporation. However, since he couldn’t indulge in commercial activity, a majority of the land lay vacant.

“I pursued a degree in travel and tourism with the hopes of building a hotel here on this land, but after the municipal commission declared this land as part of the green area, I haven’t been able to carry out any activity here,” Singh said.

Additional green zones were notified in December 2000 by amending the interim development plan. Singh’s house was among them.

He is among the people who are in disagreement with the NGT’s order of putting a blanket ban on any construction in Shimla’s core area and no construction beyond two storeys and an attic in non-core areas of Shimla.

Pal Singh said that there was a more nefarious plot in the blanket bans on construction. “Before the NGT ban here in Shimla, investments worth Rs 2,000 crore for commercial and infrastructural projects were expected. After the ban, all those investments were diverted to tri-city Chandigarh. There’s lobbying for all investments to stay in the tri-city and not come to Shimla,” he said.

There are also citizen-led movements and organisations fighting the ban over construction as it hampers their livelihood. Over the years, the SMC has also expanded and taken new areas under its fold that were erstwhile villages outside Shimla. Chatranta Singh, the convenor of Shimla Upnagar Jankalyan Samiti and Shimla Sangharsh Samiti. Chatranta said that since the village land came under the SMC, their privately owned land was regularised and they haven’t been able to carry out construction on it since it now falls in the green zone, leading to hyper-development by the tourism industry in non-core areas where tall buildings were made. “This has led to the concretisation of Shimla,” Chatranta said.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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