Hill ecosystem has become more fragile than ever before: The story of real estate juggernaut
It was a gruesome blood and guts in the picturesque valley of Kasauli when 51-year-old ShailBala Sharma, a conscientious assistant town planner, was spine-chillingly shot in May 2018. Her fault was her unyielding commitment to enforce a Supreme Court mandate to demolish a score of unauthorized constructions in the town, primarily hotels and lodges. An errant hotelier Vijay Singh, whose hotel was on the chopping block of demolition, allegedly opened fire on her. Singh told the police that he killed Sharma because she refused to settle for a bribe. Vijay Singh shaved moustache, swiftly shifted between locations and sometimes even drifted deep into the forest escaping police and local informers, finally nabbed in Mathura. Deservingly the Himachal state government awarded an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh to ShailBala’s bereaved family including her entitlement to the salary for her remaining service period. The state government too conferred her Himachal Gaurav Puraskar. ShailBala was in one of four teams that had been assigned to execute the Supreme Court order to demolish illegal constructions at hotels and guest houses in Kasauli. Her last words were: ‘We are only following court orders’.
The Supreme Court said that the illegal constructions had put the entire city in danger, causing landslides, and ordered the expedited demolition of such constructions. The Supreme Court took suomotu cognisance of the incident, and criticised the state for not providing adequate security to the officials. The court said the incident was “extremely serious” and the hotel owner had committed a “brazen act of defiance of this court’s orders”. Upholding a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order, the Supreme Court had said that all illegal constructions made by hotels and resorts in Kasauli must be demolished as they were endangering lives of people. The NGT, in its order, had directed demolition of temporary structures of several hotels including Bird’s View Resort, Hotel Pine View, Narayani Guest House, Hotel Neelgiri, Hotel Divshikha and AAA Guest House.It had also imposed hefty fines on many of them for causing irretrievable damage to the ecology, polluting the environment and raising unauthorised constructions.
Kasauli is a sleepy town and cantonment, located in Solan district in the lush-green Himachal Pradesh. The cantonment in Kasauli was established by the British Raj in 1842 as a Colonial hill station, a little less than 50 miles from the British summer capital Shimla. The town is known for its quaint colonial buildings and landmarks. The Nahri Temple, devoted to the Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva, is thought to have been constructed around a hundred and fifty years ago. Also known as ‘JantarMantar’ and ‘Choo MantarMahadev Temple’, the temple is renowned for its festive celebration of Dushera and Shivratri. The temple boasts striking idols of the goddess Durga and Lord Shiva placed in the chamber of the temple. Near this temple, there is a century-old bauri which still offers sweet potable water. Monkey Point is situated in the Air Force Station near the Lower Mall region about 4 kilometres from the center of town. According to the Ramayana, when Lord Hanuman was returning from the Himalayas after acquiring the “Sanjivani Booty”, one of his feet touched the hill; that’s why the top of the hill is in the shape of a foot.
Baptist Church is a 1923 brick and wood building, situated close to the Tibetan styled Sadar Bazar. It was previously an Anglican church, inaugurated on 24 July 1853. Christ Church Kasauli came into existence in 1844 when Dr. Daniel Wilson (the Metropolitan Bishop of Calcutta) appointed the Rev MJ Jennings as chaplain to the new station Kasauli for the first time, who started worship services in a barrack as there was no church building.
Kasauli was earlier within the state of Mahlog that was founded in 1183. Its original rulers were ruling earlier near Kalka when Mohamad Gauri attacked that area then they shifted to the Mahlog area. Initially 193 villages were in its jurisdiction but later over 300 villages were included. It was one of the biggest Princely States of Simla Hill States under the British Raj.
Despite Supreme Court and authorities vigilant efforts the Kasauli still has not deterred the reprobate and dubious builders to find their foothold in its lush green neighbourhood. One such egregious project is CIEL by Kiro Reality, located in the Chandigarh Shimla road. Drummed up as a dream utopia of hospitality and real estate, the construction is spreading over 20-acres of land located near Dharampur. The company is a new avatar of NCLT flagged Soni Realtors Pvt. Ltd for a series of flagitious and gratuitous default to bank and score of buyers. The fly-by-night operator companies such as Kiro Reality with its drummed-up project CIEL always seek A-listed hoteliers for branding and promotion. Hence, ongoing discussion and signing of MoU with Crown Plaza seem to be a part of advertising puffery which it would brazenly roll out to win over potential buyers.
In recent years the risks to life and property from natural disasters caused by climate change have grown alarmingly. Regulations and by laws governing civil constructions have been amended and ignored with impunity in many parts of the hills in northern India. The forest cover and scenic slopes in and around Shimla and other hill stations are massively depleted, leaving concrete eyesores. Shimla’s residents now share their appalling concerns about disappearance of snow, increased summer spell and shrinking winters. Shimla’s green cover is now dwindled to some patches of protected Jakhu hill—a core Shimla belt overlooking the Mall road apart from Annandale forest, Shimla’s downhill area and some 17 patches which were notified by the forest department as the green belt surrounding Shimla.
The most alarming fact is that some buildings have come up at steep slopes of even 40 to 60 degrees. These are mainly commercial buildings outside the urban town limits. Like guest houses, homestays, hotels and restaurants, multi-storey show rooms and also flats with markets. None of these builders have followed the floor-area ratio and height parameters and are structurally unsafe.
For instance, a multi-storey restaurant and homestay building at Kumarhatti in Solan district collapsed like a house of cards in July 2019 killing 13 army personnel who had stopped there for lunch. Subsequent inquiry revealed that the building had been built without proper foundation on a hill slope. An FIR was filed and a magisterial enquiry ordered, but no action was taken against the erring building owners.
In some towns, builders had even encroached on abandoned spaces which had been categorised by the Town and Country planning department sinking and sliding zones. Nullahs that used to serve as channels for storm water have also been encroached.
Apart from Shimla, many towns such as Chamba, Dharamshala, McLeodganj, Solan, Mandi, Manali and Kullu are all guilty of permitting such illegal structures. And as these towns also fall in the category of Seismic Zones IV and V, even a small earthquake can spell doom.
Such constructions by influential people in violation of all rules left the Himachal Pradesh High Court with no option but to order their sealing, disconnection of power and water supplies, apart from demolitions in some cases. In 2018, following High Court orders, the Kullu district administration alone detected violations in 200 hotels of which 95 had raised illegal floors.
At the time of it being made the capital of British India, the urban centre Shimla could meet the needs of a population of only 16,000 people. Its population was only 13,960 people in 1901, which increased to 169,572 in 2011 and is expected to rise to 210,277 people in 2022. The population has grown more than 15 times in the last 120 years. Facilities such as water supply, sanitation, waste disposal and traffic management have not kept pace with rapid urbanisation. Illegal constructions sprouted everywhere, even from rainwater drains.
TikendarPanwar, former deputy mayor of Shimla and convenor of the National Coalition for Inclusive Sustainable Urbanisation, mentioned in an interview to media that the authorities approach had been arbitrary. “Certain parts of Himachal can withstand more stories than two and a half and some need to be restricted at an even lower number,” he said. “Traditional Himachali homes have two storeys, for instance, and many buildings built in the British era have five-six storeys.”
The 2015 land use map of the Shimla Planning Area shows that only a tiny portion of the land is occupied by open spaces and parks. This may compromise relief and evacuation measures in the event of natural disasters. Due to the unrestrained growth of the town, Shimla is also massively falling short on potable water: the city now needs around 39 million litres a day, but much less is available. Rural settlements, which are now part of the planning area, still rely on natural water sources for their needs.
The Government of Himachal Pradesh passed the Shimla Development Plan February 9, 2022, for the construction of a ‘counter-magnet’ and four satellite towns to decongest and transfer urbanisation load from the core city. A counter-magnet town is proposed to be set up near Shimla airport and four satellite towns will come up near Ghandal, Naldehra, Fagu and Chamiyana. Counter-magnet towns are those that can be developed as alternative hubs of development and have the potential to attract more people / immigrants from a larger city in the area. Satellite towns are small municipalities that are adjacent to a larger city and serve as part of the larger city and provide housing and other amenities for the people working in the larger city. Despite the state authorities’ laudatory efforts to decongest Shimla the problems seem to be more deep-rooted.
In 2019, India’s environmental court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), acknowledged the lack of basic amenities and banned new construction other than residential structures in Manali and McLeodganj towns until facilities for waste management and water supply were developed. The apex body for disaster management, the National Disaster Management Authority, mandates regular monitoring of the safety of lifeline buildings such as hospitals, schools, and fire service stations, but in Himachal Pradesh an audit has been pending for some years.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the government auditor, warned that “haphazard construction of buildings with no space for providing relief and rehabilitation [in Shimla] may result in abnormally high casualties during disaster” and found that the disaster preparedness of the state was weak. As recently as June 2020, in those early months of pandemic, a five-storey building collapsed in Chhota Shimla due to a weak foundation.
The experience of Shimla replicates in most of the hill stations dotting across India. Reportedly there is a massive illegal construction covering an area over 620 square kilometres in Andhra Pradesh spanning Gajuwaka, Duvaada, Kambalakonda, Arilova, Hanumanthwaka, Simhachalam, Madhavdhara, Muralinagar, Marripalem and Kancharapalem. This caused destruction of the natural slope morphology, including natural drainage, soil cover, slope vegetation and slope stability, posing serious environmental hazards. This massive construction has caused depletion of groundwater, water logging in low lying areas, gradual collapse of hill slopes with threat to human life. In the current year, the Kerala authorities had zeroed in on as many as 294 non-residential illegal constructions in the nine villages that constitute the Munnar, one of the most popular hill stations in Southern India. However, we wonder why under the eyes of vigilant authorities so many constructions were allowed to come up. Probably, that’s the way with India. There is always a slide under our nose!
By Sarat C. Das