A Stitch in Time: Lessons for Himachal from Joshimath

Himachal has escaped nature’s wrath so far, but its luck may not last forever

Traffic jam at
Cart Road in 
Shimla after 
Traffic jam at Cart Road in Shimla after snowfall

Avay Shukla

I am always amazed at the apathy of the Indian voter who is constantly being battered by the government’s depredation of the environment under the guise of “development” but never makes this an election issue. When it comes to the crunch, the religion, caste, false promises and rhetoric take precedence over droughts, floods, heat waves and noxious air.

But in the last assembly election in Himachal (which the Congress won) I saw a silver lining and a welcome change: issues concerning the environment— hydel projects, unnecessary road widening, more airports, unsustainable town planning, deforestation, repeated water shortages—do appear to have acquired some traction and perhaps did influence the voting patterns; which is why the new chief minister must prepare an agenda/ action plan for the state’s natural environment and put it on the fast track (perhaps under an Advisor who is genuinely required, unlike the other sinecures). I, of course, have a wish list of what he should be doing in the New Year, here are the four main action points:

Stop indiscriminate construction/ widening of roads

Himachal will be destroyed by the automobile and four-lane roads will only facilitate this process by encouraging ever more vehicles to come to the state. I was aghast to read that 10,000 vehicles crossed the Atal tunnel in Manali on just one day (26 December 2022); the figure was 12,73,000 for the whole year. And 13,000 vehicles entered Shimla on Christmas day.

Anyone who has seen the pristine environment on both sides of the tunnel and the traffic jams in Shimla can only shudder at the inevitable consequences of these humungous numbers—emissions, garbage, plastics, excreta, law and orderall of which have already started to plague the residents of this state.

There are at least a dozen four-laning projects sanctioned and they need to be reviewed: they are just not necessary and lead to large scale land acquisition, displacement of thousands of families, cutting of hills and deforestation, continuous landslides and filling up of valleys, pollution of water sources.

The Parwanoo-Shimla four-laning project, started some 10 years ago, is just about half complete and prone to constant landslides. It still takes three hours to travel from Parwanoo to Shimla, so how is the widening helping? It will, when complete, only encourage more cars to come to the state; when they reach Shimla there is no parking space for them and during tourist season the town becomes one huge, chaotic, unauthorised parking lot. And remember, more than 17,000 trees were cut to create this mess while pollution levels of all towns on this route—Dharampur, Solan, Kandaghat, Shoghi, Kaithlighat— have increased exponentially.

Chief Minister Sukhu should take seriously the advice of Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari that Himachal should construct ropeways instead of roads. He should employ the state’s limited resources on expansion of the rail network instead. He could begin by converting the 120-year-old Kangra Valley Railway (Pathankot–Jogindernagar) 75 km narrow gauge line to metre or broad gauge.

Ten million tourists visit this region every year, all by road because the Kangra Valley Railway (KVR) has been allowed to fall to pieces. Properly upgraded, it has the potential to replace tens of thousands of vehicles, make for a much more pleasant travelling experience and significantly improve the environment. Extend the line to Mandi and link it to the proposed line from Kiratpur/ Bilaspur to Manali. There would then be no need for all those four lane roads that are playing havoc with livelihoods and the environment.

What we don’t need: a hillside in Sainj valley ‘redeveloped’ in concrete for a power project
What we don’t need: a hillside in Sainj valley ‘redeveloped’ in concrete for a power project

Scrap the Mandi airport project

This ego-based foolishness must be given the quietus immediately. It serves no purpose, is redundant, is being vigorously opposed by the residents of the valley, and will drain the state’s resources (just the land acquisition will cost more than Rs 2,000 crore). There is no justification for another airport when its three existing ones function below 50 per cent capacity and cater to barely one per cent of the tourists.

The social and environmental costs are enormous: 12,000 farming families in eight villages displaced, 350 hectare of the most fertile land in Himachal cemented over, deforestation and loss of bio-diversity, a tranquil valley converted to a hub of vehicular, dust and noise pollution. Upgrade the existing airports instead.

The consequences for Shimla, sitting on a 6,500 ft high ridge, will be more horrific than Joshimath in the event of landslides or earthquakes. A study estimates that 39% of all buildings will collapse and 40,000 people will die

Abandon the Shimla Development Plan, 2041

This disastrous, short-sighted and unscientific plan (already stayed by the NGT) should be junked forthwith and the appeal against the NGT order withdrawn. By allowing construction in Shimla’s protected Green Belt, Core Area and Heritage Zone, and five stories in the rest of the town, the SDP41 is making a mockery of science and town planning and endangering citizens’ lives.

It will remove forever the remaining green cover and ancient deodars of this once beautiful colonial era town, and congest it beyond redemption. The chief minister should learn from the subsidence that is happening in Uttarakhand’s Joshimath where more than 700 houses have already been abandoned. At least eight villages on its peripheries are also sinking.

The consequences for Shimla, sitting on a 6,500 feet high ridge and built mainly on overburden strata, will be even more horrific in the event of landslides or earthquakes. A study estimates that 39 per cent of all buildings will collapse and 40,000 people will die. As someone who has lived here most of my life, I consider that an underestimation. The need is to decongest and deconstruct the town, not allow and encourage more construction, traffic, garbage and pollution.

Hit ‘pause’ on hydel projects

The state has reached the tipping point as regards hydel power. From here on, it’s a case of diminishing returns and increasing environmental and social costs. Of its identified exploitable potential of 24,000 MW, it has already commissioned about 13,000 MW and another 5,000 MW is in the pipeline. The remaining 6,000 MW proposals are all in difficult, geologically fragile, high altitude, para glacial areas and cannot be exploited without grave environmental damage, such as in Kinnaur, Lahaul Spiti, the Chandra–Bhaga basin and Parbati valley.

They are all being opposed by local villagers. They also do not make economic sense any more with the plummeting cost of solar power: the reason why as many as a dozen hydel projects have been surrendered by their proponents in the last two years.

The chief minister should dig out the 2010 report on Environmental Impacts of Hydel Projects prepared by the then additional chief secretary (forests) which had even been accepted and commended by the state high court, but which successive governments had found to be too close to the bone and had consigned to the freezer.

There are other environmental action points: water conservation, construction of check dams and van sarovars in forest areas, rejuvenation of traditional kuhls, regulation of tourist numbers, disposal of mounting garbage piles, stopping of illegal mining on river beds. And for all these, the state can do worse than prepare a long-term paper on Environmental Strategy 2050.

The chief minister and his advisors should take a hard look at what is happening in Uttarakhand. Not just Joshimath, it has now been reported that even Nainital, Champawat, Karnaprayag and Uttarkashi are sinking under the onslaught of rapacious commercialisation and unscientific “development”. That state is a veritable laboratory for impending environmental apocalypse: dam bursts, GLOF (glacial lake overflow), landslides, subsidence, flash floods, earthquakes.

Himachal has been lucky so far in that it has been generally spared these visitations of nature’s backlash till now. But its luck will not last forever, and it is running out of time fast. A red flag has already been raised by an eminent geologist who has warned that subsidence has started in Mcleodganj, and that the main Dharamshala–Mcleodganj road and Khara Danda road too show evidence of sinking.

I wish the new chief minister all success in his challenging assignment. He belongs to a beautiful state and it now falls on him to bequeath it to future generations, unspoilt and unravaged. He will do well to remember that we have not inherited this world from our ancestors, but have borrowed it from our children. We hold it in trust. Betrayal of this trust, sir, would be filicide, and that cannot be your legacy.

AVAY SHUKLA is a retired IAS officer

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines