Time for some urgent action to save Himachal Pradesh from worse disaster

The SDP 41 blueprint needs a burial. Here’s a rescue agenda

A WAKE-UP CALL The unprecedented devastation in Shimla should serve as a stern reminder to change the ‘development’ paradigm
A WAKE-UP CALL The unprecedented devastation in Shimla should serve as a stern reminder to change the ‘development’ paradigm

Avay Shukla

Now that the rains have mercifully abated in Himachal, the various WhatsApp groups have offered their anodyne prayers for the state, donations have been made to the Chief Minister Relief Fund to assuage consciences, and bureaucrats have made the right noises to cover up their silence when the environment was being raped over the years, it is time to step back, take stock of the situation and take hard decisions for the future.

I have been in Himachal Pradesh since 1976 and never witnessed the kind of devastation that has occurred over the past one month.

A few landslides, road collapses and some flooding have always been par for the course in this mountainous state, but the extent, intensity and ferocity of nature’s backlash this year is unprecedented and should be an eye-opener for not only the officials and politicians, but also the citizens of the state, who are just as culpable for the disaster.

It would be fair to state that no chief minister of this state has ever had to confront the situation that Mr Sukhu now has to face. The challenges before him are enormous, his resources are limited and the attendant politics is bound to be opportunistic and vicious.

He is up to his eyebrows in monitoring the rescue, relief and rehabilitation efforts, but it is now time for him to start taking some tough decisions too, in order to demonstrate his resolve to correct the horrendous mistakes of the past.

The chief minister needs to announce, and implement, the following measures immediately to show that he means business:

1. Repeal the Shimla Development Plan 41 (SDP 41) and withdraw the state’s appeal against its rejection by the NGT/ Himachal Pradesh High Court.

This SDP 41, which proposes to double Shimla’s population by 2040, allow construction in the city’s 17 green belts, prohibited core and heritage zones, and permit 5+1 floors (as against the existing 2+1) in the rest of the city, is nothing but a suicide note or a death warrant for Shimla, and probably the worst policy document ever produced.

Shimla has been brought to its knees even without these calamitous liberalisations, and the SDP 41 will take it the way of Pompei. The SDP should go immediately, and not await a Supreme Court adjudication (which in any case does not inspire much confidence on environmental matters). The Executive conceived this monstrosity, the Executive should bury it.

2. Make a public declaration that there will never be any regularisation of illegal buildings in the state (of which there are reported to be about 17,000).

It has been frequent regularisation policies in the past (six at last count) by all governments which have allowed this monster to grow in the womb of expectation, and led to the explosion of the type of buildings that have been collapsing in the recent rains, taking a toll of human lives. This includes many government constructions too, which have been at the forefront of these violations, confident in their sovereign immunity.

This must stop, and this dangling electoral carrot must be banished for all times.

3. Begin the process of decongesting and deconcretising Shimla and Manali without any further delay. Impose a complete ban on all construction in Shimla, Manali, Dharamsala, McLeodganj, Solan—even the ongoing ones.

Given the negligent and complicit manner in which building plans have been passed, and the total failure to monitor their implementation by the town and country planning department of the state, all must be treated as suspect and subjected to a rigorous review and physical inspection before being given a green signal.

For this to happen, a suspension of all building activity in the town is necessary. No new construction should be permitted. A separate policy for repairs only could be formulated thereafter. This harsh measure may infringe on the rights of an individual, but it is in the larger public interest and protects the right of the majority.

4. Stop the registration of any new hotels, home-stays, holiday homes and guest houses in Shimla and the towns mentioned above. They have neither the structural nor infrastructural capacity to cater to any more tourists or vehicles.

The ‘chhola bhatura’ kind of tourism we have been promoting so far cannot be allowed to destroy the environment, livelihoods and economy of the rest of the state any more. Let us not forget that though tourism contributes about 8 per cent of the state’s GDP, there remains the other 92 per cent that has been held hostage for far too long to tourism interests.

This imbalance needs to be corrected.

5. Stop immediately the construction of any more four-lane highways. Even for the sanctioned projects where the work is yet to start, revert to improved two lane highways to avoid further cutting of mountains and dumping of muck.

The recently tendered Kaithlighat– Dhalli four-laning project should be converted into a two-lane highway.

We don’t need expert committees of the NHAI to examine this issue: the massive destruction that these four-lane abominations have caused can be seen all along the Kiratpur–Manali, Pathankot–Mandi and Parwanoo–Solan highways. The Himalayas are no place to carve out 35- and 45-metre-wide roads. Let Mr Gadkari earn his place in the Guinness Book of Records by ravaging the plains, if he must. The mountains are too fragile to accommodate his ambitions.

6. The conceptual process of reducing the environmental and infrastructural load on Shimla must commence immediately, without waiting for the promised Supreme Court Expert Committee.

There is no time for that, there already exist enough reports of competent specialists, there are enough collapsed buildings, denuded hillsides, fallen trees and dead people to conclude that Shimla cannot support a population of 250,000 people, 100,000 cars and 70,000 tourists a day.

Appoint a committee under the chief secretary to suggest ways to reduce the city’s population by at least 25 per cent by 2035. This objective could be dove-tailed into the plan for creating a satellite township in Jathiadevi recently

announced by the government. This could even become a model template for other groaning towns like Manali, Solan, Mandi and Dharamsala.

7. Consider seriously the idea of creating a Beas Valley Regulatory and Development Authority in order to bring some administrative coherence to this ravaged valley, especially the stretch from Palchan to Pandoh.

The Beas valley (including its tributaries, the Parbati, Sainj, Jiwa Nal and Tirthan) is a multi-sectoral hub of Himachal’s economy, catering to tourism, adventure sports, horticulture, hydel power, mining. It is also a strategic gateway to Ladakh and the district of Lahaul–Spiti.

The uncoordinated approach of different departments has currently made the valley a ruined mess. This beautiful valley needs a comprehensive development plan that supports the economy and simultaneously preserves its unmatched natural environment, and an agency which can also act as a regulator.

This is not possible with different departments lacking an overall view and working in their own silos. The deputy commissioner cannot discharge this function given his multifarious responsibilities.

This is my bucket list for the immediate future; much more will need to be done in the medium and long term, like: stopping this frenzy of tree-felling in the towns, using them as alibis for our own greed and cupidity; removing encroachments (even the sanctioned and the government buildings) on water courses and traditional nullahs; reviewing the hare-brained proposal to channelise rivers; legislation to ban any construction below the HFL (High Flood Level) of rivers; reining in the mushrooming of hotels and home-stays; assessing the carrying capacities of various towns and regions; imposing blanket bans on mining in rivers and streams, imposing a moratorium on new hydel projects, especially in geologically sensitive areas such as Lahaul–Spiti and Pangi.

Mr Sukhu, the chief minister, has a challenge on his hands which no chief minister before him had ever had to contend with. But it is also an opportunity for him to show that Indian politics can still throw up leaders. The government must demonstrate that it has the political will to be a part of the solution, not the problem.

At stake is, not his career, but the very survival of his state.

(Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer. He blogs at avayshukla.blogspot.com)

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