Vision of an apocalypse in our hill stations
While in Simla, constant water supply to the Raj Bhawan, the Secretariat and Chief Minister’s house is being maintained even today, it is the general public that is queuing up in lines for water
“Simla must be the meanest of Imperial capitals. Seen from a distance... before the rains... it clings to a mangy hillside, a forest of tin roofs, rickety wood and discoloured plaster. The gothic crime of the Secretariat dominates the centre, the Victorian ardour of Viceregal Lodge its western limits. The forests...have been largely destroyed, and houses crowd as thick as trees they have supplanted.”
-Yvonne Fitzroy (Court and Camps in India, published 1926)
Whatever the tourist brochures and articles in the week end supplements may tell you, fact is the Viceregal Lodge in Simla and the various Government Houses that present day Simla has grown around and boasts of, were built by the British in hilly areas were mostly for themselves. Like the Raj Bhawan in Nainital built by the legendary FW Stevens on orders from the Lt Governor Sir Antony MacDonnell to resemble his own Scottish castle in Kumaon hills, they were born out of a romantic desire to create a private English arcadia for the rulers and their native friends, the Rajas and Nawab.
Their creation was not aimed at offering a better life and health and educational resources to the common folk in the area. They offered English homes, private boarding schools and sanatoriums run by missionaries and British doctors in a bracing climate to the Raj era elite, especially the Mem Sahibs and Baba and Baby Log, exhausted from their stay in the hot dusty plains. The public hospitals and government schools came up by and by to cater to the well being of clerks and domestics who ran the Sahibs’ households.
Such a colonial eco-system by the 1920s, led to the severe depletion of the native flora and fauna and subsequently landslides in Nainital and Darjeeling when rain water collected in ravines created by building activities all round. There was even a severe cholera outbreak at Simla first in the increasingly congested Bazaar area where the natives and servants resided, that threatened the Civil lines.
Even today, in Simla constant water supply to the Raj Bhawan, the Secretariat and Chief Minister’s house is being maintained. Next in line are the bureaucrats and tourists staying in posh hotels, the latter told TV cameras happily they felt no water shortage and were having a super time
It was when Simla, the summer capital of the Supreme Government was threatened by disease and hazardous environment that the Bazaars generated, that local authorities forbade more building of cottages, ensured each building had adequate gutter space, proper sewage systems for toilets and to prevent disease and landslips, roads sides in cantonment and civil lines areas were lined with trees.
The government enforced hygiene and water distribution using law and order machinery along a discriminatory system that gave prime importance to the ruling class over the natives. Thus the protective measures for conserving water and soil and sewage and drainage systems most of our hill stations are still using notwithstanding the rapid increase in population density and haphazard building activity all round. Hierarchy demanded then that towns be hierarchically divided into wards, separating the hoi polloi from the elites, the Bazaar wards from the Station ward.
And this system, if we go by the interviews the local officials are giving to TV channels, still continues. Even today, in Simla constant water supply to the Raj Bhawan, the Secretariat and Chief Minister’s house is being maintained. Next in line are the bureaucrats and tourists staying in posh hotels, the latter told TV cameras happily they felt no water shortage and were having a super time. The rest, the Bazaar types, are getting water once in three days and can be seen queuing up for water, buckets in hand. The guy controlling the keys to the waterways that control flow to various wards, clears his throat feeling important. He follows a systemic path he says. He has been provided security as tensions mount in the Bazaar.
Nainital, Ranikhet, Simla, Mussorie, Darjeeling, all these hill stations were actually sites built for consumption. The natives worked for the rich outsiders as the towns grew and number of visitors as well. They began providing domestic services, food, crafts, furniture and carried heavy luggage up steep hill sides upon their sturdy backs
Nainital, Ranikhet, Simla, Mussorie, Darjeeling, all these hill stations were actually sites built for consumption. The natives worked for the rich outsiders as the towns grew and number of visitors as well. They began providing domestic services, food, crafts, furniture and carried heavy luggage up steep hill sides upon their sturdy backs. This is how these hill stations came to have their Lakkad Bazaar, Laal Bazaar (for red-faced Tommies during WW1) and upper (for whites) and lower(for natives)Mall Roads. The towns have a few Raj-era shops, libraries and colourful shacks selling all kinds of goods from cheese and fruits to woolens and umbrellas that cater to tourists’ desires, earlier mostly British and Europeans, now mostly Indian tourists from the plains.
The state governments are today marketing tourism aggressively with lots of help from the Centre, especially for religious tourism. Unmindful of the fact that this is deepening and also creating fresh geological and ecological disturbances that have placed a tremendous strain on local land and water resources. Ironically, even as water woes mount and hill villages at higher altitudes empty out, the State departments of tourism, tour operators and hoteliers in Simla, Nainital, Mussoorie, Darjeeling or Ooty are all highlighting the Raj legacy that set the template for their degradation. Lately there is also a great emphasis on religion spirituality offering packages of Chaar Dhaam Yatras or such like.
In the name of development and job creation, the roads to holy places are being hurriedly widened for easier travel, but according to locals the contractors are dumping the rubble in river beds. This threatens to block the path of the water and create a Kedarnath like tragedy after another cloudburst. Everywhere you visit you see furious building activity. For inviting more footfalls, hotels and Ashrams being allowed to come up on dry river and lake beds that had been working as vital natural soak pits and feeding the rivers downstream.
As already full to capacity resorts like Nainital, Simla and Mussorie put up signs asking the tourists to go back, the roads continue to be built and dooms day for water-starved hill stations like Simla draws nearer even as local leaders preen in front of TV cameras and thank their leaders in Delhi for uplifting the native economy to grand heights.
- job creation
- Raj Bhawan
- religious tourism
- hill stations
- water supply
- Viceregal Lodge
- Government Houses in Simla
- Raj Bhawan in Nainital
- FW Stevens
- Kumaon hills
- colonial eco system
- depletion of flora and fauna
- landslides in Nainital
- severe cholera outbreak at Simla
- hoi polloi
- Bazaar wards
- Laal Bazaar
- Mall Roads
- Chaar Dhaam Yatra
- Lt Governor Sir Antony MacDonnell
- hazardous environment
- constant water supply to the Raj Bhawan
- Lakkad Bazaar
- hill villages
- Raj legacy
- water starved hill stations