Shimla’s first major development plan in four decades is a missed opportunity

In October 2021, an eight-storey building in Shimla collapsed after heavy rain triggered a landslide. The building was evacuated long before the collapse. But the tragedy revealed the pressure facing the northern Indian city, which is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government approved the Shimla Development Plan 2041 on April 28 this year, the move was seen with great optimism for about 1,70,000 local residents and 35 lakh of tourists who visit the city every year.

After India’s independence, the first plan to guide development works in and around the municipal area of ​​Shimla was notified in 1979. However, according to local experts, since then the city which lies in an earthquake-prone area, developed haphazardly in an unregulated environment and unplanned manner with reckless constructions and indiscriminate tree-cutting, which the development plan also recognized.

The new development plan for the next two decades aims to meet the city’s expansion needs as well as growing ecological challenges in addition to ensuring the city’s sustainable growth. The new plan also includes areas around Shimla such as Kufri, Shoghi and Ghanahatti special areas and additional villages.

However, the effectiveness of the plan is questioned. Tikender Panwar, the city’s former deputy mayor and urban planning expert, said Mongabay-India that Shimla’s latest development plan was simply a missed opportunity, emerging from a misconception rooted in the “lack of understanding” and “populism” of the current ruling party.

According to Panwar, 90% of Shimla is built on risky slopes. He pointed out that the city zoning plan of a future development aspect should have been based on a careful study of these slopes.

Mountain roads to Shimla. Experts say that unlike other Himalayan cities, Shimla is built on steep slopes which increase the risk of accidents, when excessive construction is allowed. Photo credit: Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay

“It was an important exercise for the scientific understanding of the maximum bearing capacity of each of these slopes in order to avoid accidents in slopes already at risk of excessive construction,” he explained. “But the new plan has no scientific basis as it randomly allows construction activities in core, non-core and green areas.”

Panwar further said that in the new plan, there is no focus on decongesting crowded slopes or solving mobility issues for a city that often gets stuck in traffic jams, especially during high season. tourist season.

He pointed out that the plan does not talk about developing a new satellite township around Shimla to absorb future population growth and tourism pressure.

Environmentalist Yogendra Mohan Sengupta, at whose request the National Green Tribunal suspended implementation of the new plan last month, said Mongabay-India Unlike other hilly states in the Himalayan region, Shimla is prone to great risk due to the fact that the city is built on steep slopes. The valley area is very limited here.

Sengupta explained that the majority of the city is built on very unstable slopes greater than 60 degrees from the official permitted building limit of 45 degrees. “Several experts have recommended immediate decongestion of the city to mitigate disaster casualties,” Sengupta said. “But the new plan allows construction even in vulnerable areas.”

Alleging that the new plan is made to benefit the state’s real estate and hotel lobby, he said this plan must be immediately scrapped and a new exercise must begin to decongest the city. “Otherwise, one cannot imagine the scale of the disaster here,” Sengupta added. “The city is at the end of its tether and stands on the brink of disaster. Ecological sustainability is a final objective, the first is to reduce risk.

Green court stay

On May 12, 2022, the National Green Tribunal suspended the implementation of Shimla Development Plan 2041. However, this was not the first time the poor state of the city was on the radar.

In 2015, the court appointed a committee of experts to study the impact of the existing structures on the environment and ecology, the sewage system and the water supply of the city of Shimla. In 2017, the committee’s report noted that from a disaster risk management perspective, Shimla is well beyond its carrying capacity.

He said uncontrolled and unsafe construction over decades has created an extremely vulnerable built environment that will lead to unprecedented loss of life in natural disasters such as earthquakes and landslides.

The committee found that most buildings are constructed on slopes greater than 70 degrees and such constructions require enormous contour cutting which makes the terrain vulnerable to landslides.

The committee called for urgently decongesting Shimla, especially areas such as Sanjhauli, Dhali, Tutu and Lower Lakkar Bazar. He had called for the identification of all buildings, which were constructed without considering seismic sensitivity and bearing capacity, and their demolition, relocation and reconstruction within five to ten years.

The National Green Court banned all new construction of any kind in the central and green areas under the Shimla planning area in 2017. Photo credit: Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay

Previously, a study (April 2014-July 2015) by the Shimla Municipal Corporation found that 249 (83%) of the 300 buildings selected for the study were “structurally unsafe”. In 2016, another survey by the Shimla Municipal Corporation found that 65% of 2,795 buildings were vulnerable.

In November 2017, the National Green Tribunal banned all new construction – residential, institutional and commercial – in any part of the core area and green/forest area falling within the Shimla planning area.

The National Green Tribunal order had also said that construction beyond the central and green areas would also not be permitted beyond two floors plus the attic, except in the case of public utility buildings such as hospitals. and schools. The Core Area is basically the central part of Shimla City bounded by the Circular Cart Road starting from Victory Tunnel and ending at Victory Tunnel via Chhota Shimla and Sanjaui and the area bounded by Mall Road and vicinity.

However, the development plan which gained state cabinet approval in April 2022 negated all such concerns as it allowed for more floors to be built, construction in the core of the city and construction in green spaces. Environmentalists say the plan also allowed development in sink and landslide areas, which could lead to disasters.

At the first hearing on May 12, the National Green Tribunal suspended the plan observing that the new development plan for Shimla was in breach of its order of November 17, 2017. It prevented the Department of Town Planning and planning of Himachal Pradesh to take further steps under the development plan.

What does the state say

Shimla, the former capital of India under British rule, had one of the first municipalities in the country, dating back to 1851. Until India’s independence in 1947, the city was mainly guided by the laws British architectural structures with spatial planning limited to a government capital.

But after independence, the city which had a population of 24,000 in 1889 grew rapidly in every direction. While talking to Mongabay-India Regarding the National Green Tribunal order of May 2022, Suresh Bhardwaj who is the Urban Development Minister of Himachal Pradesh disagreed with the allegation that the plan was not good for the city. The plan was prepared by the state’s urban development department.

He said that apart from taking care of the needs of the city, the planning area of ​​Shimla has been extended to neighboring towns.

A building under construction in Shimla. After independence, Shimla developed rapidly in all directions. Photo credit: Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay

Bhardwaj said the plan was scientifically written as part of due process by hiring a consultant, who properly conducted a survey before writing it. Subsequently, consultations were held with various stakeholders.

Asked about the National Green Court’s order halting the development plan, Bhardwaj noted that it was not within the Green Court’s jurisdiction to dwell on the Planning Act, under which the plan has been prepared.

On the logic behind building permission in the notified green areas of the city, the Minister of Urban Development said that there were already massive constructions in the areas which were declared part of the green belt in the year 2000.

He said the new plan only allowed one-room houses to be built for residential purposes on a few vacant lots among the houses already built. “What was wrong with taking a rational position when houses were already being built there?” Bhardwaj questioned.

The Minister also justified the construction in the central areas. “Suppose few people with vacant land in the urban area cannot build their houses for some reason,” he asked. “Is it now justified to prevent them from building their two-and-a-half-storey houses?

Bhardwaj said the state government’s challenge to the National Green Tribunal’s earlier order in 2017 that banned construction in the center as well as green areas is already pending in the Supreme Court. “We will legally fight the last stay as well,” he said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.

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