The Supreme Court has allowed the lifting of the ban on construction on the 17 green belts of Shimla and the core area of the city imposed by the National Green Tribunal in connection with the Himachal Pradesh government's Shimla Development Plan 2041. The Supreme Court, in its order, has clearly addressed that under the Shimla Development Plan 2041, the Himachal Pradesh government would ensure balance between the growing needs of Shimla's population and the protection of the environment and ecology.
On November 16, 2017, the National Green Tribunal completely banned any construction in the 17 green belts of Shimla and the core area of the city and restricted construction to two and a half storeys in the entire planning area of Shimla. On April 16, 2022, the government of Himachal Pradesh approved a new plan to construct three-and-a-half-story buildings with parking facilities near roads in an area of 22,450 hectares under the Shimla Planning Area for development in the core area, green belts, and the rest of Shimla. , but the National Green Tribunal banned this plan too on May 12, 2022.
According to the National Green Tribunal, construction in environmentally sensitive areas increases the damage caused by natural calamities, which violates the principle of sustainable development and results in the loss of public interest. Therefore, the National Green Tribunal banned both the development plans of Shimla. The Supreme Court has now lifted both the bans imposed by the National Green Tribunal and allowed construction to take place.
The Shimla planning area is divided into core, non-core, green belt, and sinking areas on the basis of its topography, environment, and population-bearing capacity. The core area includes parts of Mall Road, Lakkar Bazar, Jakhu Hills, and Summerhill, starting from Victory Tunnel. According to a Supreme Court order, only two-and-a-half-story buildings with parking facilities close to a road are allowed in the core area. Only one-and-a-half-story buildings are allowed in the green belt area. A parking area can also be constructed if the plot is along the roads.
Demolition and reconstruction of old constructed buildings is allowed, but they can be constructed in the same area as the ones constructed earlier; there should be no new construction or increase in the constructed area. No tree-felling is allowed in the green belt area. According to the Forest Conservation Act, no construction is allowed in the forest area without the permission of the central government. In the rest of the planning area, permission has been given to construct three-and-a-half-story buildings. A parking area can also be constructed if the plot is located on a motorable road.
The Supreme Court has given permission to the Himachal Pradesh government to construct buildings in the core area. Only two-and-a-half-story buildings can be built in this area, but now a big problem may arise for the Himachal Pradesh government: what to do with the buildings that are already more than two-and-a-half-story buildings?
Some multi-storey hotels and residential buildings are also built in this core area. Will the rest of these hotels and residential buildings be demolished, keeping only two and a half floors? Apart from these, what will the government do about the buildings that are built near seasonal drains or in landslide zones with a slope of more than 45 degrees? Many buildings in Shimla do not meet environmental norms, which may pose problems for the government of Himachal Pradesh regarding the implementation of the Shimla Development Plan Vision 2041.
The development of any state lags behind due to the non-approval of development works. Although the Supreme Court has given a commendable decision by removing the restrictions imposed by the National Green Tribunal on the implementation of the Shimla Development Plan Vision 2041, time will tell how the Himachal Pradesh government develops Shimla now.
Himachal Pradesh is a hilly, earthquake-prone, forested, and snowy state. Here, it is necessary to take the opinion of geologists, environmental experts, and local people before any kind of development. Development works in hilly areas require cutting forests and breaking mountains. By breaking the mountains or overcutting them, their balance is disturbed, and they begin to slide down.
The land begins to erode due to the absence of forests. Any kind of construction in places prone to erosion, landslides and sinking zones can be dangerous. In the months of July and August 2023, landslides in Summerhill and Krishna Nagar in the core area of Shimla caused massive destruction. According to a report by the Geological Survey of India, Himachal Pradesh has 17,120 places where landslides can occur, and 1,357 of them are in Shimla alone.
According to the National Green Tribunal, buildings should not be constructed on slopes of more than 45 degrees in hilly areas, but at present, in some areas of Shimla, buildings are constructed on slopes of 70 to 75 degrees.
The Himachal Pradesh government is developing the city of Shimla to attract more tourists. Tourists come to Shimla for its natural beauty and cool temperature. Why will the tourists come to Shimla if the green tall trees here are cut down and converted into a concrete jungle, and the temperature here which is already rising rapidly due to the development activities of the state government?
The population of Shimla in 2011 was 1,69,578, which is estimated to be 2,32,000 in 2023. According to the Shimla Development Plan 2041, it is estimated to be 6.52 lakh by 2041. Therefore, the Himachal Pradesh government has prepared this development plan keeping in mind the growth in the population of Shimla in the near future and fulfilling its needs. The city of Shimla was established by the British as the summer capital of India in 1864 during British rule. The city could only support 16,000 people, but now its population has grown 14.5 times the population for which the city was established.
The government of Himachal Pradesh has to consider that the natural resources of Shimla and the mountains here will be able to bear the weight of such a large population in the coming time. The devastation caused by heavy rains and landslides in 2023 has clearly shown that Shimla cannot bear the burden of a larger population. If heavy rainfall can cause so much destruction, the Himachal Pradesh government also has to keep in mind that Shimla falls in a seismic zone. What will happen to Shimla in the event of an earthquake?
If the Himachal Pradesh government wants to really develop Shimla, instead of more construction and the development of counter magnets and satellite towns, it should provide facilities to the traditional villages here and help keep them beautiful and clean. Instead of converting the green belts into concrete jungles, connect them with the ridge, mall road, etc. through footpaths. Make the roads and footpaths below the mall road and the ridge passable.
In accordance with the opinions of geologists and environmental experts, the development of hilly areas should be in accordance with the topography of the mountains and the ground conditions. The development plan of Shimla city is also modeled on the pattern of urban development taking place in the plains, which may be detrimental to the hilly areas. Himachal Pradesh should be developed on the lines of their own slogan, 'Har Ghar Kuchh Kehta Hai' (Every House Has a Story).
Dr Gurinder Kaur is a Former Professor of the Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala.