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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: May 13, 2018, 12:06 AM; last updated: May 13, 2018, 1:39 AM (IST)

Why an officer had to die for a hill town

Pratibha Chauhan in Shimla & Ambika Sharma in Kasauli
Over-dependence on tourism in Himachal has upped the stakes for hoteliers. That’s why despite numerous court orders and NGT objections, illegal constructions are rampant. Shail Bala Sharma’s daylight murder brings to light a deeper rot, where govts have failed to act, and in a manner, encouraged violators
Pratibha Chauhan in Shimla & Ambika Sharma in Kasauli

THE death of Kasauli’s assistant town planner Shail Bala Sharma (51, pictured right) would appear episodic in a broader narrative of a mystifying, gargantuan growth of towns in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. The vengeful, almost lunacy-driven daylight shooting from a licensed weapon allegedly by Vijay Singh, the owner of Narayani Guest House in Kasauli, resulted in Sharma’s death. She is, tragically, the first officer in the state to die while enforcing demolition of illegal portions in 13 hotels, a drive ordered by the Supreme Court. 

The trigger for the May 1 crime was an argument between the officer and Vijay about extra constructions in the six-storey guest house: three overground and the rest in the basement. Around 2:30 pm, three bullets rang out allegedly from Vijay’s .32 bore revolver hitting the officer almost point-blank and a labourer. The police would later say Vijay carried only three bullets. Over-a-dozen policemen, plus two armed quick reaction team sleuths, were too surprised to act. Vijay was arrested two days later from Mathura (UP). 

The apex court on April 17 directed the state government to demolish unauthorized constructions in 13 hotels in the Kasauli Planning Area (KPA). The district administration formed four teams comprising 10 officials and posted policemen to ensure compliance. 

Kasauli’s pain

The Town & Country Planning (TCP) Department has issued only notices. The May 1 incident is the only recallable instance of authorities trying to enforce the law. The hotel industry has been making inroads into the KPA for the last 18 years. The area has seen unregulated growth of hotels and resorts. The illegal constructions are rampant -- whether it is three-plus storeys, heights of buildings below the road level or about leaving spaces, hoteliers have managed to have their way. All the 13 hotels in Kasauli violated the approved building plans.

Tourism is the mainstay of the area where over 70 hotels under the KPA pay a luxury tax of about Rs 2.60 crore annually. Last year, a National Green Tribunal (NGT) committee assessed the clearances given to various tourism units while hearing a petition filed by an NGO, SPOKE, on an upcoming HP Tourism Development Hotel. The NGT passed orders to demolish the unauthorized structures after detecting various violations. The affected hoteliers challenged the decision in the apex court, which upheld the NGT orders thus paving the way for demolition.

An expert committee set up by the NGT studied the carrying capacity of the KPA comprising 1911.39 hectares. It suggested that the government should not extend its retention policy (in effect, green-signaling unauthorized constructions), nor should it relax norms. The state must also factor in area’s seismicity while clearing building designs, and restrict construction at 35-degree slopes, said the NGT panel. 

Circumventing courts

Across the state, unofficially, there are over 25,000 unauthorized buildings. And despite repeated admonitions by courts, including the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the authorities have invented newer ways to circumvent the orders. Result: the urban mess has only worsened in most tourist towns such as Shimla, Dharamsala-Mcleodganj, Kasauli and Kullu-Manali. The government has brought about six retention policies one after the other. And finally, it amended the Town and Country Planning Act, 1977, in a move seen as placating the violators. “The government approach is convoluted. Does this not amount to penalizing the law-abiding citizens?” asks a Shimla resident living in the city for 70 years.

Shimla’s green belts

Various court orders and suggestions made therein about regulating constructions do not seem impractical. Rather than acting upon them, the government of the day chose to find legal escape. “We the owners of plots in green belts in Shimla, had bought land before the ban was imposed. Now we have been barred from construction. But there are many who have violated the law with brazenly and are being accommodated,” says RL Jain, president of the Green Plot Owners Association which is seeking relaxation in rules to build small need-based houses in the green belts of Shimla. 

The 17 green belts within the Shimla municipal area are spread over 414 hectares and were notified on Dec 7, 2000. These are no-construction zones. The proposal to enhance the number of such belts from 17 to over 100, proposed in the Draft Development Plan (DDP) in 2014, is gathering dust. The government, in fact, has been very keen to relax the ban to benefit those having real estate interest. The value of property is very high in these areas. 

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of Shimla for the 17 green belts was taken up in January 2014. The report mentions that the spurt in construction has gobbled up vast stretches of lush greenbelts in and around the capital town. The concrete jungle has now spread beyond the peripheral areas. The report stressed that there should be no more constructions in Shimla. The EIA had taken a close look at seismic, hazard risk and soil analyses and tested the air and water quality. 

Shimla is growing on the basis of the 1979 Interim Development Plan (IDP). Since then it has not had a well laid-out construction map, which shows the lack of seriousness of the successive governments towards urban planning.


Family suspects plot

Kasauli: Jagdish Chander Sharma, Shail Bala’s father, says senior officers failed to protect her daughter. “She was a brave officer who did her work honestly while enforcing the Supreme Court order. The government should ensure that no one else meets such an end,” he said. Shail Bala’s husband, Dr Ved Prakash Sharma, says it was a planned murder, and that soon after the firing, the policemen had fled the spot. He says the accused had managed to hide for several hours. “Though she wanted to proceed on medical leave as she was not keeping well, it was her zeal for work that she joined the demolition drive.” He has demand capital punishment for the accused. Their son Dr Piyush Sharma said had the administration and the police acted responsibly, his mother would have been alive. He questioned why she was allowed to lead the demolition drive when she held only a temporary charge of the area. — Ambika Sharma


Order... order

  • Nov 16, 2017: To prevent degradation of Queen of Hills, the NGT completely bans new construction activity in the green, forest and core area of Shimla. It forms an expert panel
  • May 30, 2014: In its order, running into 165 pages, the NGT gives 29 directives
  • NGT fixes Rs 5 lakh penalty in case of damage to trees, forest and hills, Rs 5,000 per sq ft for regularizing self-occupied units and Rs 10,000 per sq ft as a compounding fee for commercial units built with permission but with deviations
  • Dec 22, 2017: HC strikes down the Town & Country Planning (TCP) Regularisation Amendment Act, 2016 (green-signaling unauthorized structures, both commercial and residential)

The disorder

  • Aug 27, 2016: The Himachal assembly passes an amendment Bill as a one-time settlement policy to give relief to over 25,000 owners of structures raised in violation of building laws and bylaws
  • Jan 24, 2017: The Governor gave assent to the Bill to pave the way for regularization of the constructions. The govt received 8,782 online applications for regularizing the structures
  • Sept 6, 2014: After an ordinance is passed, many house owners raise extra floors hoping that these would be regularized. The Govt later withdraws the ordinance and decides to amend TCP Act

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