Saturday, August 11, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Hazards on the highway

High-rise structures coming up on the Kalka-Shimla highway pose a grave threat to road safety and ecology, says Ambika Sharma

Scores of high-rise buildings dot the Kalka- Shimla Highway  ---- Photo by Pankaj SharmaEVEN as a plethora of high-rise buildings are beginning to dot the Kalka-Shimla National Highway Number 22, precious little has been done to strike a balance between environment and development.

These high-rise apartments have become a favourite with property buyers from the plains where it has become fashionable to possess a summer house in the hills. This trend began during the late 1980s when terrorism disrupted peace in Punjab. These apartments have, however, flagrantly violated safety laws. Indiscriminate and unscientific chipping of mountains, loose soil lying amassed on the highway and landslides during monsoons, bear testimony to the ecological disturbance thus caused.


Town and Country Planning (TCP) officials stated that after the earthquake at Bhuj, amendments were made to the existing bylaws to make them more environment friendly. While for government buildings, soil testing to ascertain the suitability of a site for construction is undertaken by the geological wing of the industries department, private builders rarely go in for such tests. Former state geologist Agnihotri said a stretch of the Kalka-Shimla highway comprised shales of sandstone and clay. While sandstone can sustain construction, clay is not considered fit for construction. No private study has ever been conducted to ascertain the soil type in this region and private builders have never contacted the geological department for getting the soil type checked, he added.

Every monsoon a large number of high-rise structures collapse because of improper construction. This year, too, a building collapsed in Solan. An inquiry conducted into this collapse by the Additional Deputy Commissioner, S.C. Kalsotra, stressed that no structural engineer was involved in the construction of the building and it was constructed on an area where debris had been dumped. The structure lacked the requisite deep foundations and therefore collapsed even before its completion. The inquiry has made the role of a structural engineer mandatory in all future constructions. Instead of four storeys only two will henceforth be allowed, apart from an additional storey to be used as a parking space. A basement, once built, will be considered a storey, according to the amended TCP laws. While the TCP department states that no building exceeding three storeys is being constructed, quite a few high-rise structures are under construction at Barog itself.

Scores of high-rise buildings dot the Kalka- Shimla Highway ---- Photo by Pankaj SharmaCommercial projects on the National Highway in the Dharampur-Barog area start construction by chipping hill slopes and eating into the green cover. A slope of more of 45 degrees when cut becomes prone to slides. Engineers opine that when a hill slope is smoothened for construction slides tend to occur till the hill regains its original angle.

Besides this, a number of bylaws have been ignored. Builders are required to leave a distance of 7.5 metres from the acquired width of the road but quite a few builders have flouted this norm and also stack debris and other material on the sides of the roads, thereby reducing their width considerably. An NH PWD official, who did not want to be named, when quizzed about this violation expressed his ignorance over the matter and tried to draw a veil over the whole issue by refusing further comment. The recently amended laws have empowered the PWD to take punitive action against those obstructing roads by stacking material or by encroaching upon roads, stated the Deputy Commissioner, K. Sanjay Murthy.

The government constituted the Special Area Development Authority (SADA) last year to streamline constructions. The committee formed under the chairmanship of the Deputy Commissioner reviews constructions along the highways. Prior permission is required to initiate any venture and ‘no objection’ certificates have to be obtained from the power and water departments. The ventures are required to make their own water arrangements at the time of construction and the requirement is pre-assessed, stated the Deputy Commissioner. The case is also presented to the tourism department. While power poses no major problem for commercial ventures, water is too scarce to meet the growing requirements. According to an IPH executive engineer, B.S. Bhatia, underground water sources are being tapped by boring tubewells. This has led to the water table going down by a couple of feet each year.

Despite there being no power shortage, a big hotel in Barog indulged in power theft which was uncovered by a flying squad from Shimla. Sources revealed that there was a fault in the meter and the theft running into lakhs earned a penalty of only a few thousands. This speaks volumes about the connivance of the employees of the department with the hotelier. This might not be an isolated case, point out some officials on condition of anonymity.

To check violations of the laws extensive mapping of the area is being undertaken and a blueprint of the area is being prepared. This will ascertain the actual position of the buildings, stated the Deputy Commissioner.

Sustainable development in mountains depends on the conservation and protection of the fragile eco-system. This includes protection of forest, bio-diversity, water resources and prevention of soil erosion and natural hazards. In order to ensure preservation of an area, constructions have to be controlled. A majority of the builders are from the plains and as such their ideas are in conflict with the principles of hill architecture. This is manifested not only in the appearance of the structures but also in the use of such materials as reinforced concrete. The intricacies of hill architecture should not be overlooked.

Engineers opine that the Kalka-Shimla highway is the best aligned road and any change in its alignment as a result of indiscriminate construction will prove detrimental for it.

Towering buildings

ACCORDING to a report submitted at the last Vidhan Sabha session of Himachal Pradesh, as many as nine major encroachments were detected on the Kalka-Shimla highway between Kandaghat and Parwanoo. The Chief Minister had issued strict instructions to the departments concerned to initiate punitive action against the offenders to check further damage to the highway. Despite this, little seems to have been done by the departments to regulate highway constructions.

At least four major constructions are underway in the Barog area itself. The lead seems to have been taken by Hotel Barog Heights which has been in the centre of controversy ever since its construction began. First it was illicit mining and then power theft and now it is the multistorey constructions. When The Tribune team visited the place, brisk construction activity was going on for completing a multistorey building. A few high-rise apartments of the same hotel had been completed apparently after the enactment of the SADA regulations almost a year back. Three other major projects in the same stretch also took off by indiscriminately chipping of the steep hill slope, having an angle of 80 degrees. The situation in the Kasauli Development Area is no better. Multi-storey constructions are a common sight. A big hotel, whose construction was stalled last year for flouting rules, has resumed construction because it is now being termed a housing complex and not a hotel. Interestingly, while construction beyond three storeys is not allowed for a commercial project, the same is allowed for a housing complex. Many buildings have been erected beyond the road level which again is a violation of the rules of the TCP Department.