Saturday, June 1, 2002

The call of Kasauli
Baljit Malik

BELIEVE it or not, with each passing year, Kasauli is becoming less sought after as a pristine hill station. This year in May its blue skies, too, have disappeared. No longer does its air act as a filter against asthma and other chronic diseases of the upper respiratory tract. Hot, polluted air, laden with hydrocarbons and greenhouse gases, is rising from the plains. What is more, Himachal government, the forest department and the cantonment authorities here are cutting trees for revenue (for private and official pockets) with calculated and meticulous efficiency.

It appears in this cantonment, as far as routine duty and efficiency are concerned, honour and morale have been on long leave for many years. In January this year the Kasauli Club was reduced to ashes. Even though the Club, a civilian institution, is administered by a full-time, serving Colonel attached to the brigade headquarters, there were no fire prevention or fire-fighting measures in place. Such rank apathy is unbelievable even though a huge water reservoir belonging to the military authorities is located on top of the Club premises.


The latest on the Club is how it is operating its bar, partly with CSD liquor without a bar license. In true combat style, the watering-hole is now operating from bunkers in a verandah of the Club’s residential arcade and annexe and a suite called Honeymoon Cottage!

The IAF commander stationed here deserves a word of congratulations. He has, succeeded in judicially bombing out a project that came straight out of Delhi’s ‘page three social set’. This is the story of a relative of a retired Prime Minister, a socialite columnist and a retired colonel. Between them, they chose to come up with a typical environmentally unsound benami-style commercial housing project. Situated perilously close to the IAF Station, the project would have strained the cantonment’s infrastructure, besides being a security hazard for the IAF installations. The Himachal government gave the project a green signal and refused to heed objections from the IAF. Ultimately, the High Court put the brakes on the project, but not before the project manager (a retired colonel) had tried to grease the commander’s plams and threatened to break the legs of an environmental activist. Now the ‘page three characters’ of this story are mourning their failure, thanks to an upright Group Captain of the IAF and a responsive judiciary.

Quietly, Kasauli is dying. Not because of natural reasons but because its delicate ecology and sensitive landscaping and architecture are being brutalised by neglect and aggressive, ugly interventions. A small example should suffice. This hill station’s old retaining walls and embankments have been built in the past with stone, without any cement or concrete. Now, whenever repairs are done, the old walls with the greenery around them are simply demolished and ugly concrete is splashed around. The contractor-officer nexus makes a little money. This happens at the expense of Kasauli’s old-world charm and dignity.

This year, Kasauli shall have to do without the presence of B.K. Nehru, who passed away at 92 last year. As president of the Society for the Preservation of Kasauli and its Environs (SPOKE), B.K. Nehru had become a leading crusader of efforts to keep Kasauli as ecologically protected as possible. He badgered the state government, the Army and cantonment authorities to do their duty and enforce the law. That he was only partly successful was a telling comment on the quality of the establishment that is governing this hill station, this state and this nation.

Finally, one vivid memory of the man. A few years ago I drove him and Sampuran Prashar (Secretary of SPOKE) from Shimla to Kasauli in my old green Fiat. We were returning armed with a High Court order to save Kasauli from the clutches of the contractor-bureaucrat-politician mafia. I switched on a cassette of an old film CID. As we negotiated the bends along the crumbling hills, we listened in silence to the catchy tune and lyrics of Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan, Yeh dil mushkil jeena yahaan ... zara hatke zara bachke yeh hai bombai meri jaan! kaheen motor, kaheen building, kaheen satta kahin hotel ... milta yahaan sub kuch ek miltaa nahin dil".

B.K. Nehru had plenty of heart and soul, and he loved Kasauli. Now the chestnuts are in full bloom along the Mall and in green clumps in the hills — even as we await the fires of summer and the holidaying sahibs and memsahibs from down below.