Dalhousie in distress

The scenic beauty of Dalhousie is being marred by haphazard growth, congestion
and littering by tourists, writes Sanjeev Singh Bariana

THE sight of the piling vehicles and the sound of repulsive honking in Gandhi Chowk during a recent visit to Dalhousie, more than two decades after I passed out of Dalhousie Public School, was unsettling.

A view of Dalhousie

Heavy rush, particularly over the weekends, hits the eye on entering the town from the bus stand
Heavy rush, particularly over the weekends, hits the eye on entering the town from the bus stand; and (top) a view of Dalhousie Photos: Satish Kumar

During the visit, the changed scenario of the serene settings, etched by the British in 1854, having been disfigured beyond recognition, set off a debate among friends, mostly old classmates, who had come on a reunion trip.

As is usual, "the government having turned a blind eye in cleaning the place" was the first reaction in the group. "Any further delay in government intervention to save an ageing beauty will have the town following in the footsteps of many other hill stations, including Shimla, Kulu-Manali and Dharamsala, to name a few, who have lost their pristine beauty," said Satish Mahajan, a leading businessman based near Jammu.

The cops’ counter right in middle of the chowk did not seem to have any meaning because the traffic there was jammed all day long. The evenings were more crowded. Randhir Singh Andohtra, a regular visitor, said, "The public here has slowly, but definitely, accepted traffic jams as a part of their daily lives. Not just the chowks, the traffic queues extend well beyond the crowded bazaars."

Heavy rush, particularly over the weekends, is the biggest striking feature on the roads as one enters the town from the bus stand. Scores of cars, from the neighbouring districts of Gurdaspur and Amritsar in Punjab and from the Jammu region, can be seen edging their way to get a hotel accommodation, which is an arduous task during summers.

`A0The town now has over 160 guesthouses and hotels. The catch is that a sizeable number of residential quarters are transformed into tourist complexes during the season. The booming business has led to illegal construction. The town has over 140 cases of illegal construction, out of which 22 have been referred to the Himachal Pradesh High Court.

The heritage property of Sadar Bazaar, a key location for the famous Bollywood flick, 1942- A Love story, too, has lost its original glory. The jumbled buildings reaching for the sky at places have dismantled the original glory. The scenic settings of the walk from Sacred Heart to the bottom of the bazaar are now replete with permanent encroachments and temporary shops.

Course for change

Manoj Chadha, the president of the Municipal Council, says, “We are coming up with two new parking lots. One, with a parking capacity of 150 vehicles, is coming up near the GPO and another will have a parking facility for 200 vehicles. These two parking lots will be sufficient to handle the additional rush.”

The council has initiated the process for door-to-door garbage collection under a programme of the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNURRM). A clearance is expected from the Forest Department for the safe disposal of the waste.

Chadha says much of the controversial construction has been carried out in private quarters. The issue is being looked into because there are certain lacunae in checking construction due to an overlapping in the jobs of the council and the Town and Country Planning Department.

The track from the GPO to Subhash Chowk was always a walker’s paradise. Rakeshwar Katoch, on a summer sojourn with his family, said, "One of the most unpleasant sights, now, is the road being used as an open urinal. The repugnant odour leaves much to be desired on the part of the authorities."

The markets are overcrowded. As Col Nirmaljit Singh (retd) says, "The view of the Dhauladhar range, even from the markets, was awe-inspiring. The new construction has blocked all the views. The corner seats in the markets for a pleasant evening have been blocked by the rush. The cops are at their wits’ end in managing the traffic."

Asha Kumari, state general secretary of the Congress, candidly, says: "The floating population, increased number of hotels and illegal constructions are the bane of the enviable township. I don’t think the municipal authorities should wash their hands off their primary responsibility. The matter is not as bad as many other hill stations in the country. A stitch in time will save nine."

She adds, "I fail to understand why the authorities are unable to implement traffic restrictions on certain roads. Even the lesser used thandi and garam sadak are flowing with traffic. Leave aside the small cars, heavy trucks carrying building material move even during the normal working hours."

The former minister says, "The municipal body cannot shirk its responsibility of clearing the municipal waste lying unattended in different quarters of the town. The administration needs to take a hard decision and set an example through strict implementation."

Air Cdre (retd) A.K. Mahajan, a third-generation inhabitant of the town, is bugged about the haphazard growth in the town. "The original plan neatly laid down that all construction, except in the marketplace, was to be below the level of the roads. This was to keep intact the view of the mountains, all around. The heart of the town now is disfigured beyond recognition.

Aruti Nayar

BEFORE a visit to Dalhousie, after a span of more than 30 years, I had come across an interesting article on the Net with the headline "Ambarsarian da Switzerland," since numerous tourists from the Amritsar, Jalandhar and Gurdaspur region throng Dalhousie almost the year round. Far from living up to the epithet, one discovered that the town, despite its idyllic beauty, was in desperate need of attention.

Municipal waste lies unattended in different parts of Dalhousie town
Municipal waste lies unattended in different parts of Dalhousie town

What can be done 

Dalhousie is known as a walkers' paradise. The upper Bakrota region can be developed as a Heritage walk

Similarly, the lovers' lane from the bus stand to Kathlog can be another walk

The many trekking routes here can be developed and used to attract adventure tourists

An efficient garbage disposal system should be evolved by the MC, along with a plan to monitor traffic

Foreign tourists as well as high-end tourists will only come if there is air connectivity

No wonder, one is skeptical when the octogenarian (a retired bureaucrat) who had roamed the world before dropping anchor in his hometown, declares, "It is Dalhousie that deserves to be the Queen of Hills and not Shimla." Where else will you find such fresh air, idyllic walks and pristine air, he emphasised.

The heaps of garbage, cavalcade of vehicles spewing smoke and roads choked with traffic jams tell another story. While all the residents love the place, the tourists (mostly weeksend tourists) ruthlessly dirty it after enjoying a leisurely getaway.

The floating population brings in the moolah, but makes the place unlivable for the permanent residents. Besides the tourists who bring in the bucks and fuel the demand for goods and services, the entire economy of the town depends on the residential schools located there, some of them housing children of NRIs.

Talking to various people across the board revealed an underlying sense of not being counted. Picturesque it might be, but the hill town is not strategic or important enough to have political clout. Since the Chamba-Kangra region is a single parliamentary constituency, the 3,500 voters of this town are resigned to be, as it were, backbenchers as far as influencing decision-making goes and even their representatives are not proactive enough to leverage development to the area’s advantage.

Mercifully, Dalhousie’s green cover, thanks to laws that prevent the Forest Department from felling trees to even widen roads, remains intact, which is a blessing seeing the way the other hill stations such as Shimla and Dharamsala have gone.

It is this green cover and rejuvenating air that make it an ideal place for patients of tuberculosis to recuperate. Martyr Bhagat Singh’s uncle Ajit Singh and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, among others, came here to recover from ill-health and consumption. Rather than enhance or even maintain its idyllic landscape, the civic authorities appear apathetic to even addressing simple things as garbage disposal and sweeping of the marketplace.

When it comes to Khajjiar, the same old story is repeated. The lake has shrunk and the glen is littered with plastic and tetra-packs. Yet again, we appear to be doing our utmost to ruin what Nature has benevolently bestowed on us.

There is no infrastructure for the high-end tourist in terms of air connectivity and hotels. Even for the die-hard middle class tourists, there is neither the concept of homestead tourism in which they can be housed in comfortable local accommodation or hostels or dorms for the young backpackers, who can with basic comforts trek or camp. There seems to be no effort to attract more tourists in a planned manner.

Is it not time that we shed our obsession with Shimla and thought of consciously developing other hill stations of Himachal that continue to languish due to a lack of attention and money. While there are many agencies ready to bail out Shimla and focus on the environmental degradation there, places like Dalhousie continue to suffer neglect.

One wonders while seeing heaps of disposable plastic plates and glasses, empty packets of chips, discarded tetra-packs, how much would it cost to put in place a system of garbage collection and disposal or recycling garbage. Someone who matters should give it a thought. It is as if every visitor adds to the woes of the ‘damsel in distress’ and there is no knight in shining armour to rescue her.

One wonders who will play the knight to Dalhousie. Will the ‘Ambarsaris’ rescue their Switzerland, or will the locals stand up for their wannabe queen of hills. More significantly, will the politicians, both at the local and state level, finally wake up to this call of saving Dalhousie from near-death?