From Simla to Shimla

The hills of Shimla have been transformed into a concrete jungle. Several
landmark buildings have been consumed by fires, while the faces of others
have been altered beyond recognition, writes Rakesh Lohumi

Due to massive urbanisation, the green belts of the town have disappeared
Due to massive urbanisation, the green belts of the town have
disappeared Tribune
Photo: Amit Kanwar

Acclaimed as the most British of Indian towns, Shimla has over the years lost much of its imperial grandeur and scenic splendour. The transition from Simla to Shimla, as it is spelled now, has come at a heavy price. While the British regime saw a non–descript hamlet "Sheyamlah" grow into an elite township with distinct colonial features and acquire the exalted status of the country’s summer capital, the post -Independence era has been a sorry tale of its decay into an urban slum.

The process of degeneration, which started after it became the capital of the hill state four decades ago, has only hastened in recent years. The verdant hill-scape, once dotted with a few red-roofed structures, has been transformed into a veritable concrete jungle. The green belts in the main town have already been reduced to continuous patches of grey, and the concrete clusters are now spilling over to the peripheral areas, devouring more and more of the fast-depleting tree cover. A number of landmark buildings, which stood out as fine specimens of the colonial architecture, have been consumed by fires, while the faces of some others have been altered beyond recognition. Even the posh Mall that once rivalled the fashionable streets of London has not escaped architectural vandalism.

The established norm of uniform double-storey buildings is no longer in vogue. The colonial architecture has gradually given way to modern, concrete structures. Some old buildings have been saddled with additional storeys and the big department stores, a typical British legacy, have been fragmented into smaller shops. Of late most of these outlets have been hired at exorbitant rents and converted into showrooms by international chains, mostly dealing in readymade garments and shoes.

The cottage culture of the colonial era has been another casualty. ‘Swiss Chalet’ bungalows, the most common in Shimla along with corrugated tin roofs and Tudor Gothic architectural styles, have become a thing of the past. Most of the elegant bungalows have been demolished to pave the way for modern multi-storey buildings, and those surviving the onslaught have been lost in the maze of concrete monsters that have come up on the spacious lawns and open spaces around the old structures.

The failure of the authorities to regulate construction activity has not only led to haphazard growth of the town but also created chronic problems of traffic jams, parking, water shortage and garbage disposal, particularly during the tourist season. There is no respite from traffic snarls during peak hours even after shifting of the main bus stand to Tuti Kandi. The unbridled forces of urbanisation have played havoc with the tree cover n the peripheral localities as hundreds of structures have been allowed to come up in violation of the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act. Instead of taking stern action, successive governments came up with retention policies to regularise the unauthorised constructions raised by politically influential landlords.

The development plan for the Shimla Planning Area, which came into force in March 1979, has been amended repeatedly to help condone deviations, increase the number of permissible storeys and allow construction in banned areas and green belts.

The situation has only worsened over the past five years as the government has opened the floodgates for outsiders, making a mockery of Section 118 of the State Land Reforms and Tenancy Act, which debars non-agriculturists from acquiring land in the state without prior permission. It has even allowed builders to raise apartments in thickly forested areas. In the emerging scenario, outsiders are building flats for outsiders and the local people are facing the music as the already inadequate civic infrastructure is coming under further strain. It is high time that the greedy politicians realise that hills are not meant for promoting real estate business; they should find some other ways to oblige land sharks.

Wanton deforestation, indiscriminate and excessive constructions have already taken a heavy toll of the ecologically fragile hill environment, and its impact is now becoming discernible in the changing weather pattern. The ambient temperature is rising and snow is becoming increasingly scarce and erratic. In fact, the hills which remained draped in white blanket for weeks together until the early 1990s are frequently experiencing snow-less winters, and nowadays even nearby places like Kufri, which hosted winter games as late as the 1980s, do not get much snow. The ice-skating season has shrunk drastically and only around 60 to 70 sessions are possible as against 120 to 150 sessions four decades ago.

The denudation of hills is also hampering the natural phenomena of recharging of water sources as more and more area is being made impervious by raising constructions, leaving no scope for rain and snow to melt to percolate down to the drying aquifers. A large number of natural springs have dried up.

While the British built a number of snow-harvesting structures on the mount Jakhu, the highest peak of the city, the temple committee, which is headed by the Deputy Commissioner, has not only raised some concrete structures but also paved most of the area with stones, irrespective of its consequences for vegetation.