The ongoing water-supply crisis in Shimla is the culmination of years of unregulated tourism and apathetic governance. It is also a sign of things to come: urban collapse, law and order situations, destruction of heritage and environmental disaster. Today, the genuine and permanent citizens of Shimla are literally under siege, their once idyllic and beloved town has been taken over by the tourist hordes from the plains. Shimla’s residents have no open spaces left to stroll in, no roads to walk on, no water to bathe in or even drink. They are forced to pay more for everything (transport, eatables, rentals, water tankers) because the tourists have pushed up the prices of everything. Schools are closed because of traffic chaos whenever a VVIP visits or when the scant water supply gets contaminated, which is quite often. The town is in grave danger of losing its unique identity and cultural heritage even while it has already lost large parts of its green cover.
The water crisis has brought everything to a boil and is symptomatic of the distorted planning, sheer apathy and bureaucratic negligence that the town has been subjected to for decades. It was not always so. When Shimla was established by the British 142 years ago in 1875, it was designed for a population of 16,000 residents; the water supply scheme from the Dhalli catchment area provided 4.5 million litres per day (mld), that is, almost 300 litres per capita per day. (Today the residents are not getting even 50 litres from all sources combined). As the town’s population increased, the British planners kept augmenting the supply: in 1914 and 1929 an additional 12 mld was added to the supply from the lift scheme at Gumma. This particular scheme is an engineering marvel for its time, lifting water 4,000 feet: I have had occasion to see the machinery myself, and was amazed to find that the original British pumps and pipelines are still functioning! Another 24 mld was added after Independence, mainly from the Ashwini Khad. On paper, therefore, Shimla has enough water to provide about 135 litres per head per day. Why then are the citizens not getting even 50 litres?
The answer is: bad planning, poor implementation and politics. Almost 40 per cent of the pumped water is lost or stolen in distribution, meaning that actual supply is barely 80 litres per capita. Instead of taking sincere (and harsh) steps to stem this bleeding, successive governments have been dreaming of hare-brained schemes to bring water from the Chandranahan lake near Rohru, 200 km away, or lifting water from the Kohl Dam, all at a huge expense which this debt-ridden state can ill afford. Second, distribution is skewed in favour of the so-called VIP areas and influential hotels, further reducing the availability for the common citizen. Third, the water availability at the source of the WSS has been steadily declining over the years but the government has failed to see the red flags. The decline is owing to a steady loss of green cover in the catchment areas. To take just one example: the catchment area of the Nauti Khad comprising a dozen villages is absolutely vital for the Gumma scheme and should have been protected by the government from rampant construction and road building activities. I have my house there in one of these villages. Alarmed by the spreading cancer of hotels, resorts, guest houses and apartment blocks coming up where orchards and groves of trees had once been, a detailed proposal had been submitted to the Town and Country Planning Department in 2004 to impose restrictions on construction activities in this area, to declare it as a farm house zone where the minimum size of a plot should be at least two bighas, 80 per cent of the plot would have to be left open, only two storeys would be permissible, rain-water harvesting would be mandatory. For the past almost 15 years, the government has done nothing, for reasons that are purely political: the restrictions would have led to a fall in land values and the voter could not be annoyed, could he? So today, the entire catchment area is being sold to developers and other Section 118 beneficiaries, construction is going on round the clock, my village (population 224) itself has more than 120 new hotel rooms (with more being added every month) and the price of land has gone up 70 times since I bought my plot in the year 2000! But the availability of water in Gumma has declined by 50 per cent, every hotel and even residence in the village has to order in water by tankers at Rs 8,000 for 12,000 litres. Even this water is being literally stolen from sources that rightfully belong to the local villagers, but the officers of the IPH Department cannot be bothered to stop the mafia.
It reportedly has more than 500 hotels, though the actual number would be two or three times this, given the number of unregistered guest houses, home stays and B+Bs that operate. They add another 25,000-30,000 tourists to the town’s population on any given day on an average who require at least 4.50 mld of water every day at the rate of 150 litres per head; on weekends this quantity would double to 9 mld. The city just does not have this water, even in a good year. In other words, or to put it simply, Shimla just cannot sustain the number of tourists it presently gets — these tourists impose a tremendous stress on all of Shimla’s natural and man-made assets, and the town can no longer afford to play host to these numbers. The government has to do something to curb these numbers for the problem will only grow with global warming and erratic weather patterns. This had been evident all along to everyone but the state government: all that the water crisis has done is to bring it in sharp focus and put it on the front burner. And it appears that the long-suffering citizens of Shimla have finally realised this, have had enough and have now decided to speak out.
For the past couple of days, Shimla residents have been tweeting and putting up Facebook posts asking would-be tourists to stay away, cancel their visits to the town, not impose a burden on their water supply and give the hills time to recover. This is a welcome step, even though it would probably leave the hoteliers an angry lot. But this kind of reaction is in conformity with a global trend over the past couple of years — a backlash against the negative impacts of mass tourism on cities and local communities. It has been estimated that the number of international tourists is 1.2 billion per annum, expected to reach 2 billion by 2025. This is in addition to five billion domestic tourists. These numbers and their deleterious effects on the environment, infrastructure, culture, resources and identity of the destinations visited are causing alarm all over the world. In many places in Europe, tourists are being branded as “tourism terrorists” and are being shown placards asking them to go back. More and more states are imposing regulations and restrictions on the number of tourists permitted to visit — in Costa Rica, Venezuela, Spain, Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Florence, Rio de Janeiro, Thailand, even little but environmentally conscious Bhutan. The famous Galapagos Islands have imposed a quota of 100,000 visitors per annum and Dubrovnic in Croatia has followed suit with a cap of 4,000 tourists per day. Limits are being put on the number of cruise ships which can dock at various ports in Europe. The most drastic action, however, has been taken by the inimitable President Duerte of the Phillipines: he has shut down the country’s most famous island resort of Boracayisland on the 26th of this year, terming it a “cesspool” that needs to be cleaned up before tourism can be permitted there again. Boracay had a thriving but unregulated and irresponsible (not unlike Shimla) tourism industry — it attracted 2 million visitors and generated US $ 2 billion income for the country every year. But it was an environmental and cultural disaster which the President could no longer tolerate.
It would be foolish to assume that either Duerte or the countries taking action to regulate the number of tourists are unaware of the benefits of tourism: the industry contributes 9.5 per cent of the global GDP and is the largest single employer, providing one out of 11 jobs worldwide. But they have realised that the negative impacts of unregulated numbers would, even in the short run, completely destroy the very places that attracted them in the first place and degrade the quality of life of its citizens. And, driven by the force of public pressure and opinion, they have had the foresight and political courage to initiate affirmative and remedial action before the point of no return is reached. Shimla has reached this point and some of its tweeting citizens appear to have realised this. The question, however, is: has its clueless government attained a similar wisdom? Does it have the will to emulate some of the examples given above? Will it act now or will it be satisfied with requisitioning water tankers from Solan and Bilaspur? Will it stop construction/registration of more hotels, protect all the green and catchment areas of the town, regulate the number of tourists and vehicles entering the town? Or will it just bury its head in the sand and pretend that all will be well? As Bob Dylan sang:
“How many years can a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just cannot see?”
It’s time for Shimla-ites to begin asking these questions of their rulers. Only the pressure of public opinion can save Shimla.
(The writer is a former Additional Chief Secretary to Himachal govt)
The most drastic action has been taken by the inimitable President Duerte of the Phillipines: he has shut down the country’s most famous island resort of Boracayisland on the 26th of this year, terming it a “cesspool” that needs to be cleaned up before tourism can be permitted there again.
The water-supply crisis in Shimla is also a sign of things to come: urban collapse, law and order situations, destruction of heritage and environmental disaster.
Shimla has enough water to provide about 135 litres per head per day. Why then are the citizens not getting even 50 litres?
- The answer is: bad planning, poor implementation and politics.
- Almost 40 per cent of the pumped water is lost or stolen in distribution, meaning that the actual supply is barely 80 litres per capita.
- Instead of taking sincere (and harsh) steps to stem this bleeding, successive governments have been dreaming of hare-brained schemes to bring water from the Chandranahan lake near Rohru, 200 km away, or lifting water from the Kohl Dam, all at huge expense which this debt-ridden state can ill afford.
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