I have mixed feelings of nostalgia and provocation as I drive up the hills. Last time I travelled on the Shimla-Chandigarh freeway, the experience was appalling owing to the state of the supposed road widening that I had resolved I would not return to the hills until its completion. However, the trip became necessary after a period of three years due to the urgency of airing our house.
We left from Chandigarh at the break of dawn. What would take three hours now took a tortuous six, thanks to the mindless slicing of mountains, mounds of debris, men and machinery and the havoc of bumper-to-bumper traffic as tourists headed northwards in search of a respite from heat.
Being familiar with the road and the surrounding hills for over 50 years, and having experienced the joy of driving through green forests on the great road constructed by the British, where traffic jams were rare, I was livid to see the mountains cut down the middle. I had become so fond of the drive to school during my childhood every March that I remember how we would stop anywhere on the dustless road for a bite or a breather in the shade of the roxburghii pine trees. There was now no sign of the dense white or blue oaks. Cedar and spruce have departed; the arid face cut flat mercilessly, leaving a large section perilously exposed and thousands of trees callously felled. I wondered what became of the Himalayan wild goats that had lived here peacefully for a lifetime. The white-eared bulbul, blue magpies, woodpeckers, jays and the finch are also nowhere to be seen or heard.
In the days when advanced technology had not inundated us, we went mountain climbing, if only to observe different species which now have moved to the upper regions or vanished, like the house sparrow. I feel sorry for hill partridges which we as lads would gleefully spot. The pleasure of the drive has been replaced by the urge to hastily arrive at one’s destination, no matter how detrimental that might be for the environment.
The project of widening the roads is ill-conceived. Instead, retaining the old road with a little maintenance would have been a joy forever. Infrastructure development executed with rudimentary equipment, besides being technologically archaic, reveals the plight of labourers hammering away at massive rocks or carrying inordinate weights on their scrawny backs. Cutting into mountains involves the construction of tall embankments to prevent landslides. Indeed the experiment is a failure and antithetical to nature.
And then, there is the exponential rise in tourism and mushrooming of hotels playing havoc with the beautiful view, tonnes of trash left behind by travellers, acute water shortage, all furthering the decay of a world I cherished. The pure pleasure of the cool breeze under the fir trees will not return in my lifetime or successive generations. The mountains are spewing venom in the form of landslides. Till nature’s self-restoration ensues, they will ferociously remain inhospitable as well as unyielding.
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