THE manner in which the gross violation of building norms and court orders have taken place in Himachal Pradesh’s capital city, with successive regimes bending over backwards to accommodate the violators, a disaster of the kind experienced this monsoon was waiting to happen.
There is no denying that Shimla and the rest of the state witnessed unprecedented rainfail this year, but what is baffling is that most roads, buildings and tunnels made by the British a century ago survived, but the more recent constructions simply crumbled. Several norms have been laid down in the Town and Country Planning (TCP) Act, 1977, and the Municipal Corporation Act to regulate construction activity, but there’s been a near absence of monitoring and implementation. Most parts of Himachal fall in Seismic Zone IV and V. In such a situation, a strong earthquake can wreak havoc.
The state government has notified the Shimla Development Plan (SDP), which proposes to throw open 17 no-construction green belts for need-based construction activity despite a blanket ban since December 2000. The Supreme Court has put on hold the SDP till all objections are addressed. The SDP also allows new constructions in the congested and thickly-populated core areas, which the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had prohibited.
The NGT had on November 16, 2017, also proposed that all constructions in the Shimla Planning Area be restricted to two-and-a-half floors. Even though Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has assured stringent implementation of building norms while ensuring adherence to drainage and quality parameters, the decision to allow construction in green and core areas is only an antithesis of this stand. There has been a resounding encore to reconsider the move.
Successive governments have notified seven retention policies to facilitate regularisation of unauthorised structures between 1997 and 2006. This, needless to say, only emboldened people to violate the norms. Incidentally, 12,857 applications have been received from across the state for regularisation of buildings raised in violation of laws. Had it not been for the High Court order of December 22, 2017, which struck down the Himachal Pradesh Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Act, 2016, passed by the Assembly, the state government would have got powers to regularise unauthorised buildings, estimated to be over 25,000, all over the state.
There is no disputing the fact that Himachal residents have undertaken reckless construction, damaged trees and carelessly disposed of the debris in forests, despite the courts clearly directing the agencies concerned to penalise such offenders. The high-rise buildings did not come up overnight, and the government agencies have been implicit in their failure to regulate constructions. The implementation of the SDP, also called Vision 2041, is bound to spell doom for the town. It will open up the 17 green belts and allow more construction in the congested core area, which is already crumbling.
Distance from nullah, khud
Despite stipulation that no construction can be allowed at 3 metres from a nullah and 5 metres from a khud, several structures, including those of government departments, have come up right on the nullahs. A perfect example of the gross violation is by the Urban Development (UD) Department, which is entrusted with the task of ensuring planned growth. The office of the UD at Talland in Shimla, which has been vacated after being rendered unsafe, is located right on a nullah and amid a forest. The biggest violator seems to be the government itself. The Indira Gandhi Sports Complex on the Mall, to cite another example, is built on a nullah.
How far from trees, forest
Even as the MC laws clearly stipulate that the minimum distance of a building from a tree must be 2 metres and 5 metres from a forest, the entire town is dotted with buildings where trees jutt out of the roof or are inside the wall of the house after severe lopping. This ensures that the tree will eventually die as its roots are trapped in concrete. The building of the UD Department was constructed amidst a pristine deodar forest, violating the distance norms for trees. Now, almost a dozen trees right behind the building have fallen. The NGT had proposed a fine of Rs 5 lakh in case of damage to trees or forests in Shimla. The forest and MC authorities, however, wash their hands of by issuing a damage report with a pittance for a fine.
A study by the Himalayan Forest Research Institute mentioned that the absence of soil cover and concretisation has resulted in very poor regeneration of deodar trees. With the roots of the trees getting trapped in retaining walls and septic tanks, the deodars are drying up. Even worse are instances where acids and chemicals are injected into the roots of healthy trees. The trees dry up and are declared unsafe, paving way for construction. Most of the deodar trees are over a century old, with many having developed flat tops, indicating that these have achieved their life span, point out foresters.
Even though the TCP regulations fix the maximum acceptable slope for development at 45 degrees, high-rise structures can be seen on slopes of up to 70 degrees, and in some places even more. It is surprising how the plans are being approved. Be it the high-rise building at Himland, which has been vacated, or several buildings in Dhalli, Sanjauli, Kachhi Ghati, Panthaghati and other localities, there is no adherence to the permissible slope of 45 degrees. The NGT in its November 2017 order had recommended that constructions should be allowed only up to 35 degrees.
Several multi-storeyed buildings have come right above the British-era Dhalli tunnel. In fact, the tunnel has developed a major seepage problem with fountains erupting from the roof and side walls on a rainy day, posing a threat to its very existence. For several years, construction was not allowed above the tunnel, but now the entire area is covered with huge buildings.
No lessons learnt
The collapse of a building in Kachhi Ghati area on the entry to Shimla last year had fuelled concerns about the safety norms for constructions in sliding zones. The situation in the area remains worrisome with several fresh structures having come up even though the NGT order restricting all new constructions is still in place.
The TCP regulations stipulate undertaking of a soil investigation report in the sinking and sliding zones before undertaking construction, even though a complete ban should have been imposed on fresh constructions in these vulnerable zones. The rules require obtaining a structural safety certificate before construction and occupation. A major portion of the Krishna Nagar locality where five buildings collapsed has come up on debris and rubble dumped from the construction in the town, making the houses highly vulnerable. Several houses are encroachments on forest land. Compelled by vote-bank politics, every political party has patronised and sheltered violators.
As part of future preparedness, especially after the recent devastation, it is imperative that a structural safety audit of buildings in the sliding and landslide prone areas be made mandatory.
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