In October 2021, an eight-storeyed building in Shimla collapsed after heavy rains triggered a landslide. The building was evacuated well before the collapse. But the tragedy exposed the pressure being faced by north Indian city which is a popular hill destination for tourists and locals.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government approved Shimla’s development plan 2041 on April 28 this year, the move was seen with a lot of optimism for about 1,70,000 local inhabitants and 35 lakh tourists that visit the city every year.

Post India’s independence, the first plan for guiding development work in and around Shimla municipal area was notified in 1979. However, according to local experts, since then, the city which is in an earthquake-prone zone, has expanded haphazardly in an unregulated and unplanned manner with reckless construction and indiscriminate tree-cutting, something that the development plan also acknowledged.

The new development plan for the next two decades is meant to address the expansion needs of the city as well as growing ecological challenges besides ensuring the city’s sustainable growth. The new plan also includes areas around Shimla such as Kufri, Shoghi and Ghanahatti special areas and additional villages.

However, the effectiveness of the plan is being questioned. Tikender Panwar, former deputy mayor of the city and an urban planning expert, told Mongabay-India that Shimla’s latest development plan was simply a lost opportunity, emerging out of a flawed vision rooted in “lack of understanding” and “populism” of the current ruling party.

According to Panwar, 90% of Shimla is built on risky slopes. He emphasised that the zoning plan of the city from a future development aspect should have been based on careful study of these slopes.

The mountain roads to Shimla. Experts say that unlike other Himalayan cities, Shimla is built on steep slopes which increase the risk of accidents, when excess construction is permitted. Photo credit: Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay

“This was an important exercise for scientific understanding of the maximum load-bearing capacity of each of these slopes so that accidents could be avoided in slopes already at risk of excess construction,” he explained. “But the new plan has no scientific basis as it randomly allows construction activities in core, non-core and green areas.”

Panwar further said that, in the new plan, there was no focus on decongesting over-populated slopes or addressing mobility issues for a city that often remains stuck in traffic snarls, especially during peak tourist season.

He emphasised that the plan does not talk about developing a new satellite township around Shimla to absorb future population growth and tourism pressure.

Ecologist Yogendra Mohan Sengupta, on whose petition the National Green Tribunal put a stay on the implementation of the new plan last month, told Mongabay-India that unlike other hilly states in the Himalayan region, Shimla is prone to heavy risk because of the fact that the city is built on steep slopes. The valley area is very limited here.

Sengupta explained that the majority of the city is built on highly unstable slopes above 60 degrees against the official permissible construction limit of 45 degrees. “Several experts have recommended immediate decongestion of the city to mitigate human loss in case of disaster,” said Sengupta. “But the new plan is allowing construction even in vulnerable areas.”

Alleging that the new plan is made to benefit the real estate and hotel lobby of the state, he said this plan must be immediately scrapped and a new exercise must start to decongest the city. “Otherwise, one cannot imagine the scale of disaster here,” Sengupta added. “The city is gasping for survival and standing on the brink of a disaster. The ecological sustainability is a latter goal, first is to lower the risk.”

Green tribunal’s stay

On May 12, 2022, National Green Tribunal stayed the implementation of the Shimla development plan 2041. However, it was not the first time that the city’s poor condition was on the radar.

In 2015, the tribunal appointed an expert committee to study the impact of existing structures on the environment and ecology, sewage system and water supply, of Shimla city. In 2017, the committee’s report noted that from a disaster risk management perspective, Shimla has far exceeded its carrying capacity.

It said uncontrolled and unsafe construction over decades created an extremely vulnerable built environment that will lead to unprecedented loss of lives in events of natural disasters like earthquakes and landslides.

The committee found that most of the buildings are constructed on slopes exceeding 70 degrees and such constructions require huge cutting of the contour that makes the land susceptible to landslides.

The committee called for urgently decongesting Shimla, particularly areas such as Sanjhauli, Dhali, Tutu and Lower Lakkar Bazar. It had called for identification of all the buildings, which have been constructed ignoring the seismic sensitivity and load-bearing capacity, and their demolition, relocation and reconstruction within five years-10 years.

The National Green Tribunal prohibited new construction of any kind falling in the core and green areas falling within the Shimla planning area in 2017. Photo credit: Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay

Prior to this, a study (April 2014-July 2015) by the Shimla Municipal Corporation found 249 (83%) of the 300 buildings that were selected for study, as “structurally unsafe”. In 2016, another survey by the Shimla Municipal Corporation found that 65% of the 2,795 buildings were vulnerable.

In November 2017, the National Green Tribunal prohibited new construction of any kind – residential, institutional and commercial – in any part of the core and green/forest area falling within the Shimla planning area.

The National Green Tribunal order had also said that construction beyond core and green areas will also not be permitted beyond two floors plus attic except in case of public utility buildings such as hospitals and schools. The core area is basically the central part of Shimla city bounded by the circular cart road starting from Victory Tunnel and ending at Victory tunnel via Chhota Shimla and Sanjaui and the area bounded by Mall Road and nearby area.

However, the development plan that got the state cabinet approval in April 2022, overrode all these concerns as it permitted the construction of more floors, construction in the city’s core area and construction in green areas. According to environmentalists, the plan also permitted development in sinking and sliding areas, which could result in disasters.

In the first hearing on May 12, the National Green Tribunal stayed the plan observing that the new Shimla development plan was in violation of their November 17, 2017 order. It restrained the Himachal Pradesh Town and Country Planning Department from taking any further steps in pursuance of the development plan.

What state says

Shimla, the erstwhile capital of India during British rule, had one of the first municipalities in the country, dating back to 1851. Until India’s independence in 1947, the town was guided mostly by British architectural laws with spatial planning limited to a governing capital.

But post-independence, the city that had a population of 24,000 in 1889 has grown rapidly in all directions. While talking to Mongabay-India about the May 2022 National Green Tribunal order, Suresh Bhardwaj, who is Himachal Pradesh’s Urban Development Minister, disagreed with the allegation that the plan was not good for the city. The plan was prepared by the state’s urban development department.

He said besides taking care of the needs of the city, Shimla’s planning area was extended to nearby towns.

A building under construction in Shimla. Post independence, Shimla has grown rapidly in all directions. Photo credit: Priyanka Shankar/ Mongabay

Bhardwaj said the plan was drafted in a scientific manner under due process of law by hiring a consultant, which properly conducted a survey before drafting it. Thereafter consultation was held with various stakeholders.

Asked about the National Green Tribunal order halting the development plan, Bhardwaj noted that it is not part of the green tribunal’s jurisdiction to dwell on the Town and Country Planning Act, under which the plan was prepared.

On the logic behind allowing construction in the notified green areas of the city, the urban development minister said there was already massive construction in the areas that were declared part of the green belt in the year 2000.

He said the new plan just allowed the construction of only one-room houses for residential purposes on a few vacant plots among already built houses. “What was wrong in taking a rational stand when houses were already constructed there?” Bhardwaj questioned.

The minister justified construction in core areas as well. “Suppose few people having vacant plots in the city area could not build their houses due to some reason,” he asked. “Is it now justified to stop them building their two-and-half storey houses.”

Bhardwaj said that the state government’s challenge to the earlier National Green Tribunal order in 2017 that banned the construction in core as well as green area is already pending in the Supreme Court. “We will legally fight the latest stay as well,” he said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.