Most buildings, due to illegal construction and hanging precariously on to steep slopes and clinging to one another in the quake-prone erstwhile summer capital of the British, Shimla and other tourist resorts such as McLeodganj, Kasauli, Manali, Palampur, Mandi, Solan and elsewhere in Himachal Pradesh cannot withstand a high-intensity quake and can collapse like a house of cards, warn experts.
Also cloudbursts and flashfloods have become a regular feature in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh in recent years. The heavy loss of life caused by such calamities can be mainly attributed to the increasing human activity, particularly along the rivers and water channels.
The local authorities are yet to wake up from their slumber despite the fact that most of the picnic spots in the Himalayan state fall in high seismic zones IV-V, suggesting severest seismic sensitivity.
Advocating sustainable development, the National Green Tribunal and the state High Court have time and again rapped the state authorities over their lack of response to the growing unauthorized constructions across Himachal.
Old-timers charge the successive BJP and Congress governments with converting most of the picturesque towns into concrete jungles.
In Sanjauli, a congested locality on Shimla’s outskirts, the dead often have to be lifted out of homes with ropes.
“You can see the fast changing skyline of Shimla where the buildings, regardless of whether they are structurally safe or not, are coming up haphazardly one after another,” remarked octogenarian Ramesh Manta, who was born and brought up in Shimla.
Standing near the Himachal Tourism Development Corporation lift and pointing towards the upcoming vertical constructions beneath the Mall road, he said, “You can see the pressure for development that has increased during the last few decades due to population spike and high influx of tourists.”
Officials admitted to IANS that 14 major localities in Shimla are located on an average gradient of 70-80 degree where a majority of the buildings violate the by-laws and building norms and haven’t even adhered to seismic norms.
An official of the Town and Country Planning Department told IANS that Shimla’s northern slope of the Ridge, an open space just above the Mall that extends to Grand Hotel in the west and Lakkar Bazaar in the east, is slowly sinking.
“Most buildings are precariously hanging on to steep slopes and clinging to one another. A moderate or high-intensity quake can be catastrophic for congested settlements with no escape routes. They can collapse like a pack of cards,” added another resident Naresh Sud.
Planned for a maximum population of 16,000, Shimla is now home to over 2,50,000 people.
More than 200 public utility buildings comprising hospitals and government schools and colleges within the municipal limits of Shimla require seismic strengthening, Shimla’s former Deputy Mayor Tikender Panwar admitted.
Experts estimate that more than 98 percent buildings in Shimla are highly vulnerable to collapsing if there is a major earthquake.
The mushrooming of illegal constructions in McLeodganj, located in the suburbs of Dharamsala, is threatening Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama’s abode.
Experts fear a high-intensity quake can turn the uphill town McLeodganj, known for attracting a steady stream of Tibet enthusiasts, Buddhist scholars, backpackers and even Hollywood stars, into a tomb of rubble as it falls in seismic zone V.
McLeodganj in Kangra district supports around 16,000 exiled Tibetans and an equal number of Indians.
“I visited McLeodganj after five years and was shocked to see the place. It used to be a beautiful place with lush green slopes whereas today it was concrete all over with massive high rises,” remarked tourist Sanjay Basu from Kolkata.
A devastating earthquake in 1905 severely damaged property in the Kangra region, including St. John’s Church where many British officials were buried, and claimed over 20,000 lives.
Records of the field station of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, an autonomous research institute of the Department of Science and Technology at McLeodganj, show that several earthquakes have struck this region since 1905.
Prominent among these were the ones on June 15, 1978, and another on April 26, 1986 — the first being of magnitude 5 and the other 5.7 on the Richter scale.
Sounding the alarm bell, Ram Krishan Thakur, former Survey of India Director, told IANS that like Joshimath town of Uttarakhand, Manali and its suburbs are also situated on the debris of a landslide.
The population has increased manifold and so have the tourists. Infrastructure has not amplified but has also been unchecked. The town of Manali does not have a proper drainage and sewerage system.
“The seepage may result in landslides, triggering cracks in the buildings of Manali,” Thakur, who has been residing in Manali after his retirement in 2002, said.
According to Thakur, Burwa village located in the suburbs of Manali, is seeing a construction boom these days despite the fact that the entire area falls in the sinking zone.
“Rampant commercial development is currently happening in a very fragile ecosystem of Burwa. That entire zone is located on the debris of the Pagal nullah,” he said, adding that “climate change can be a force multiplier.”
Taking serious note of haphazard constructions, the Himachal Pradesh High Court in October last year summoned top officials of the state, including the Chief Secretary.
Hearing a public interest litigation highlighting unregulated constructions in the most ecologically sensitive area of Barog in Solan district, a Division Bench of Chief Justice A.A. Sayed and Justice Jyotsna Rewal Dua observed, “Ordinarily, we avoid passing orders directing the high officials of the state to remain present in court. However, in view of the helplessness expressed in the affidavits of the state officials the order has been passed to ensure that the construction activities, particularly in the hills which are ecologically fragile areas of the state, are regulated and are not subjected to environment damage or further deterioration.”
Himachal Pradesh is prone to various types of disasters. The central government has identified 25 hazards to which the state is prone.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at email@example.com)