Himachal Pradesh’s race for development is threatening its precious heritage, ecology

As the State rapidly strides towards modernity, it seems to have lost touch with the very elements that made it unique.

Published : Sep 12, 2023 16:46 IST - 9 MINS READ

Rescue workers search for survivors after a landslide following torrential rain in Shimla. August 14, 2023.

Rescue workers search for survivors after a landslide following torrential rain in Shimla. August 14, 2023. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Himachal Pradesh of the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was growing up there, was a largely self-contained world: with institutions and businesses that you could count on your finger-tips; people you knew via localities or common connections; and vast swathes of greenery spread across hills and mountains for miles together that gave the land its somewhat homogenous but also an “otherworldly” charm. Perhaps such perception was the function of childhood and adolescence, but even adults would invariably refer to cities in the plains as “badi jagah” or the big place out there, something that one got acquainted with through the loaded term, “exposure”, suggesting the untouched nature of our highland life.

Of course, there were differences within Himachal itself, as I realised when we shifted to the capital city, Shimla, from the Kullu Valley in my mid-twenties. Shimla was much more cosmopolitan than the river-hugging small town of my childhood. However, ideas of “smallness” and “remoteness” still bound the whole State together, by and large, and we knew that “modernity” in terms of technology and development will impact the metropolises first before making its way up to the hills. I still recall the thrill of using home Internet for the first time towards the end of my high school years in the early 2000s, and the joy of boarding the new Volvo bus to make the 15-hour long journey from Kullu to Delhi a few years later.

But things have changed rapidly in the last two decades. The spread of social media has made even the most far-flung places accessible. So much so that “development” and not “provinciality” now marks the popular understanding of Himachali society and identity. It is a word enunciated with unmistakable enthusiasm and bandied about by every successive government, regardless of party affiliations, as the way forward. And indeed, numerous reports and real-life experiences confirm how the State has galloped ahead in sectors such as education, healthcare and electricity since its formation in 1971, turning into a model for other hill States.

Skewed understanding of growth

But a great paradox underlies Himachal’s current state of affairs. In charting its way towards a “better” present and future, the State has lost sight of the very feature that endowed it with a specific character to begin with: its landscape. Even in the midst of all the development, residents and visitors alike primarily associate Himachal with the abiding features of its natural topography, and its indigenous and colonial architecture, both of which have shaped it from pre-Independence times. It would, of course, be uncritical to sing the praises of a period when colonialism and its attendant inequalities affected every aspect of life. If anything, it was after Independence that Himachal Pradesh saw an equitable cultivation and distribution of resources, especially under the leadership of its first Chief Minister, Dr Y.S. Parmar.

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But the first few decades of affirmative changes that pulled the State up the social ladder soon gave way to a skewed understanding of growth and expansion in the last two decades of the 20th century, when, experts believe, the rot first began to show itself. In the years since then, things have literally gone downhill, a condition most starkly exemplified by the massive devastation that wreaked havoc on the State in July and August of 2023.

A road in Shimla is partially washed away after heavy rainfall. August 21, 2023.

A road in Shimla is partially washed away after heavy rainfall. August 21, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

It is ironical that whenever we celebrate the notion of “nation-building” in India, we discuss many sectors and areas except its most obvious marker: buildings themselves. Architecture and its parent-discipline of urban planning get quickly subsumed by the larger rubric of “infrastructure”, which is automatically considered to be a “good thing.” But even a cursory look at our modern cities, towns and villages reveals a staggering failure of vision and imagination that is becoming more apparent every year: collapsing bridges and apartments, flooded roadways, shrinkage of public spaces, and an ever-growing sprawl of glass-and-concrete structures, hurriedly erected without paying any heed to micro-climates or local legacies of design and making. As architect-writer Gautam Bhatia observed about our contemporary zeitgeist: “We are left with nothing of sustainable architectural value. Nothing that has evolved locally, made by today’s hands, within the perimeter of our own life and times, was created in a moment of pride.”

Indeed, the development projects suffering the most in the Himalayas are from recent times, not the past. If we were to make a chart of environmental damage done to the mountains from the past to the present, our modern blunders would far outstrip the troubles unleashed by colonial schemes. The burdens put on a geography which never had to deal with monstrous multistoried structures, indiscriminate hydel-power projects or mammoth waste disposal issues, are many and varied. Vanity nursed on aggressive individualism, and not genuinely felt “pride” (that would automatically take into account the nuances of geography), characterises the new vocabulary of progress.

  • Himachal Pradesh, once a self-contained world with natural beauty and indigenous charm, is now caught in a rapid development frenzy.
  • The State’s focus on modernisation and unchecked urbanisation is erasing its unique natural landscape and architectural heritage.
  • Environmental damage, infrastructure failures, etc. are raising questions about the sustainability of Himachal’s current development path.

Faulty approach

What is even more appalling is how any advancement in the name of development is routinely touted as a “triumph”, no matter the glaring challenges. Two years ago, a multistoried structure collapsed in a settlement in Shimla called Kachi Ghatti. Even as the viral video clip horrified everybody, what struck me as particularly tragic was the fact that a humungous structure had come up in an area which carries a warning in its name—Kachi Ghatti translates into “Weak Valley”, a place marked as unfit for settlement because of the natural looseness of the soil there. And yet the locality is jampacked with multistoried buildings, which proliferate in every major area of Himachal Pradesh.

A house collapsed following heavy rainfall in Himachal Pradesh. September  2008.

A house collapsed following heavy rainfall in Himachal Pradesh. September 2008. | Photo Credit: PTI

The gashes that nature’s fury unleashed this monsoon on the new highways being built in Shimla and the Kullu hills further point to the lack of a graded approach towards development in unstable mountainous areas. According to environmentalists and activists such as Lokesh Ohri and Avay Shukla, the new “development plans” do not recognise the fact that what might work in plain-based cities cannot be appropriate for an ecologically fragile zone like the Himalayas. As Shimla-based historian Raaja Bhasin recently observed, “Forget the colonisers, we have colonised ourselves, and this so-called development is a dog’s breakfast.”

Also Read | Irshalwadi landslide exposes criminal neglect threatening Western Ghats ecology

Among the most ignored aspects of such development is the necessity of what ecological activists call “attunement”—the psychological and pragmatic ways in which humans sensitise themselves to the demands of a particular situation, creating infrastructure in tune with the surrounding environment, for example. The marble furnishings that are used in the modern houses of the trans-Himalayan region ride roughshod over such considerations. While indigenous building materials allowed for the preservation and release of heat according to changing seasons, the new structures are made with climatically incompatible materials, overturning the ecological balance and adversely affecting the people.

There is an absence of attunement at the bureaucratic level as well—most tellingly exemplified by the dearth of communication and coordination among different departments. Roads are dug up and covered for some issue (laying of electrical cables, repair work, plumbing, sanitation, etc) by a particular department, only to be dug up again by another department immediately afterwards. Can the two departments not synchronise their tasks? Such examples of shortsightedness abound.

For instance, about a decade ago, Shimla’s local authorities zealously launched a project under which residents were to divide their daily garbage in yellow and green bins (which were supplied for free) according to their biodegradability. The plan failed within a few days when garbage collectors, who had received no instruction on waste sorting, mixed the contents into one mass. That several villages in Himachal still do not have formalised provisions for garbage disposal, leading to the clogging of water-sources, is another story.

Zero concern

One of the reasons behindthis gap between aims and results is the lack of a rigorous imagination and the institutional structures that promote (or discourage) it. As the retired bureaucrat and critic Avay Shukla pointed out: “Videos show that much of the four-laning of the Manali rightbank road has been done on the Beas riverbed by erecting retaining walls on the floodplains and filling them up. How did the engineers get their degrees? Do they even have any idea of the destructive force of a mountain river cascading down in full flow? Did they ever bother to study the history of the Beas and the damages it has caused in the past?”

Debris falling into Beas river after a landslide at Rains Nala on Kullu road in 2021.

Debris falling into Beas river after a landslide at Rains Nala on Kullu road in 2021. | Photo Credit: PTI

It is significant that earlier no largescale development projects were allowed near the riverbeds, and houses and buildings erected during the pre-colonial and colonial eras followed typologies that necessarily respected the lie of the land. Architecture was more of a lived practice than a purely engineering science (as our contemporary education system would have us believe), and the houses built by the local people and the British that still stand today were attuned to the rhythms of nature. Instead of looking like an anomaly on the landscape, they look like natural outgrowths.

Also Read | Delhi floods: Will urbanisation of Yamuna floodplains sink the capital?

Today we have ended up curiously exoticising our indigenous and cultural legacies so that it is not uncommon to find foreigners or corporate houses building “traditional-looking” houses and hotels in the Himalayas, or “reviving” craft practices that were once the order of the day. To be fair, some of these revival and heritage-based projects are well-intentioned, and in selling “nature” inspired services and products of native Himalayan cultures, they are able to provide an alternative to the overwhelming mess that the mountains are left with. But such endeavours are few and largely cater to the privileged classes, while for any largescale change to occur, the efforts must include the whole of society and systems of governance.

As things stand, the future looks dire. To consider just one example, the proposed Shimla Development Plan, titled “Vision 2041”, not only proposes to “double” the population of Shimla in the next decade and a half, but also allows construction in the hitherto prohibited heritage zones and in the city’s 17 Green Belts. Shukla called it “the worst policy document ever produced by Shimla’s government,” which is but a “suicide note or a death warrant for the town.”

So, once again, we trundle towards a development that not only ignores the past and the present, but is also fundamentally unimaginative. It seems that we must reimagine not just development but imagination itself.

Siddharth Pandey is a Fellow of the Käte Hamburger Research Centre in globalisation, global dis:connect, at Munich, Germany, where he is researching the western Himalayas.

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