An Empire Diaries Special Report
January 27, 2023: American author Mike Davis, in his 2006 masterpiece Planet of Slums, wrote in detail about lopsided and mindless urbanisation in the name of ‘development’ that has today spawned massive shanty towns around the world, where more than one billion slum dwellers live unenviable lives, divorced from prosperity.
Today, the book appears prophetic in the wake of what recently gripped Joshimath, a popular Himalayan town in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. Joshimath’s residents are being evacuated after it emerged that the overburdened and unstable Himalayan town is steadily sinking into the ground, thanks partly to unfettered ‘development’ that Davis laments in his book.
Joshimath, situated at a height of 6,150 feet and home to around 25,000 people, is considered a gateway to pilgrim centres such as Badrinath and various popular climbing expeditions. Over the past year, residents were alarmed when they noticed cracks on numerous buildings and several roads. More than 700 houses have been damaged so far, with the administration deciding to demolish many of them, including two hotels, and evacuate the affected people from the danger zone.
Earlier this month, a two-year-long study conducted by the Dehradun-based Indian Institute of Remote Sensing found that Joshimath and its surrounding areas are sinking at the speed of 6.5cm every year. Some seismologists, meanwhile, argue that the disaster was caused by gradual and slow landslides, and not sinking.
It is widely believed that Joshimath turned from a cherished destination to a disaster-prone zone because of mushrooming hotels and restaurants owned by private companies, and massive infrastructure projects undertaken by the state government. Experts have warned that disasters of the scale of Joshimath are waiting to happen across the fragile ecosystem of the entire stretch of the lower Himalayas if this city-style tampering with the hills isn’t stopped.
ALL’S NOT WELL IN SHIMLA
While the mainstream media is now busy covering Joshimath, it is worth taking a look at another Indian hill station that is also suffocating from unbridled urbanisation. Shimla, about 500km by road from Joshimath and an internationally famous destination on the southwestern ranges of the Himalayas, is the capital of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Located at a height of 7,467 feet, it was the summer capital during the misrule of the British invaders.
The Empire Diaries team, which recently spent several weeks in Shimla, witnessed day-long traffic snarls, vehicles honking incessantly, ‘No Parking’ signs installed every few hundred metres, six-storeyed parking plazas, commercial buildings that are 12-13 storeys high, densely packed neighbourhoods, expanding slums, mushrooming city-style shopping malls, packaged food outlets everywhere, noisy construction sites, hardly any open spaces – all the ugly characteristics of a typical, modern city on the plains of India.
Shimla, once a welcome getaway in northern India’s mountains, is clearly losing its identity and increasingly taking the shape of claustrophobic townships we have in the plains. The change is a result of city-style development being imposed on the hill station at breakneck speed. A development that has less to do with improving the quality of life, and more to do with imposing a dehumanised template of the Big City.
Walk around Shimla, and you will find an overdose of malls selling western goods, and beelines of fast-food joints hawking burgers, patties, and chemical-laced fizzy drinks. You will have to struggle to spot authentic Himachali cuisine on the streets, a result of the monoculture imported from the cities.
MIGRATION TO THE CITY
Economic disparity pervades the hills, and it’s increasing. Development means rows of housing estates and skyscrapers, which look like pigeon-holes. Right next to posh neighbourhoods, the eye can’t miss makeshift shelters of peasants, made of tarpaulin sheets and tin shades. These peasants migrated to the city of Shimla from the hinterland in search of a better future. But having once lived a self-sufficient life in which they produced their own food, in Shimla, they end up buying food and water. Their lives in the slums are made more miserable by frequent hygiene-related diseases.
It is now estimated that there are 8 billion people on the planet, with well more than 4 billion of them living in cities or urban areas. That number is rising fast, largely due to migration from rural areas.
In India, where urbanisation kicked off in the 1970s, a joint study by the UN-led World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Switzerland-based Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment between 1975 and 2015 revealed that the Himalayan hills are quickly getting crowded and urbanised. About 66% of the inhabited land in the hilly areas are now urban centres where 34% of the hills’ inhabitants reside.
Shimla resident Gurnam Kaur, who taught at a school in Chail – a serene hill resort about 45km from Shimla – seemed aghast at the degrading situation of the hills. “We are ourselves responsible for all this. We never understood our responsibilities, and what we needed to do. The [state] government should have been strict and allowed only bungalow-type houses to be built. Then Shimla would have remained beautiful, and the people living here would have enjoyed a good life,” she told Empire Diaries.
The profusion of cars, many of which have to be parked on the road because of the citywide shortage of parking spaces, is another big problem. Kaur blames it on a corporate culture, saying aggressive salesmen dangle the carrot of easy loans before gullible consumers, eventually making Shimla’s roads choke with too many vehicles.
She compared Shimla’s congestion with her former workplace Chail’s tranquility, lamenting, “It’s so peaceful there, so beautiful!”
Gursagar Singh, a retired government official, was born and brought up in Shimla. Like many other residents of Shimla, he finds it difficult to adjust to the changing look-and-feel of the city, especially the ever-increasing number of houses as well as congestion on the roads.
“I bought a house in Shimla back in 1983. At that time, there were only three to four houses in my locality. Now, the number has gone up to 200 or maybe, 250. Everywhere, there are five-six storeyed buildings. Nowadays, people call this city ‘Concrete Shimla’.” He blamed the unwelcome transformation of Shimla on improper planning. “The authorities couldn’t foresee that there would be so much traffic here someday. So, now we are caught in traffic jams all the time,” he told Empire Diaries.
What is of major concern in Shimla these days is the fast-receding forest cover alongside a sharp drop in snowfall. “In Shimla, we now see only a few inches of snow. Earlier, the city would be enveloped in six feet of snow during the winter. In high-altitude areas such as Kalapathar and Narkanda, the maximum snow cover is now barely one to one and a half feet deep. In lower areas, we either don’t have snowfall, or if we have, it’s only a few inches,” said Gursagar Singh.
The old part of the city has become so crowded that a new township called New Shimla has been built. Naturally, this has sparked even more construction, more houses, more cars, and more traffic jams. Amid all this, the state government has drawn up a plan to turn Shimla into a “smart city”, which is just a hyper-urbanisation gimmick that would invariably push the city further into a capitalist system involving mechanised living and high expenses.
Small shopkeepers are tense about whether they can continue to survive in Shimla. “We are Indians, we are not from another country. We are not different, and we live here. Please let us stay,” a shop-owner said.
Another disconcerting fact about Shimla is that it straddles seismic zones IV and V, which means it is highly prone to immense damage in the event of a major earthquake.
With Shimla someday possibly hurtling towards the situation that Joshimath is in now, all this brings us to some fundamental questions. Do we really need mega cities or smart cities in the hills? How safe is it to chisel out ugly cities on the fragile mountains using machines and dynamites?
Ask the hill people, and most of them will tell you they don’t need such intrusions and interventions. But who’s there to stop greedy multinational corporations, in cahoots with local authorities, from targeting the beautiful towns on the high slopes?
Shimla is one of many other hill stations facing similar trouble. Other destinations such as Gangtok in Sikkim and Darjeeling in West Bengal are staring at the same fate. The sad fact is that places once considered ideal getaways from the chaos and congestion of urban existence are now slowly but surely morphing into concrete jungles. At this rate, there could be a time when you can head out to the hills, but you’ll never be far from the madding crowd.
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