Boom

Problem: Terrain forbids sprawl as in cities in the plains; Status: Alarming population density (people per sq km); Challenge: Policy question is: decongest, but how?
Boom
1.

-- (Credit: Nidhi Jamwal / CSE)

"Between 1815 and 1947, about 80 urban settlements located at elevations between 4,000 and 8,000 feet were established on the lower mountain ranges of India," writes Aditi Chatterji in a 2000 paper entitled The Indian hill stations: A study of social space. The major hill-stations are clustered in four regions -- Shimla-Mussoorie, Darjeeling-Shillong, Poona-Mahabaleshwar, and Ooty. In The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj, author Dale Kennedy claims hill-stations were the outcome of a desire "to establish sanatoria within the subcontinent where European invalids could recover from the heat and diseases of the tropics". But Cherrapunji and Mahabaleshwar were military outposts. Whatever their function was, every possible effort was made to recreate English ambience. The landscape included such features as a space to promenade (the mall). Invariably.

The Brits carefully planned the hill-stations.

Says A N Sachthanandan in his 2003 paper, Growth management of hill capitals: "Having known these areas are ecosensitive and likely to become fragile due to excessive use, the Britishers... kept the approach roads and other facilities to the bare minimum, which automatically acted as a constraint for anybody to take up development." In many cases, Indians were prevented from purchasing property. The population a particular place could accommodate was calculated: thus, only 10,000 and 25,000 people came to inhabit, respectively, Darjeeling and Shimla. The infrastructure -- water supply systems, roads, sewage facilities -- was accordingly built. A pollution-free environment was a prime concern. Kennedy quotes a sanitary officer: "Above, the air is fresh and pure, and cannot be contaminated by that below... So distinct are the two localities, that they bear but slight relationship."

Then the Brits left. Now read on:

It's a boom that's also a bust. Consider how hill-stations have got crackingly overcrowded: Ooty, planned for less than 10,000 people, is today forced to accommodate about 125,000 (also, see graph: Bursting). Such explosions demand a question: what has brought so many people to these hill-stations? "Faulty policies," says G S Yonzone, former principal, Kalimpong Degree College, Darjeeling. "Development in hills is centred around these hill-stations. Interior areas remain outside the gamut of government policies. This forces villagers to come in search of better employment opportunities." He adds bitterly: "But they end up as porters, drivers or beggars." Indeed, Darjeeling has so grown that today a chunk of its population lives atop a septic tank originally built by the British outside town limits (see section: What goes down...).

Hilly Himachal Pradesh's capital, Shimla, is the only Class I town as per the 2001 census. "This explains the dominance of this capital in terms of facilities, amenities and opportunities," explains a 2003 paper, Development of hill capital: Shimla-2025, by A K Maitra.

Green cover disappears
Accommodating such influx has become a challenge, which unfortunately is met not via evolved planning but by mindlessly clearing forests. Darjeeling is a typical example (see graph: The great lop-off). Similarly, illegal forest felling has deprived Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra of its world famous symbol, the Whitley flower. "It used to bloom once every seven years, giving the hill-station a heavenly look. It was due to bloom last year, but it didn't. Population pressures are definitely changing hill ecology," laments Shiraz Satarawalla, a Mahabaleshwar-based environment activist.

After the forests were lopped off, hill-stations began to go vertical: multi-storied columns of concrete stabbing at the skyline are today the norm. No wonder hill-stations have forever lost their pastoral look. Alarmingly, the risk associated with hill-stations being located in high seismic zones has been completely ignored (see section: High risk).

Slums appear
Poor migrants to hill-stations cannot afford concrete comfort. They settle in slums. Today, almost 51 per cent population in Shillong and 20 per cent in Darjeeling dwell in such slums. In Sikkim, the upcoming Teesta Hydel Project has attracted migrant labourers from states as far as Bihar and Orissa, according to Pemaleyda Shangderpa, a local journalist with an English daily, The Telegraph. "Since there is no provision for housing, they have set up shanties all along the national highway, and many have even encroached on forest land," he says.

The nature of such migrations is so dynamic that hill municipalities, anyway bankrupt, are unable to catch up and provide services, for every year the area they must cover increases.

In this regard, Northeastern states face a unique problem. Most hill capitals there lack an elected municipal council. This is because the towns have expanded like wildfire and their boundaries are not clear. Places such as Greater Aizwal or Gangtok Urban Area Extension abound. But till the problem of demarcating town limits is resolved, municipal elections cannot be held. As a result, people have no say whenever a development scheme is mooted.

Struggling
Ask state government officials, and they will worry at great length about the situations their towns face. The bald fact is that no one knows how to accommodate influx, and consequent population growth.

A possible solution that has been bandied about for a long time is creating satellite towns around these hill-stations. This is mere mimicry of the way cities in plains are planned. Although nobody knows if such a model will work in the hills, state governments are blindly copying it. The master plan (1995-2011) of Naini Tal in Uttaranchal, for instance, refers to a satellite town called Greater Naini Tal. But no such town exists. Last year, the chairperson of the Himachal Pradesh Housing Board, Mukesh Agnihotri, announced grand plans of setting up three satellite towns around Shimla, Mandi and Dharamsala to check congestion: they remain grand plans. Similarly, Darjeeling had floated such a proposal about a decade ago, but nothing has come of it. Accordint to D Pariyar, assistant director, department of tourism, Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) -- the autonomous governing body for Darjeeling hills -- the council does not have adequate resources.

Experts are sceptical about the efficacy of satellite towns. "They would create more pressure on the areas that lie between hill-stations. Accessibility is seen as a great development step, but in reality it has a very negative impact on the environment," says Rajendra Singh, assistant professor, School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi.

-- (Credit: Shirish Gandhi)Incredible India. The land of mystic splendour. The hidden paradise. These are just three slogans to convince people to turn themselves into tourists and land up, every summer, in droves in hill-stations. Ooty's annual flower show attracts 0.2 million tourists over two days. In addition, it receives over 0.3 million tourists annually. Darjeeling annually receives close to 0.6 million tourists. Gangtok, a new entrant, gets more than 0.2 million tourists. And the more they turn up, the happier it makes state governments.The official logic is simple: tourism helps develop hill towns, providing employment to the local people and boosting the hill economy. It also checks out-migration from hills. But the local residents say tourism should be regulated. "Tourism is the biggest source of revenue for us but at the same time the environment needs to be protected," remarks Sarikah Atreya, a freelance journalist based in Gangtok, Sikkim.

In the peak season, high tourist influx overstrains the infrastructure. Points out Area and issue profile of Darjeeling, prepared by Darjeeling Ladenla Road Prerna, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), "When compared with the growth in the resident population, the increase in tourist population is far greater. The increase has been so rapid that infrastructure facilities cannot keep pace."

In the tussle for scarce facilities, residents often lose out to tourists. "We go without water for weeks, whereas water supply to hotels remains intact. Some of these hotels have also illegally tapped the main water line," alleges a resident of Darjeeling.

Big earner
Tourism annually generates a sizeable amount of money for each hill-station. For instance, according to Pariyar, the annual tourism earnings from Darjeeling are Rs 70 crore. P K Dong, executive director, Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation, says that Gangtok's were Rs 42 crore annually. According to a study conducted in Shimla by the SPA, tourists spend maximum share of their money on food (36 per cent), followed by accommodation (25 per cent), transport (20 per cent) and shopping (14 per cent).

But most of the facilities that provide these services are owned by people staying outside the hill-stations, according to local residents.

Hotels do big business but hardly contribute towards the financial resources of local bodies responsible for developing hill-stations. "Almost 50 per cent of hotels in Darjeeling operate without a licence. Even the ones registered pay a mere Rs 500-750 per annum as licence fee to the municipality. This sum also includes conservancy fee [this is levied for sewerage and sanitation]. In return they gobble local resources. Most of them have private water tankers to ensure there is running water supply," says Pasang T Bhutia, former chairperson of Darjeeling municipality. "Once when we tried raising resources with their cooperation by levying an entry fee of Rs 3 per tourist, they did not cooperate. We hardly get any development funds from the state government, so what should we do?"

Some local people in Darjeeling feel that the state government has failed to protect their interest. "There is no law which restricts outsiders from buying land in Darjeeling. Hence, people from plains have bought land, constructed bungalows and hotels and are doing brisk business," says Yonzone. By Sikkim government law, outsiders cannot buy land from the Lepcha and Bhutia communities. But this has not helped much. "Since outsiders cannot own hotels in Sikkim, they take them on lease from locals at a minimal cost, and all the profits go into their pockets," says Satyadeep Singh Chhetri, a lecturer at the Sikkim Government College, Tadong.

Even profits from daily supplies of eatables and other commodities don't go to hill residents. "Many years ago, in Gundari bazaar, locals used to sell their vegetables. But now all the vegetables in Darjeeling come from Siliguri," says B L Pradhan, a resident of Darjeeling. "And so is the case with eggs, poultry and meat." Gangtok, too, must source its vegetables daily from Siliguri. Kalzang Diki, a Gangtok resident, says there has been no effort to secure livelihood for local people: "Lachung area in north Sikkim is known as the cabbage belt, but since there are no local cold storage facilities, all the cabbage is exported to Siliguri at a throwaway price. From there it gets transported back to Sikkim at double the price."

Some solutions
State governments are beginning to realise the pressures hill-station residents face due to the high tourist influx.

Some are toying with the idea of village tourism, deflecting tourists to villages in the vicinity of hill-stations. This way, goes governments' belief, villagers too will earn money.

The World Wide Fund for Nature -- India (WWF) has set up a model village at Tinchulay near Darjeeling, which is becoming popular with tourists. "The villagers have formed a Paryavaran Committee, which decides the nature of tourism. Recently, an outsider tried to buy land in the village to set up a resort, but the committee refused," says Pravat Rana, senior project officer, WWF, Darjeeling. The villagers are also involved in composting and poultry. Similar experiments are on in Sikkim.

But such projects need careful planning. Says Pema Topgyal of Sikkim Tours and Travels, Gangtok, "Rural people want quick returns, and hence they construct multi-storied roller-compacted concrete (RCC) hotels and offer cheap accommodation to budgeted tourists. No one is thinking of the long-term impact on ecology." Peling, once an obscure village in Western Sikkim, is today dotted with concrete hotels. Almora in Himachal Pradesh is deteriorating (see graph: Almora: new hotspot). Such trends need to be controlled.

Villagers along with local authorities need to decide on the nature of tourism and number of tourists. "To avoid the possibility of villagers depending solely on tourism, efforts should be made to involve them in other income-generating activities," says Karma P Takapa, executive director of Gangtok-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Sikkim Development Foundation. They need livelihoods that last beyond a 'tourism season'.

Some experts suggest levying an environmental tax that every tourist should pay. "The money generated should be used transparently with active participation of local peopl...Tourism has the potential to create diverse livelihoods," says P D Rai, chairperson of Gangtok-based NGO, Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim.

When Darjeeling's population increased, a third lake with a capacity of 65.25 million litres was constructed by the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) in 1981. But due to faulty construction, it lies unused.

Every year new schemes are floated to augment supply, but fail to take off. The Balasun river project, proposed 12 years ago, is one such scheme. "As per the plan, water from Balasun river had to be pumped up in three phases. PHED conducted a survey and the scheme was forwarded to the West Bengal government. The project was then estimated to cost Rs 50 crore. The World Bank showed interest, but till date the scheme is only on paper," says D T Tamlong, principal secretary, DGHC. The reason, say residents, is that the West Bengal government refused to be the project's guarantor.

DGHC, on the other hand, vouches to be proactive. "We realised that the municipality was unable to meet the water demand, so we have taken control of the two lakes [from the Darjeeling municipality], up till the Ghoom filtration point. The distribution still remains with the municipality," says Tamlong.

How this demarcation will solve Darjeeling's water crisis, is anybody's guess: (see illustration)

Poor quality
GANGTOK: Gangtok has plenty of water and a regular supply. But the snag is water quality. "Bacterial contamination is very high -- a total of 180 coliform in 100 millilitres of water. Diseases like jaundice, cholera and stomach problems are common. Clearly, somewhere the sewage is getting mixed with the drinking water supply," says Satyadeep Singh Chhetri, lecturer at Sikkim Government College, Tadong. The Bureau of Indian Standards specifies that coliform should be absent in water. Admits Sally Rynveld, community development advisor, Gangtok Water Supply and Sanitation Project, Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID): " Jhoras (traditional water drainage systems) are used as an open sewer. Septic tanks open straight into them. There is bound to be contamination. Whereas Rs 23 crore has been organised for water supply, no funds are available for sewerage."

MAHABALESHWAR: In July this year, there were news reports of a jaundice outbreak. Within a month, about 332 cases were registered, of which 52 were pregnant women. Kishore Borde, of the Mahabaleshwar municipal council, underplays the incident. When contacted by Down To Earth, he said that as a precautionary measure, four wells and 35 bore wells were shut down and the citizens were instructed to drink only boiled water.

“This year for the whole of April, we did not receive a drop of water. The government is just not serious. It only keeps floating new schemes. The situation is going from bad to worse”
— Manoj Khatri, a resident of Darjeeling

Down to Earth“Lack of sewerage has led to jhoras being used as sewers. This has resulted in contamination of drinking water running through pipelines close to jhoras”
— Satyadeep Singh Chhetri, lecturer, Sikkim Government College

“Construction of a resort in a village near Almora has added to the woes of the villagers. The resort has bought land, which includes the village’s source of drinking water (pond). Women now daily trek 4-5 kilometres to fetch water”
— Member of Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi Shiksha Sansthan

Offical disinterest aside, this wasn't a stray incident. The reason for the outbreak is that lake Venna, the source of drinking water, is heavily contaminated. In 1998, a committee set up to look into the problem submitted its report. The Bhatia committee averred: "the residential structures erected by the railway department are polluting Venna lake. The discharge from the septic tanks...is allowed to flow into the lake."

Peak problem
SHIMLA: Summers make Shimla reel under acute water crisis. Its four major water sources -- the Ashwani Khad, Gumma Catchment Area, Churat Nullah and Chairh Pumping Station -- simply cannot meet the needs of its 142,161 people. And the situation goes out of hand during the peak season, when tourists outnumber the local population.Water demand leaps to about 36 million litres per day, but the supply is only 20 million litres.

The primary reason for the crisis is ageing infrastructure -- distribution lines, faulty meters and burst pipelines -- that results in up to 50 per cent of the water leaking away. Also, authorities have failed to preserve the town's natural water sources, mostly surface waterbodies that today have been built upon.

The municipality is used to taking desperate measures, such as supplying water on alternate days to areas facing shortage. Recently, a Rs 40 crore Giri Water Supply Project was floated to augment the water supply, according to Shimla municipal commissioner Mohan Chauhan. But such reliance on piped water supply is bound to boomerang.

-- (Credit: Mohan Lama / CSE)The stinky spectacle of hill-stations getting buried under their own garbage is turning more real. Look down the slopes and you will see mounds of coloured plastic bags, and tourist staples such as empty packets of potato chips and plastic water bottles. All of which is mixed with vegetable waste and debris, making the piles taller by the day. Municipalities merely collect the garbage from dust-bins, load it on tractor-trolleys, take it to the lowest point, and then tip the muck down the hillside. Their basic -- perhaps only -- motive is to keep roads clean for tourists to amble along, admiring the scenery.

Population growth is the chief culprit. More people means more waste. Though the number of people residing in and visiting these hill-stations has increased rapidly, there is no system to manage the muck they make.

What's worse, the nature of waste generated has also changed. Biodegradable waste itself takes longer to decompose in a colder climate, but the advent of plastics -- used as wrappers and for packaging -- has ruined the local ecology.

From time to time, various notifications are issued banning plastic bags in hill-stations, but most of these bans aren't implemented. Hill people blame plains people for the mess. "Why is the state government telling us to ban plastic bags? We do not manufacture them. They get manufactured at Siliguri. They should stop the production there," says a municipal officer in Darjeeling. Others are trying to curb the menace as much as possible: Sikkim has put a fine of Rs 500 on anyone found throwing waste in jhoras (traditional water drainage systems).

Sewage is a problem, too
The solitary instrument of sewage management in most hill-stations is the septic tanks the British had built. These are used even today, without any additions. Hence, sewerage coverage is woefully inadequate. For instance, only 30 per cent of Gangtok has sewerage. The rest is disposed of in septic tanks, soak pits, or jhoras. About Rs 28 crore is required to upgrade Gangtok's sewerage system. But nobody knows where this money will come from.

Darjeeling's sewerage coverage is 35 per cent. The lacuna was brought to the state government's notice way back in 1985, when Kolkata-based Consulting Engineering Services (India) Pvt Ltd submitted its upgradation report with an estimated project cost of Rs 13.65 crore. Again no action resulted.

Such inaction is costing hill-stations dear. The waste finds its way into the rivers. That water is pumped back to meet the drinking water needs of their residents and tourists.

SEE ALSO: "Hill municipalities need decentralised schemes"

-- Evam Piljain, an 80-year-old Toda who's spent all her life in Ooty, feels distraught at the sight of her hometown. "I cannot sit in the verandah anymore," she says. She moves to her drawing room and gazes wistfully at a photograph of Ooty taken in the early part of the twentieth century -- green, picturesque. But outside, hill after hill is chock-a-bloc with concrete buildings.

Concrete disaster
Other Indian hill-stations are no different. Roller-compacted concrete (RCC) has taken over from wood and mud and is now synonymous with construction. Reminisces B P Rai, secretary, Federation of Societies for Environmental Protection, a Darjeeling-based NGO, "Earlier, there were only small wooden houses. But with increased population, the need was felt to construct RCC multi-storey buildings, which can take a load of 7-8 storeys. This has spelt disaster."

The fact is that hill-stations are blindly aping cities in the plains. "Modern is synonymous with tall structures. Hence, hill people have also started aspiring for modern facilities like cineplexes and shopping malls," says Atreya. A huge 8-10 storey high Rink Mall complex is coming up right in the heart of Darjeeling town. Gorkha Rang Manch, a 10 storey tall structure, is another 'fashion statement'. And none other than the DGHC is building it. Binita Chhetri, a schoolteacher in Gangtok, narrated to Down To Earth an incidence of a young student who forced his parents to go in for a RCC house because all his friends were living in such houses.

Each hill-station has set a ceiling on the height of buildings, but this is often violated. In most instances, authorities themselves are the defaulters. Take the case of Shimla, which has a 12-storey High Court building. Wonders a resident, "Earlier, we could go to court against illegal constructions. Now, how can the lordships who sit in such a building be expected to respond to our pleas?"

Following the death of 52 people in landslides in Gangtok in June 1997, the Sikkim government revived an old law limiting the height of buildings to 15 metres, but by then almost the entire town had turned into a concrete jungle. "Most buildings belong to politicians and bureaucrats and now it is very difficult to demolish them," says an officer.

The threat to these hill-stations due to RCC construction increases with every new structure. The greatest risk is from earthquakes, for hill-stations are in high seismic zones. Shimla, Darjeeling and Gangtok, for instance, fall under Zone IV, a high-risk zone. In addition, the debris discarded during construction threatens the local ecology by preventing any life form to grow under it. This accentuates, in turn, landslides.

Road-hogging
Larger vehicle numbers and frequent traffic jams are also hill-station staples today. More fatal accidents are a direct consequence (see graph: Fatal vehicles). Moreover, according to a 1998 report, Reproductive and Child Health Project for Darjeeling Municipal Town, around 20.3 per cent of Darjeeling's population suffers from arterial respiratory infection owing largely to air pollution.

Increased traffic movement also leads to landslides. The approach roads the British laid were meant only for light vehicles. But today, the same roads are used to transport goods in heavy vehicles. No one has assessed the capacity of these roads against present traffic loads.

But Mamta Desai, a professor at Kolkata-based Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, in her 2003 report, Identification and mapping of hazard prone areas regarding landslides in the Darjeeling hill areas, has stressed the fact that "...due to constant lateral vibrations [caused by moving traffic], the already weak geological structure has become unstable."

Experts claim that an entry-tax should be levied on vehicles entering the hill-station. This will not only check jams, but also raise resources. Manali in Himachal Pradesh has recently introduced a 'green entry tax', as directed by the High Court, and raised Rs 23 lakh from it within a month. But the future of this tax hangs in limbo as the 'green tax committee', as proposed by the court, is yet to be formed.

-- (Credit: Shirish Gandhi)Planning is non-existent for India's hill-stations, admit hill municipalities. In the absence of a master plan, a free-for-all situation prevails where one constructs wherever one finds free space; if there is lack of space, one can simply add another storey to one's house. There is no tourist plan, which becomes amply clear when total chaos prevails during the peak season. Result: hill-stations are getting buried under waste, and are wallowing in their own sewage. A disaster is waiting to unfold. Literally.

Planning is the responsibility of the town and country planning department of the state governments. But why is this department not planning for hill-stations? "But there is no department of town planning for Darjeeling, or any other hill-station. So how can municipalities without the qualified town planners prepare master plans?" wonders Vimal Khawas, a New Delhi-based development consultant and researcher (eastern Indian Himalaya). So planners in the plains end up making all the plans for hill-stations, by default.

Ooty illustrates the trend
After a lengthy and energy-sapping battle, agitating local environmental groups were able to get a master plan for Ooty approved in 1997. But its implementation leaves much to be desired. "The master plan is drafted by the town and country planning regional office in Coimbatore, with absolutely no inputs from hill people," laments Geeta Srinivasan of the Nilgiri Wilderness and Environment Association, an Ooty-based NGO.

Three institutions oversee implementation: a local body, the Architecture and Aesthetics Aspects Committee (Triple A Committee), and the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA). The power for the approval of constructions on plots up to 250 square metres (sq m) is vested with the panchayat. The Triple A Committee is contacted for construction on plots up to 300 sq m. For bigger plots HACA, under the Chennai-based Housing and Urban Development Department, provides clearance.

Builders dupe the panchayat. The reason: they lack technical staff. Often, they submit several proposals for plots less than 250 sq m. After approval, the plots are 'joined' to make a huge structure. "The master plan is observed more in the breach than in compliance," says B J Krishnan of Save Nilgiris Campaign, an NGO based in Ooty.

The master plan lacks a monitoring scheme to ensure compliance. The only representation local people get is in form of two non-officials in the Triple A Committee. Although nominated by locals, these non-officials lack decision-making powers, and so cannot creatively contribute to planning. Officially people do participate, but in reality, their presence is only nominal and functional, not real.

Carrying capacity
Carrying capacity, a touchstone for hill planning, is a term foreign to Indian authorities. Simply put, it is an imaginary upper limit beyond which sustainable use of resources is not possible. It is calculated by accounting for variables such as the local population, quantity and variety of tourist resources; the fragility of local resources; the number and frequency of visitors; their activity types and intensity of resource use.

Carrying capacity is a relative concept. It factors in the native people and their tolerance to outsiders or tourists, and the latter's attitude or behaviour. That's why the calculation that works for Ooty will not work, for instance, for Mt Abu in Rajasthan. "At times just 10 per cent of tourists are enough to ecologically destroy the hill town. Hence it (carrying capacity) needs to be calculated sensitively," says Dong, executive director, Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation. None of the hill-stations that Down To Earth contacted had calculated their carrying capacities.

Rather than helping hill authorities calculate the carrying capacity of various hill-stations, the Indian government has spent crores of rupees under various schemes for 'hill development'. Positive results of these schemes are hard to find. In the mid 1970s, under the fifth five-year plan (1974-79), the Hill Area Development Programme and the Western Ghats Development Programme were launched. The aimwas to 'develop' the ecologically fragile hilly area. Fund allocation for the two programmes has also increased from Rs 170 crore in the fifth five-year plan to Rs 1,702 crore in the ninth five-year plan. But why aren't benefits visible?

Most of the schemes are sectoral in nature, writes D S Meshram in a 2003 paper, Development of hill areas: Planning issues and options. The Union ministry of environment and forests gives some hill-stations a special status by ; but even that is of little help (see box: Special status?).

Planning is the only option
Planning for hill towns cannot be similar to that for plains, says Singh of the SPA. Plains, for instance, have huge tracts of land, which can be used as parking space or landfills to dump garbage. But such 'luxury' is denied to hill towns. Planners need to understand the relationship between vegetation, precipitation, soil, topography, and hydrology to understand the limitations hill ecosystems pose to development activities.

Any plan for hill-stations should have three main components: site planning -- that is, land use classification; transport planning; and tourism master plan. Further, the master plan should calculate three kinds of carrying capacities -- physical, ecological and social. Physical carrying capacity includes parameters such as drinking water, power supply and parking space. Ecological carrying capacity looks at flora and fauna, various types of pollution and other such issues. Social carrying capacity includes the host population's tolerance towards presence of tourists and their behaviour.

Once these are calculated, they should be implemented with an iron hand. Eco-taxes should be introduced to limit tourist inflow and the money generated used for better resource planning. Hill municipalities should be strengthened in terms of skills and finances. Various taxes from tourism should feed into the local economy, rather than flowing downhill. Even the choice of technology will depend on the local terrain. For instance, large-scale composting plants and sewage treatment plants cannot be accommodated in land-scarce hill-stations.

Hill-stations require a fresh planning approach, which works from the top (read: hills) rather than the bottom (read: plains). Is the Indian government capable of doing this?

NIDHI JAMWAL visited Darjeeling and Sikkim, also anchoring the story. Inputs given by Deepa Kozhisseri in Ooty, Tamil Nadu; Rahul Chandawarkar in Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra; and Mansi Sharma in Almora, Uttaranchal.

Down To Earth
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