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?

Published: Thursday 30 September 2004


-- (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.

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.

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