Monday, Jul 04, 2022

McLeodganj, Himachal's Prized Tourist Destination, Sitting On A Time Bomb

Mindless construction, deforestation and chaos have cut short the life of Mcleodganj, the spiritual abode of monks, by several years.

McLeodganj, Dharamshala
McLeodganj, Dharamshala Maritunjay Puri

With the temperature rising in the plains quite early this summer, tourists are already headed for the hills for a cooler haven. But they may not return with pleasant memories of a tranquil stay.

While the rush of holidaymakers, flocking the hill towns and mountain ranges of Dhauladhar or Pir Panjal, could be a boon for hoteliers, however, the situation is not of a great delight for old natives. They are rather seeing chaos growing at their doors. The landmark towns are crumbling to mindless human activities, construction and congestion.

Two years, since the Covid pandemic, has hit the tourism industry, impending ecological chaos of unregulated construction, new luxury hotels are changing the old landscapes, resorts. At the same time, newly-constructed restaurants are flouting basic norms that are threatening the survival of hills.

“Till some years back, McLeodganj – the popular spiritual abode of Dalai Lama -- was a rare example of living close to nature. While the glaciers feed perennial streams, the forested ecosystem – the deodars, water streams and fragrance of Cedars -- make the place a beautiful resort. But the current picture of the place seems horrifying to me. It's like a time bomb waiting to explode," says Virender Paul, professor and head of the School of Architecture and Planning, New Delhi. 

Prof Paul hails from Kangra and was on a family trip, last week, to McLeodganj, Bhagsu Nag and Dharamkot. He returned more disappointed than rejuvenated from his stay in Kangra, and a day-long trip to Mcleodganj, particularly Bhagsu Nag — a sacred waterfall and ancient temple, which is a must-visit delightful site for every tourist.

According to him, the kind of mindless construction, deforestation and chaos, which Mcleodganj has seen, has cut short the life of this spiritual abode of monks by several years. There is not an inch of space left to move in McLeodganj. Hills have been cut down by 30 to 40 meters deep for raising six to seven-storey buildings, shops, eating points and debris is being dumped in the most unscientific manner.

McLeodganj Maritunjay Puri

He further states that the traffic has been overgrowing but open spaces for mobility have been encroached upon by numerous buildings on the drainage systems and stormwater channels.

A massive flash flood after a few hours of rain at McLeodganj in July 2021 saw water gushing down to hotel rooms and cars floating like matchboxes. The videos of Baghu Nag flash floods went viral raising questions as to how the construction mess has extended an invitation to an ecological disaster in a highly seismic zone. Many believed that the incident was a result of a cloudburst, which, however, was never the case.

Dharamshala Mayor Onkar Nehria says, “I am strongly in favour of a complete construction ban in Mcleodganj for at least five years. The survival of this world-famous tourist is under threat. Many constructors don’t even bother to apply for approvals. Almost every second house in McLeodganj is either a hotel or homestay, mostly unauthorised or illegal."

Nehria, who represents McLeodganj ward, says he had already put forward a proposal to Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur and also Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur to save Mcleodganj from its ‘unnatural death’.

Only three days back, the Municipal Corporation slapped notices on mega-hotels, coming up near the liaison office of the Dalai Lama. The office is manned by Union Ministry for External Affairs. The officials had been repeatedly raising objections to the construction activity threatening Dalai Lama's offices and existing buildings.

Earlier, experts had prepared a report, stating that the area had exhausted its carrying capacity. As a result, the NGT had banned all kinds of commercial construction activity in McLeodganj. However, many illegal buildings are still coming up in the area. Despite not getting the NOC from the local authorities, these illegal buildings have even started functioning as hotels and commercial complexes. Five years back, the Himachal Pradesh High Court had ordered the disconnection of power supplies for 150 buildings, mainly hotels, on the basis of a study done by an expert team. Later NGT had also passed orders banning new construction.  

Yet, influential people are still carrying on with their illegal constructions.

As history goes, Lord Elgin—the British Viceroy, who served India between 1862–63, liked McLeodganj so much that he even suggested to the British government to make it the summer capital of India. Lord Elgin died at Dharamshala in November 1863, and lies buried at St. John in the Wilderness Church at Forsyth Ganj, just below McLeodganj.

Old natives claim that the summer residence, Mortimer House was later acquired by the Government of India to house the official residence of the Dalai Lama.

McLeodganj acquired an international statue when the 14th Dalai Lama moved here in 1959 after the Chinese invaded Tibet. As the government gave the Dalai Lama a refugee, McLeodganj, surrounded by a serene environment, gradually evolved into a tourist and pilgrimage destination.

McLeodganj is the seat of the Dalai Lama in exile
McLeodganj is the seat of the Dalai Lama in exile Maritunjay Puri

Rakesh Lohumi, a veteran journalist, who was based at Dharamshala in 1980s, recalls, “Haphazard constructions and deforestation have killed what we believed as a wonderful small hill station. Glaciers at Dhauladhar are receding because of McLeodganj constructions, vehicular movement and deforestation. Natural water sources like rivulets and streams have dried up completely. A construction mafia patronised by the government did the biggest harm to McLeodganj."

According to him, Dharamshala, which used to see massive rains, hardly see any such activity. Several environmentalists had raised the demand to make McLeodganj and adjoining spots an eco-sensitive zone. 

Experts say the entire hill town not only faces the risk of massive earthquakes (the last happened in 1905) but is also vulnerable to fires There is no fire safety mechanism in place.

“God forbid if a fire happens, the Tibetan population and also the Indians settled will be unable to save their lives and whole mercantile, they own for earning livelihoods. A massive restaurant at the central point is a death trap to fire hazard” warns Prof Paul.

Massive tourists influx, especially from Punjab and Delhi, and vehicular traffic is the cause of massive population, traffic jams, and littering. The new ropeway between Dharamshala to McLeodganj has also become a new attraction.

For decades, Dharamshala has been popular as being the home of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and as the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile,

“After the building of international cricket stadium, credit for which goes to union minister Anurag Thakur, Dharamshala has potential to become India’s best town provided the government shows political will and stops all new constructions,” feels former DGP I D Bhandari, who has been the Superintendent of Police, Kangra in the 1990s.