In his most celebrated book, Simla, Past and Present, Edward J.Buck, a British author, who had lived in Shimla, conspicuously refers to mysterious fires, one of the biggest enemies of Shimla’s landmark buildings. Beginning from the year 1880 till year 2014—when historic Gorton Castle, the 1904-built finest British architectural pieces went into flames on an early winter morning. The list of several iconic buildings, a few these plus 100 years, which were reduced to ashes, is very long.
Shimla once again, is making fresh headlines and flashing scary images of buildings and bridges collapsing like a pack of cards. These extreme events from the rain-battered hill state have exposed Shimla's long-time sustainability, primarily due to highly uncontrolled and unscientific construction practices tending to decimate the old British town's hill character.
The climate change and relentless rains could just trigger current happenings on the ground.
Never before this year’s monsoon fury, Shimla was shaken as badly as this time. The disasters of an unimaginable scale not alone have taken a toll on lives but also brought down multi-storey buildings uprooted tall deodars, caused massive landslides, and road sinks that have made 1000 buildings unsafe.
The occupants, who spent nights on the road after the collapse, are living in the shelter homes or relatives.
The torrential rains between August 13 to 16, which surpassed a 100-year-old record—almost beyond living memories of old Shimla natives, have raised red flags on structural safety of unscientific constructions, which are not only of inferior quality but raised haphazardly blocking natural drainage and hill topography.
Whatever is happening in Shimla is not sudden or unanticipated. The geo-environmental experts, architect planners and scientists say their concerns were repeatedly ignored and overlooked. The current phase of disasters can't be dismissed as a result of climate change. There are physical factors and man-induced reasons.
“Unabated anthropogenic interventions, by way of buildings, which are completely unsuited to hill topography, relentless disturbance to fragile soil coupled with a disregard for structural safety and local environment, had increased the hazard risks. Further, the infrastructure construction in Shimla presuming that nothing will go wrong aggravated problems. It’s all man-made disaster” says V.K. Paul, Professor at School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.
For the past 44 years, when the Interim Shimla Development Plan (ISDP) was introduced in 1979, the constructions in Shimla went almost unchecked compromising all safety parameters, rather in a ‘free for all’ mode. Till 2022, the successive governments could not finalise the Shimla Development Plan (SDP) to address the town's specific development needs and strike a balance between ecology and population growth.
However, faulted badly when releasing the draft SDP in 2022 that is now pending before the Supreme Court for approval, after grave environmental concerns were raised when the incumbent government decided to allow the town’s green-belt,17- forest zones already notified as green-lungs of Shimla, to be opened for constructions.
Since 2010 there has been a complete ban on constructions in these highly fragile forest patches. The NGT in 2016 reaffirmed the ban on the basis of an Environment Impact Study and also on the basis of a report of the committee on the carrying capacity of Shimla.
Justice Deepak Gupta, a retired Supreme Court Judge, who earlier also headed the green bench of State High Courts says “Shimla development plan is in fact Shimla destruction plan. The government should withdraw it and frame stringent measures on the safety of Shimla buildings”
The Town and Country Planning (TCP) Act, 1977, and the Municipal Corporation Act have laid down norms to regulate construction activity, but a near-absence of monitoring and implementation and political exigencies to accommodate the violators left Shimla crying for interventions. This is despite the harsh reality that Shimla falls in the Seismic Zone IV and V. A strong earthquake or landslide of some kind happening in the Himalayan region, can wreak havoc.
In the words of Raaja Bhasin, a Shimla historian, “The post-1947 era has been particularly cruel to Shimla; a gracious lady who has aged, and wrinkled long before her time. If you see the pattern of landslides and building collapse, it has happened only in the areas where construction happened during this period. Those buildings, which came up pre-1947 are still intact because of best engineering knowledge, architecture.”
A record seven times, the state government introduced a “retention” policy between 1997 and 2014 to regularise all illegal constructions, mostly ahead of Shimla Municipal Corporation (SMC) elections or state assembly poll, to give benefits to wilful violators, mostly at the behest of influential families.
Yet, there are more than 25,000 illegal constructions in Himachal Pradesh, of which 12,000 are in Shimla alone where the buildings have been raised either without the approval of maps in highly ecologically fragile areas, sinking zones deep in the ‘nullahs’ -- which was town’s natural drainage course left undisturbed by the Britishers, or beyond sanctioned plans, adding-up extra floors.
To avoid criticism of the environmentalists over “retention policies”, the Congress government led by Virbhadra Singh, made an aborted attempt to regularise illegal constructions in 2016, before the 2017 elections through a new legislative amendment to the Town and Country Planning Act (TCP).
Himachal Pradesh High Court set aside the amendment terming it as illegal, arbitrary, irrational, illogical, capricious, and unreasonable. “The science behind planning has given way to human greed and not the need, as the Minister wanted the House to believe,” said the Court.
Former state Chief Architect N K Negi terms that happening in Shimla results from ‘collective failure’ and must be owned to bear its cost. A disaster of the kind just waiting to happen.
“We have disturbed the natural balance of nature. The old natural drainage system of the town is replaced and blocked by buildings. Earlier, 70 per cent of the rainwater used to flow down through these drains (nullahs), crisscrossing the core town with just 30 per cent absorbed by the soil or meeting the water needs of our greenery. It's the reverse now."
In most of the areas, with no drainage system or defunct drainage channels, the water is constantly seeping into the soil, accumulating, surrounding the buildings and weakening the foundations. Gradually the soil ground holds the weight. The slopes turn oversaturated and unstable, causing mass movement. The deodar trees in the vicinity, whose roots are exposed, cut and damaged, by digging, and building foundations, also fall carrying whole soil mass. The building crumbles down like a house of cards as has happened.
Negi has disapproved of the way the Smart City project has been executed in the town overloading the town with hundreds of tonnes of steel and iron over-bridges. Old stone masonry -- a traditional crafted stonework and mud-based retaining walls dug out to put bricks and concrete
"The most eye-catching feature along the Cart Road, a vital loop of Shimla town, has been the stone walls which, no matter how high, blend with the natural surroundings adding a strong character to the place. Similarly, the drains were made with stone on the edges restricting the speed of flow while allowing percolation to recharge the underground water system. While one appreciates the intentions of the government for its efforts a major concern is the way these are being conceived and executed. This has, not in any way, helped Shimla's long-term needs, he says
Questions are also being raised as to why indigenous architecture and building practices have been slowly discarded and lesser-known cement-brick-based structures are encouraged. Most of the construction works are being done by migrant masons, who are not familiar with local topography, climate and soil conditions or have no knowledge about vulnerabilities and challenges.
Drainage or lack of it, will saturate the soil, and construction in proximity adds to the pressure on adjoining foundation structures. Felling Deodar trees renders roots ineffective eventually. Ageing trees without natural replacement and relentless disturbance to fragile Himalayan slopes only exasperate stability. Did planning and design, including structural, norms recognize this evolving complexity? Technical Expertise is now clueless in the face of a convoluted way forward if there exists one. Unfortunately, developments in other Himachal towns follow in the footsteps of Shimla. It is not an engineering or environmental issue anymore, Prof V K Paul underlines.
The implementation of the SDP, also called Vision 2041, is bound to spell doom for the town. It will open up the 17 green belts and allow more construction in the congested core area, which is already crumbling.
A baseline assessment report on the structural safety of the buildings in Shimla, done by Delhi-based Geo-Hazard Society reveals that 90 per cent of structures in the city are ‘poorly built’ and can collapse during moderate to high earthquake shakings. The underlying factors that caused haphazard construction in the city include the huge demand for urbanization triggered by migration and tourism. As a result of these factors, a lot of construction buildings have started on steep and unstable slopes with improper construction practices. A Rapid Visual Screening (RVS) study conducted by the UNDP contains information on many of the buildings that have been listed as critically unsafe.
Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has spoken about addressing structural safety issues of the town and buildings, especially those that have become unsafe, dangerous and built in complete violation of the building laws. "The most important reason behind the collapse of buildings or those unsafe is blocked drainage soil subsistence and over-burdening of the hill slopes exceeding load-bearing capacity. We are going to set up an expert committee to study issues of structural safety and recommend measures. The government will also examine suggestions to decongest Shimla and ban certain areas for construction," he told Outlook.