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Shimla And The Double-Edged Sword Of Tourism   

Shimla And The Double-Edged Sword Of Tourism   

In the period before 1972, the date when Himachal Pradesh was granted full-fledged statehood and Shimla became its state capital – and after the colonial phase – the town had parked itself into a sort of cold storage even in terms of tourism. Today, it is one of the most visited tourist destinations in India.

Cedar Lodge remains an example of Shimla's rich cultural heritage
Cedar Lodge remains an example of Shimla's rich cultural heritage Raaja Bhasin

In 2018, there was a major clean-up drive along the Kalka Shimla railway line. This is a UNESCO - inscribed World Heritage Site and among other things, with the mounds of garbage along the track, there was the danger of it losing this coveted status. An initiative was taken by the state’s judiciary and hundreds of volunteers that included members of various bar associations, environmental associations, students, the Territorial Army, railway personnel and several ordinary citizens spent a few days and cleared the area of tons of rubbish. Today, we are back to square one. While much has been done to spruce up the stations and trains, the litter is back on the surrounding hills and valleys. Villagers who live along the Line, complain of how their natural water sources have become contaminated and how, on a regular basis, they have to remove garbage from their fields. We are rather casual about tossing things out of the closest window. 

In the 1930s, the celebrated journalist Malcolm Muggeridge remarked that Shimla was ‘an authentic English production; designed by Sahibs for Sahibs without reference to any other consideration.’ From the very inception of the town in the 1820s, an aura of sorts developed around Shimla. It evoked an idyllic lifestyle that lay coupled with colonial power. During the colonial phase, it also seemed unapproachable for an ordinary person. For one, it had its two worlds – the official and the social and both belonged to the British elite in India; a person of moderate means simply could not afford a trip to or a stay in Shimla.  Even after India’s independence in 1947, that halo and idyll persisted and was gently egged on by India’s burgeoning film industry – movies like ‘Love in Simla’ (1960) and ‘Shakespearewallah’ (1965) added to the image of a perfect place in the hills.   

In the period before 1972, the date when Himachal Pradesh was granted full-fledged statehood and Shimla became its state capital – and after the colonial phase – the town had parked itself into a sort of cold storage even in terms of tourism. The ‘See India’ guide on Shimla (Simla) published in 1955 mentioned only three hotels – Cecil Hotel, Clarke’s Hotel and the Grand Hotel. The same guidebook emphasised the town’s natural beauty as its primary attraction stating: “A long walk in Simla leaves a trail of happy memories of pines, firs which the visitor assiduously preserves through the years.” 
As far as its character as a tourist destination went, it was in these years just after Independence that Shimla shifted tracks and became an overwhelmingly middle-class driven tourist destination. Those who had once longed to examine its unapproachable heights could now do so with ease.  No longer did only the wealthy and powerful come to spend entire ‘seasons’ in Shimla. Descendants of indentured labour who had moved from India to places as distant as Mauritius, Fiji and Trinidad wished to visit the enigmatic town of which they had heard so much from their ancestors and did so, like others, the moment they got an opportunity. 

Shimla's fading heritage | Credit: Raaja Bhasin
Shimla's fading heritage | Credit: Raaja Bhasin

While this is still largely the case and the middle-class domestic tourist is still the backbone of Shimla’s hotels and the ‘tourism business’, in recent years a fresh trend of discerning and demanding travellers who are both Indian and foreign and who wish to know more about the town’s rich past and heritage have also started visiting Shimla. Here lies the rub of various often conflicting pressures – the demands and requirements of a state capital and its administrative machinery and the desirability of better tourism infrastructure and facilities. The ambivalence of the impact becomes apparent. While desiring to preserve the elements of the past that translate into intangible and tangible terms – a noose appears around the core historical and heritage assets of Shimla which are its architecture and ambience and natural beauty.  That having been said, there is also visible economic movement in the tourism sector and employment and assets have been created at various levels. 

One of the most unfortunate aspects of this phase has been the neglect and steady deterioration of the original structures of Shimla. Their aesthetics, functionality, environmental compatibility and a wealth of experience and design, are steadily crumbling out of sheer neglect - or at best, out of clumsy maintenance. Many structures have been lost to fire. This problem is likely to intensify, as the buildings are still in use as houses, offices and shops. At the same time one can safely say that structures like this are never going to be built again – especially in this part of the world. Also, several items of a more public nature like post boxes, the cast-iron lampposts, water hydrants and benches that had considerably enhanced the character of the town have been removed, others are damaged - or are lying dumped in various stores. A revival is however apparent with the excellent rain-shelters, important restorations and some other civic measures that have reached out to find compatibility with the town’s past. 
 
While interrupted by the Covid outbreak, after the lull of the mid-twentieth century, tourism has seen a revival and contextual change in the last couple of decades. Interestingly, with what started as a social measure to enhance rural incomes, homestays in and around Shimla – and all across Himachal – have found a major market in the Covid period.  

Urban regeneration and revival are pushed (or pressured) by cultural tourism. Many successful cases of this have been driven by citizens, government and stakeholders acting in unison. While government and stakeholders have been acting (often independently of each other), substantial citizens’ participation is still minimal. Much is open to surmise and speculation. Here, the conflict between the requirements of the town’s permanent residents and of tourists – and inadequate infrastructure to serve both (or either) may also be mentioned. 

And for the moment, both lucre and litter are walking hand in hand. 

(Raaja Bhasin is an award-winning Shimla-based historian, author and traveller. Views expressed in this article are personal and may not necessarily reflect the views of Outlook Magazine)

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