Last year it was a water crisis, this year it is the traffic chaos and accidents. Post the bus accident in Khalini area of Shimla on the 1st of this month which claimed the lives of two young girls and the bus driver, it would be amusing- were it not so tragic- to observe the knee jerk reactions of the citizens of Shimla: Ministers rushing to the hospital, residents vandalising parked cars, the High Court issuing notices on children safety, inquiries being ordered and so on. Deja vu again, for we have seen it all a dozen times before and more than 1300 people continue to die in Himachal every year in road accidents. Everyone blames the state government, and rightly so, for ALL governments have been criminally negligent and culpable in making Shimla the mess it is today.
But the bitter truth is that the residents and citizens of the city are equally to blame and they cannot adopt a holier than thou posture, or pose as hapless victims of government apathy. Over the years they have been vocal and active participants in the degeneration and uglification of this once lovely city and have stoutly opposed any effort to preserve its natural assets or improve its functioning and infrastructure. They consequently live in a mess of their own making and have lost the right to complain.
Take, for example, the issue of rampant, illegal constructions, of which a recent survey recorded more than 20000. Instead of pressing the government to demolish them the citizens have repeatedly forced the govt. to regularise them: so far there have been five such regularisation (retention) schemes; the sixth one, passed by the previous Congress govt., has been struck down by the High Court but the present govt. has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court (it is telling that the present govt. is a BJP one- when it comes to rank populism politicians are like peas in a pod!). Such rampant vote pandering only encourages more violations.The National Green Tribunal’s orders banning further constructions in the city are openly flouted, the limit of two and a half storeys does not even merit a fig leaf, and people are building what they want, where they want for the next regularisation policy is only an election away. Hundreds of illegal home stays (the latest tax evading racket) add to the chaos, congestion and parking woes.
Shimla is being asphyxiated by the sheer volume of traffic on its roads which can neither be expanded nor widened because of the topography. A population of about two lakhs boasts of 1.25 lakh registered vehicles, a density higher even than that of Delhi. Add to this another 5000 tourist vehicles and 600 buses entering the city every day. Everyone happily goes about buying cars, with no thought given to where they will be parked. Rules require every building to have parking areas/ floors but these are only shown in the building plans: once approved they are converted to regular floors. Houses are constructed on 60-70 degree gradients, without proper access, and the cars simply left on the roads. The govt. is of course culpable for even approving such building plans, but surely the citizens too have to bear responsibility here: they cannot break the laws deliberately and then blame the govt. alone for the inconvenience and accidents. All reports indicate that the Khalini accident happened because the road was reduced to half its width because of illegally parked vehicles. Half- hearted attempts to declare some arterial roads as one way are resisted, everyone wants a permit for their vehicles to ply on restricted roads, attempts to cap the number of taxis or to install meters on them are met with protests, nobody wants to walk, as in the old days.
The slopes and forests are littered with plastic and waste; Shimla’s nallahs, which once flowed the year round and charged innumerable springs and cascades, are now smothered in garbage. A recent clean-up initiative by the district administration and some NGOs resulted in about twenty tonnes of waste being excavated from these water courses. Not all this garbage can be ascribed to tourists: the residents are equally responsible. All attempts at door-to-door collection or segregation have failed. It is, after all, much easier and less expensive to just chuck the bloody thing down the hillside. The monkey menace in the town is directly attributable to this open dumping of rubbish, but the good burghers will not admit to this; instead they demand that the monkeys be either shot as vermin or exported for medical purposes! Water harvesting has been made mandatory but it is neither adopted by the building owners nor implemented by the government.
It’s the same with Shimla’s rapidly disappearing green cover. Blessed with perhaps the world’s largest urban forest, the city is losing it all to construction and road building. Its only remaining forests lie in the 17 green belts (comprising 400 hectares) which were notified in the early 2000’s, and where no construction of any kind is permissible- without these forested areas the town would look like the seventh rock from the sun. And yet many citizens continue to resist these restrictions in the green belt, eyeing their commercial potential. They are supported by a vision-less and spineless govt. which has tried everything to open up the area for construction activity. Fortunately, the High Court and the National Green Tribunal have ruled in favour of keeping these areas closed.
Finally, it appears that civil society does not exist in Shimla. One cannot, of course, expect any expression of concern at this deterioration from the bureaucracy, cocooned in their privileges and conduct rules, but one would have expected some push back from its prominent citizens, the many retired officers and veterans, NGOs like INTACH. But sadly, the former are more interested in their bridge at ADC and golf at Annandale and Naldehra, and the latter at being on the right side of the government lest the invitations to govt. functions dry up. Which is a tragedy in itself. Democracies and civil society are sustained by its citizens and not by just the government of the day. If the citizens do not demonstrate civic values and ethics, if they do not observe laws and rules, if they do not hold a government to account, then they have only themselves to blame when things begin to go wrong. As you sow so shall you reap. A Biblical adage the citizens of Shimla would do well to remember before it is too late.