The Supreme Court has allowed the lifting of the ban on construction on 17 green belts of Shimla, and the core area of the city imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in connection with the Himachal Pradesh government's Shimla Development Plan 2041.

The Supreme Court in its order has clearly addressed that under the Shimla Development Plan 2041, the Himachal Pradesh government would ensure balance between the growing needs of Shimla’s population, and the protection of environment and ecology.

“The Shimla Development Plan 2041 has been prepared after detailed discussions with experts and due process thereto, cannot be stalled in entirely thereby putting the entire developmental activities to standstill” the Supreme Court bench said, setting aside NGT’S orders.

The SC further stated that if any citizen has a complaint that any development work would disturb the environment or ecosystem, he or she is free to challenge it.

On November 16 2017, the NGT had banned any construction in the 17 green belts of Shimla and the core area of ​​the city, and restricted construction to two and a half storeys in the entire planning area of ​​Shimla.

On April 16 2022, the government of Himachal Pradesh approved a new plan to construct three-and-a-half-storey buildings with parking facilities near roads in an area of ​​22,450 hectares under the Shimla Planning Area for development in the core area and green belts and the rest of Shimla. However, the NGT banned this plan too on May 12 2022.

According to the NGT, construction in environmentally sensitive areas increases the damage caused by natural calamities, which violates the principle of sustainable development that results in the loss of public interest. Therefore, the NGT banned both the development plans of Shimla. The Supreme Court has now lifted both the bans imposed by the NGT and allowed construction to take place.

The Shimla planning area is divided into core, non-core, green belt, and sinking areas on the basis of its topography, environment, and population bearing capacity. The core area includes parts of Mall Road, Lakkar Bazar, Jakhu hills and Summerhill, starting from Victory Tunnel. According to a Supreme Court order, only two-and-a-half storey buildings with parking facilities close to a road are allowed in the core area. Only one-and-a-half storey building is allowed in the green belt area. A parking area can also be constructed if the plot is along the roads. Demolition and reconstruction of old constructed buildings is allowed, but it can be constructed in the same area as the one constructed earlier, there should be no new construction or increase in the constructed area. No tree felling is allowed in the green belt area. According to the Forest Conservation Act, no construction is allowed in the forest area without the permission of the Central government. In the rest of the planning area, permission has been given to construct three-and-a-half storey buildings. A parking area can also be constructed if the plot is located on a motorable road.

The Supreme Court has given permission to the Himachal Pradesh government to construct buildings in the core area. Only two-and-a-half storey buildings can be built in this area, but now a big problem may arise for the Himachal Pradesh government, what to do with the buildings that are already more than two-and-a-half storeys. Some multi-storied hotels and residential buildings are also built in this core area. Will the rest of these hotels and residential buildings be demolished, keeping only two and a half floors? Apart from these, what will the government do about the buildings that are built near seasonal drains or in landslide zones with a slope of more than 45 degrees? Many buildings in Shimla do not meet environmental norms, which may pose problems for the government of Himachal Pradesh regarding the implementation of the Shimla Development Plan Vision-2041.

Development of any state lags behind due to non-approval of development works. Although the Supreme Court has given a commendable decision by removing the restrictions imposed by the NGT on the implementation of the Shimla Development Plan Vision-2041, time will tell how the Himachal Pradesh government develops Shimla now. Himachal Pradesh is a hilly, earthquake-prone, forested, and snowy state. Here, it is necessary to take the opinion of geologists, environmental experts, and local people before any kind of development. Development works in hilly areas require cutting forests and breaking of mountains. By breaking the mountains or overcutting them, their balance is disturbed and they begin to slide down, the land begins to erode due to the absence of forests. Any kind of construction in places prone to erosion, landslides and sinking zones can be dangerous. In the months of July and August in 2023, landslides in Summerhill and Krishna Nagar in the core area of ​​Shimla caused massive destruction.

According to a report by the Geological Survey of India, Himachal Pradesh has 17,120 places where landslides can occur and 1,357 of them are from Shimla alone.

According to the NGT, buildings should not be constructed on slopes of more than 45 degrees in hilly areas, but at present, in some areas of Shimla, buildings are constructed on slopes of 70 to 75 degrees.

The Himachal Pradesh government is developing the city of Shimla to attract more tourists. Tourists come to Shimla for its natural beauty and cool temperature.

Why will the tourists come to Shimla if the green tall trees here are cut down, and converted into a concrete jungle, and the temperature here which is already rising rapidly due to the development activities of the state government?

The population of Shimla in 2011 was 1,69,578 which is estimated to be 2,32,000 in 2023. According to Shimla Development Plan 2041, it is estimated to be 6.52 lakh by 2041.

Therefore, the Himachal Pradesh government has prepared this development plan keeping in view the growth in population of Shimla in the near future and keeping in mind to fulfil its needs. The city of Shimla was established by the Britishers as the summer capital of India in 1864 during the British rule.

The city could only support 16,000 people, but now its population has grown 14.5 times of the population for which it was established.

The government of Himachal Pradesh has to consider that the natural resources of Shimla, and the mountains here, will not be able to bear the weight of such a large population in the coming time.

The devastation caused by heavy rains and landslides in 2023 has clearly shown that Shimla cannot bear the burden of more population. If heavy rainfall can cause so much destruction, the Himachal Pradesh government also has to keep in mind that Shimla falls in a seismic zone, what will happen to Shimla in case of an earthquake.

If the Himachal Pradesh government wants to really develop Shimla, instead of more constructions, development of counter magnets and satellite towns, it should provide facilities to the traditional villages here, and help keep them beautiful and clean.

Instead of converting the green belts into concrete jungles, connect them with the ridge, and mall road, through footpaths. The roads and footpaths below the mall road and the ridge should be made passable.

In accordance with the opinion of geologists and environmental experts, the development of hilly areas should be in accordance with the topography of the mountains, and the ground conditions.

The development plan of Shimla city is also modelled on the pattern of urban development taking place in the plains which may be detrimental to the hilly areas. Himachal Pradesh should be developed on the lines of their own slogan 'Har Ghar Kuchh Kehta Hai'.

Dr Gurinder Kaur is a former professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala. views expressed are the writer’s own.