Seven years ago, in a fit of romantic idealism, we bought a home in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. It would be our summer getaway, we reasoned, a place where our children would romp about, away from the world of malls and multiplexes; a place that we would visit to get away from the madness of New Delhi and into the coolness of having nothing more important to do than gaze at the pine trees, book in hand.
For a few years it was perfect—a slice of heaven. We planted all manner of trees as we scoured government nurseries for apricot and plum, silver oak and jacaranda. We made day trips to places whose names tripped off our tongues—Fagu, Mashobara, Kasauli, Chail. Our children trekked unescorted to the nearby railway station at Salogra to play ludo with the station master or take a joy ride on the heritage railway line to the next station.
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Then, two years ago, I learnt that our neighbour, a local businessman who often spoke about his Bharatiya Janata Party contacts, had sold off his land to a property developer based in Shimla. Before our shocked eyes, I saw the development project take off.
First, the hill was excavated and parts of it flattened, then the few remaining trees disappeared mysteriously overnight and, finally, the foundations of some six cottages (or flats, I still can’t make out), all cheek by jowl, were sunk in. I complained to the local authorities, convinced that no sane civic authority could allow this kind of mindless construction. But I was wrong. The builder from Shimla had indeed completed all the legal formalities and was building with all the sanctions and permissions under his belt.
Last week, I was back in Salogra, staring balefully at the six three-storeyed buildings that had sprung up in my backyard. The cottages have yet to find owners—a downturn does have its advantages—but I know it’s only a question of time before my new neighbours move into their new matchbox houses.
According to The Tribune, “Hills along the road to Shimla are fast turning into happy hunting grounds for nature lovers, chasing dreams of buying summer vacation cottages, even flats.” Shimla, explains the article, is no longer a preferred destination because of “haphazard construction with more concrete pillars than trees”.
Ironically, in order to meet this demand by nature lovers, builders, all within the framework of the law, are responding with even more haphazard construction. Where will these nature lovers turn to once there’s nothing left?
So, having turned Shimla into—there is no nice way to put this—an enormous slum, the state’s civic authorities now seem determined to do the same to previously unspoiled towns and villages along the way. Land on the hills is being snapped up by builders to be developed into cottages and flats for, well, people like us who just want to get away. I’m told that flats in these areas could go for anything between Rs12 lakh and Rs15 lakh while a luxury cottage could fetch up to Rs1 crore.
It’s not just the hills of Himachal Pradesh. Demand is up in Uttarakhand and while the Supreme Court has banned new construction in the hill station of Mussoorie, there is no shortage of opportunities in the neighbourhood: A four-bedroom cottage on Kempty Road could go for around Rs17 lakh, and development projects, including luxury flats, abound on the peripheries of Dehradun. Similarly, no new construction is allowed in Nainital, but in the towns of Ranikhet, Kausani and Almora, there’s no shortage of land or flats to buy.
Himachal Pradesh has an edge in terms of infrastructure—the roads are excellent and power is both cheap and available. There are restrictions on purchase, but these can be circumvented by entering into partnerships with locals or getting government approval to buy land, for floriculture or horticulture, for instance.
In 2006, the Himachal Pradesh Urban Development Authority decided to give permission to builders for land development. Within months, 170 builders registered and in no time at all the hills were being dug out to make way for flats. It’s a win-win situation for everybody: landowners became cash-rich overnight, flat owners were on to a good investment—in many cases, property prices shot up by 100% or more in just one year—and builders were laughing all the way to the bank.
Yet, even a small town such as Salogra is feeling the pinch. This summer, civic authorities are releasing water only once every two days and those who can afford to are buying tankers of water. Hillsides are turning into polythene-bag graveyards. And I’m not even getting into the ecological degradation caused by an increased population.
It doesn’t take a genius to find a solution that would strike a balance between need and restriction. In Kasauli, for instance, civic authorities have imposed restrictions on large-scale investment in construction, including high-rise apartments and hotels. If we’re going to save the hills, we need to curtail our enthusiasm. Otherwise we’ll have greed stamped over them—all in the name of development.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org