Courts step in to protect Himachal ecology from rampant illegal construction
The judiciary has come to be the last ray of hope for those in Himachal Pradesh opposing rampant illegal construction.
The Supreme Court this week ordered the demolition of illegal construction in several hotels in Kasauli. Successive governments turend a blind eye to violation of green norms in various parts of the hill state, particularly in tourist destinations of Kasauli, Shimla, McLeodganj etc.
It is actually an addition to the landmark December judgement of the Himachal Pradesh High Court, striking down the 'HP Town and Country Planning Regularisation Amendment Act, 2016' that allowed regularisation of both residential and commercial unauthorised structures in the state by paying a compounding fee.
Violators have been trying to get away with their misdeeds in the name of promoting tourism. But in fact they have been sounding the death knell for environment in Himachal.
The Supreme Court in its Tuesday order underlined the fact that the life of people cannot be endangered for making money. It observed that illegal constructions have put the entire Kasauli town in danger, causing landslides. Some hotels and resort owners, who were not supposed to construct beyond two storeys, built up to six floors.
These buildings did not spring up overnight. Obviously officials were in the know and need to be held responsible.
The biggest irony is that the violators admitted they flouted norms, drawing the court's adverse observation on greed.
Owners of several hotels, resorts and guest houses in Kasauli approached the Supreme Court, challenging last year' order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to demolish or close down several such establishments.
The apex court earlier granted a stay on the order with respect to some establishments on the condition that they would not use the alleged unauthorised constructions.
The NGT reportedly directed demolition of 'illegal' structures of at least seven hotels. It also imposed fines on many of them for causing irretrievable damage to the ecology, polluting the environment and raising unauthorised constructions.
Kasauli is not the only city grappling with illegal construction. The worst affected are cities like Solan and Shimla where the apartment culture has picked up because of people from other parts migrating to these cities, seeking good educational and health facilities.
Solan has seen a lot of action of late. “After the court ordered the demolition of illegal construction and encroachments last year, the director of town and country planning (TCP) department is now focusing on complains about builders handing over flats to the buyers without completion certificates.
“Such buildings are marked by violations by the dozen. I have complained about it at regular intervals and now the officials are in a fix,” said Right to Information (RTI) activist Prem Singh Tanganiya, who has been campaigning for more than a decade.
Officials allowed the abuse of the ecology and environment under governments of both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Activists said they have a lot to explan regarding the chopping of trees on account of permissions given in context of Section-118 of Himachal Land Reforms and Tenancy Act that otherwise restricts the transfer of the land in favor of a person who is not an agriculturist of this state.
The ruling BJP had recently reportedly given a signal that it was mulling amendment in the Section while aiming only at development. The moot questions remain: whose development and at what cost?
Activists have also been raising the issue of hotel and resort owners tapping underground water resources illegally.
In December the Himachal Pradesh High Court struck down the 'HP Town and Country Planning Regularization Amendment Act, 2016', dealing a severe blow to politicians. It as enacted by the previous Congress regime, the current BJP government is planning to file a review petition before the Supreme Court.
The government is also mulling filing over a review petition against NGT orders last November banning construction in any part of the core, green and forest areas and within three metres of national highways.
Meanwhile, all eyes are set on a hearing by a four-member NGT Bench next month that will take up the matter pertaining to allowing four-storeyed structures in Shimla. Activists though are convinced that the courts will not let down the people of the state who want to conserve the environment.
Edited by Joyjeet Das