In ecologically fragile Himachal, NGT orders illegal Kasauli resorts to be demolished
The recent order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on the demolition of five illegal resorts in the tourist destination of Kasauli is simply an illustration of how policy makers have failed the people of the state by playing into the hands of those out to make a quick buck.
The order cannot be looked at as a step in isolation as it raises several questions on the functioning of the Himachal Pradesh state administration. This is because the phenomenon is not only confined to Kasauli, but is rampant at several other places including the state capital, Shimla.
The NGT, while acting on applications filed by Society for Preservation of Kasauli and its Environs (SPOKE), has reportedly directed that Bird's View Resort, Chelsea Resorts, Hotel Pine View, Narayani Guest House and Nilgiri Hotel to demolish their 'unauthorised structures' as per the NGT Act 2010.
It has stated that in the event of default, the Town and Country Planning (TCP) department, along with the state administration shall demolish these structures and recover the cost incurred thereupon as arrears of land revenue.
It has also ordered the resorts to pay up for the environmental destruction caused based on the nature of violations. The Bird's View Hotel has been reportedly directed to pay an environmental compensation of Rs 5 lakh, Chelsea Resorts, Hotel Pine View, Narayani Guest House Rs 7 lakh each, while Nilgiri Hotel has been directed to pay Rs 10 lakh.
The money will go to the Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (HPPCB), which will utilise it for restoration of forests and environment.
During the course of hearings, it was found that the Bird's View Hotel had added a three-storey frame structure adjoining the existing building without obtaining prior approval from TCP department. Chelsea Resorts had made four building blocks instead of two that were approved and Hotel Pine View constructed a seven-storey structure in two inter-connecting building blocks as against only three storeys approved.
Narayani Guest House had constructed a six-storey building against the approval of three storeys and Nilgiri Hotel had built four extra storeys. The same judgement may now apply to 31 hotels in total for violation of norms.
The NGT has also asked the Himachal Pradesh chief secretary to take disciplinary action against officials of HPPCB, TCP and electricity department for their failures to discharge their statutory and public duties appropriately.
“This is just one order that has come. We expect several more to follow. Don't the officials of the TCP and the electricity department know what is going on? A hotelier, who has an approval to build less than a dozen rooms, goes on to build a building having 70 rooms. Why is it that the people who complain have to run from pillar to post to get these things stopped?” asks Rajeev Kaundal of the Anti Bribe and Social Welfare Organization (ABSWO).
ABSWO has also filed several applications before the NGT with regards to violation of environmental norms in the areas around Kasauli.
“Can you imagine, the forest department officials imposing a fine of just Rs 7,000 for chopping of 82 trees or just Rs 3,000 for illegal dumping of soil. They need to answer whether they do any videography of how the land is being used by various parties. How does the power department sanction power loads to illegal constructions,” he asks, narrating from his own experiences in fighting the violators in the area.
He believes that if the government is sincere to tackle the problem, some heads must roll at the top administrative level.
A fragile region
The NGT in one of its recent judgements had reportedly pointed that Kasauli hills are part of Himalayan range, which is considered to be geologically weak, eco-sensitive and fragile.
Thus their protection has to be given a priority in terms of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986. It had set up a special expert committee with dual assignment of assessing the effect on environment and ecology due to the project in question and activities in Kasauli at large.
Located at a height of 1,927 metres above mean sea level, Kasauli is an old British time cantonment town located in Solan district. It was set up in 1842.
The builder lobby
Prem Singh Tanganiya, a RTI activist who has been waging a lonely battle against the builders violating norms in Solan says, “There have been occasions when I have complained to authorities with pictorial proofs of trees being chopped and trees also falling on adjoining buildings. But the builders managed to dispose of the trees overnight, and even their roots with the help of excavators. The official notings on the files eventually go saying that there was no proof of a tree being there on the said piece of land. I have got several probes initiated, but the menace persists with impunity.”
It was the loss of his son working for a local builder that led him to take on the builder lobby and he has played a major role in preventing the successive governments in bring about a retention policy wherein violators can get their buildings regularized by paying a certain amount. It is the builders in the state who encash this policy instead of the common man in whose name the policy is framed.
The Himachal Pradesh High Court has also put the implementation of the recently passed Himachal Pradesh Town and Country Planning Regularisation Amendment Act by the state assembly on hold.
The state assembly had passed the Bill in this regard in August last year, which included the provision to regularise all construction on 'as is where is basis'. Both the BJP and the Congress governments have shamelessly allowed illegal construction to take place in the hill state, paying no heed to the state being a high seismic zone with a fragile ecology. The two parties have been eying just petty political gains.
“The government and the administration have allowed the builders to throw all norms to the wind. We are contemplating writing to the President and the Chief Justice of India on how the governments have been cheating the people while playing into the hands of the builders,” he said.
‘Decongestion and depopulation’
The NGT is also looking at the attempts to allow constructions in the 17 green belts and heritage area of Shimla. An NGT appointed committee has reportedly strongly recommended “decongestion and depopulation” of the state capital to avoid any catastrophe. An eight-member committee has submitted a report on the matter to the NGT which will be taking it up on July 12. The committee was assigned the task of assessing carrying capacity of Shimla hills.
There is a complete ban on fresh constructions in the green belts and heritage zones since December 2000. The committee has reportedly observed that neither the government nor any institution should have the discretion to regularise any new buildings which violate the laid down guidelines.
“Successive governments have failed to come up with a proper sustainable development plan for the capital and things are continuing as per the interim plans. The city needs to be decongested by developing satellite townships,” says Shimla Mayor Sanjay Chauhan.
“There needs to be a uniform law regarding land use and construction for the government, the builders and the common man. A common man is allured to go in for constructing a couple of more storeys when he sees a 12-storey High Court building come up in the heart of the town. After all, the land fragility is same across the town. The latest example is the construction of a 13-storey tower for the new Jakhu Ropeway that has become functional. In 2012, there was a notification from the Prem Kumar Dhumal government that would led to construction of a 22 storey hotel very close to the Mall. All this shows how these governments have been non serious in their approach and have worked to benefit the builders.”
He further said that the green belts in Shimla need to be preserved at all cost and the the land owners who bought plots before 2000 when the 17 green belts (404 hectares) were carved out must be compensated.
But as this is election year, perhaps the Virbhadra Singh-led Congress government could display some commitment and take action against the erring officials. There is also a strong point of view that the NGT also needs to be more vigilant about what all is going on in this hill state and those fighting against the violators are being harassed.