Date: 04/10/2014

Re: THE LOST RESORTs-after Srinagar disaster is waiting to happen in congeste...
In a message dated 04/10/2014 11:16:36 GMT Daylight Time, XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX writes:
Friends All,

Media, in this case, INDIA TOcDAY, is making us look ahead, urgently. It is quite sometime, since i visited SHIMLA (quarter century ago) this scintillating/green hill station, loved by all. MUSSOORIE too is not far behind, nothing to say how Dehra Dun may be faring, plus its adjoining areas, since there have been a few massive landslides as reported in the news papers.

The piece below, had a big photograph, showing housing--cheek by jowl, where those who serve the visitors, live. Have the "powers that be" ever considered how they have governed what the British passed on to independent India.

Professionals, in the system, surely must be providing the alerts-- BUT who cares, all said and done. Will it be Naini Tal or Darjeeling next ?

The Youth must take over---the likes of me, on the way out, are never paid any attention to, as it goes. Good all one can wish those who follow the like of yours truly. Peace.

For more than two hours on the morning of September 1, a motley group of city councillors, police officers and civil servants in Shimla listened with evident fascination as the former general officer commanding of Uttarakhand Sub Area recounted details of the unprecedented rescue operation in the wake of the mega floods in June 2013. Retired Maj-Gen S.K. Agarwal's narrative of the catastrophe and its terrible aftermath contained chilling parallels to possible scenarios depicted in a Disaster Management Plan put together for Shimla even as it marks 150 years since it was declared India's summer capital in 1864.

Once an idyllic summer retreat favoured by the British for its 'England-like weather', the erstwhile summer capital, designed originally for 16,000 residents, has swelled a hundred-fold to become what may be the ugliest urban sprawl in the Himalayas-a teetering Legoland of concrete high rises precariously packed together on impossible slopes, with close to half-a-million dwellers. But the callous destruction of a precious architectural heritage coupled with its fast-fading aesthetic appeal are, however, the least of Shimla's current problems.

The city, India's most celebrated summer destination since the 1980s, straddles one of the most tectonically mobile regions in the Himalayas, making it susceptible to high-intensity seismic events. Located within Seismic Zone IV-V, there is the real and present threat of a mega temblor.

"Shimla lies in a region of geological thrusts and faults (cracks in the Earth's crust prone to sudden and unpredictable movements) capable of setting off major quakes," says geologist Sanjay Kumbkarni, who has spent most of his career mapping Himalayan rock formations for the Geological Survey of India. And this shaky Himalayan foundation is accumulating extraordinary strains, now evidenced in a roughly 50 km wide 'micro-seismicity belt' running down the west-to-east length of the Himalayas, revealed through high-resolution GPS-based studies by geoscientist V.C. Thakur. Seismologists warn that earthquakes of magnitude 8 and above could result as the subterranean rock formations move to relieve their strain. The consequences for congested urban settlements such as Shimla would be catastrophic.

The Disaster Management Plan prepared by the Shimla Municipal Corporation in collaboration with UNDP in 2013 bears the shocking truth: only 1.52 per cent of the city's residential, commercial and institutional buildings have been constructed to ride out an earthquake. The remainder-more than 98 per cent-would suffer substantial structural damage or simply collapse. An unbelievable 72 per cent of the structures are not accessible through motorable roads, making rescue operations difficult if not an entirely impossible challenge. And the chilling clincher-with a minuscule 0.41 per cent of the cityscape given to parks and open spaces, there would almost certainly be no escaping the falling debris.

"A high-intensity earthquake (7.5 and above on the Richter scale) would wipe out most of the city with enormous casualties," says Brigadier B.K. Khanna, senior consultant at the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in Delhi. "Twenty-five per cent of Shimla's population, including visiting tourists, could perish," he adds. Given the swarm of buildings on steep slopes, the majority of which fall miserably short of the NBC (National Building Code) standards for Seismic Zone IV, Khanna points out that the death toll would mount exponentially because it would become impossible to reach victims. In the disaster management workshop organised by the Municipal Corporation, Himachal Pradesh's divisional fire officer, responsible for fire-related emergencies across the state, told participants that Shimla's fire service was 96 per cent understaffed and incapable of responding to more than routine calls.

City-based historian Raaja Bhasin calls it "the urban scowl". And it stares you in the face in Sanjauli, the eastern suburb of Old Shimla now mushrooming along the historic Hindustan-Tibet Road. A gravity-defying crush of brick-and-concrete buildings, none less than five floors, many less than three feet apart and invariably clinging to crumbling, 70-80 degree slopes. Experts such as Khanna believe a moderate-to-high-intensity temblor would almost certainly turn the place into a tomb of concrete with no escape route.

More than 90 per cent of the buildings within the municipal limits of Shimla infringe both bylaws and building codes," says the city's mayor. Sanjay Chauhan, 47, elected to a five-year term in 2012, says homeowners and builders have been raising constructions far in excess of legally permissible limits only because they are confident that the state's Town and Country Planning Department will eventually compound all violations. Successive Congress and BJP governments in Himachal Pradesh have brought in "retention policies", which let off offenders in exchange for minor fines.

Deputy Mayor Tikender Singh Pawar says, "More than 15,000 structures have serious violations and are acutely vulnerable." And these aren't just private homes. All six floors of the new HP Secretariat in Chhota Shimla were constructed and occupied without the mandatory approval of building plans. Jagson International Ltd, promoter of the upcoming Jakhu Ropeway Project, has constructed a 12-storey commercial building in the centre of the city. Even Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan, the state Congress party office that literally seems to be hanging off Cart Road, has four extra floors currently awaiting approval. "Right now, Shimla is like a pack of cards that could come crashing down," says Himachal Pradesh Urban Development Minister Sudhir Sharma. A key member of the Virbhadra Singh cabinet since early 2013, Sharma however says he has initiated an ambitious long-term plan to decongest the hill capital. "I want to move out government and semi-government offices to peripheral areas and create open spaces," he adds.

But until that happens, he admits that builders in Shimla can take advantage of a "one-time retention policy" that allows "regularisation" of up to 70 per cent deviation in existing structures in exchange for cash penalties. The prescribed fines-between Rs.1,000 and Rs.16,000 per sq m-are no deterrent given the high cost of commercial and residential floor space in the hill town. Besides a blatant disregard for the law driven by commercial interests and political patronage, there is also this stick-your-head-in-the-sand attitude that seems to pervade the city. In Cemetery, a crowded quarter of Shimla, where the dead often have to be hoisted out of homes with ropes before they can be taken for cremation, random interviews with a cross-section of residents-students, householders, shop-owners, porters-was distressingly revealing.

Abhishek Mutreja, Pradip Kumar and Abhishek Bose, three 20-year-old hotel management students from the state-run institute in Kufri and flatmates in Shimla, had no notion of the looming threat. "Earthquake? Here?" they said in sceptical unison. Out by the Catholic burial ground which lends the name to the locality, Sahil and Saurab, Class X students at the Government Higher Secondary School in Bhatta Kuffar, don't remember being invited to the earthquake awareness drills Shimla's Deputy Commissioner Dinesh Malhotra claims are a regular feature.

The Disaster Management Plan reveals more: neither the local tourism industry nor the state tourism department have any plans in place for the safety of tourists in the event of an earthquake. This when holidaying visitors equal and often outnumber the natives at any given time of the year. Medical services, essentially state-run hospitals, are not only located in areas of high vulnerability but also without a coordinated emergency response plan.

Things are clearly dismal and possibly irretrievable. "There are no real solutions here," says Maj-Gen Agarwal, who oversaw rescue operations in the immediate aftermath of the Himalayan flood that struck Uttarakhand in 2013. "Shimla is a disaster waiting to happen and the only thing possible is to focus on all possible rescue scenarios."

Inder Bahadur, a 48-year-old porter from Nepal, is unruffled when informed of the prospect. "There will be a lot more stuff to haul, no?" he laughs. But what if he is killed? "Everyone has to die one day," he says. An overwhelming majority of people on the street clearly have no clue.

Follow the writers on Twitter @Asitjolly and @manjeet