Right through childhood and early youth there was a sense of pride for being associated with Shimla — a feeling of being a cut above the rest by being a citizen of an elegant town that had so much to offer. In those early days of Chandigarh, the city came a poor second, since it was regarded as a ‘rough’ place inhabited by residents lacking style and civic sense. Comparisons are unfair, but we believed in what we believed.
On that winter morning at the Ridge, amid mild snowfall, who would have believed that the announcement of statehood for Himachal by Indira Gandhi would sound the death knell for the town after three and a half decades. It triggered a frenzy, reducing it to a mere style statement for the well-heeled who must have a house there. It turned into a caricature of its former self, lined by concrete monstrosities rising hideously upon RCC stilts to reach the sky and hold it in their ugly fists. It turned the hills into urban slums, where a bagful of matchstick houses seemed to have been emptied over hillsides. Through these decades of decay, there was a conspiracy of silence by successive governments and judiciary.
The slide became a cascade, but they remained comatose, anaesthetised by the lack of will to act. Shackled by various ‘considerations’, boards, corporations and departments started sneaking into residential areas and iconic places and buildings. With the highest percentage of government employees in India — 3 per cent of population — an army of employees started vying for basic facilities with local residents and tourists. Tourism also went through a sea change, with the town now increasingly besieged by the butter-chicken-Peter-Scot crowd, flitting through the hills in their vehicles, following whistle-stop tours designed more to excite than elevate.
And somewhere along the way the town lost the battle. Everyone saw it losing, but waited for miracles. But miracles only happen in Bollywood movies. Now the stage has come when the town faces existential crises. The tourism industry has suffered and the town has fallen from grace the world over. A Washington Post article described in vivid detail, ‘Stench of choked sewerage lines in the Shimla air’. It must be hell of a stench to have reached Washington, but when will it reach our politicians? Government employees can get salary anywhere, but a poor village lad, working as a waiter in a Shimla hotel, has no options. Statehood was meant for him, not for an army of clerks. He is the ultimate stakeholder and his interest must be uppermost. But who will show the political will to shift the burgeoning government paraphernalia out of town to decongest it? Who will control rampant illegal construction?
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