[ This piece was published in the SUNDAY TRIBUNE Supplement on 19.5.2018 ]
It’s not likely that most of Himachal’s political leaders would be acquainted with the writings of Thomas Carlyle , but they would do well to reflect on his sane warning: “ Popular public opinion is the biggest lie.” I say this with a heavy heart in the context of the cold blooded, daylight murder of the Assistant Town Planner Shailbala Sharma and Gulab Singh, a PWD labourer ( he died in hospital on the 13th of May) in Kasauli recently, in the presence of at least fourteen policemen who were there precisely to protect her and her team from any such violence ( and who are being inexplicably shielded by the state govt. in the Supreme Court). For the smoking gun here is not just the .32 calibre revolver in the hotelier’s hands but the populism of successive governments in Shimla over the last twenty years. It is that which killed Shailbala, as surely as the bullet which lodged in her chest.
Mr. Shanta Kumar, the sidelined , octogenarian BJP ex- Chief Minister of Himachal is bang on target when he went on record to state recently that the tragic incident is the result of appeasement policies of governments in the past. Mr. Kumar’s words carry weight because he is the last Chief Minister Himachal had who governed on the basis of principles, moral values and the public good. I still recollect the shock waves among govt. employees throughout India when he countered the unjustified strike of employees of the HP Govt. Secretariat by announcing the “ no work, no pay” policy in the 1990’s. He even called in the army to ensure law and order in the Secretariat. A long suffering public welcomed his tough stand, but it’s a sign of the deteriorating times that Mr. Shanta Kumar never became Chief Minister again. He was at odds with the changing zeitgeist.
The two primary areas where the govts. have faltered are town planning and the environment. I am not talking here of just bad planning but complete lack of enforcement of whatever plans exist. Enforcement has been replaced with large scale appeasement: Shimla alone has more than 20000 irregular buildings which violate planning rules and pose a danger to everyone; other major cities such as Dharamsala, Manali, Palampur, Solan have tens of thousands more. Instead of coming down on them with a heavy hand, successive govts. have tried every trick in the rule book to legitimise them. There have been six “ retention policies” so far ( double-speak for regularisation of illegal structures), and each has only encouraged more violations. No area has escaped the attentions of avaricious builders and ordinary, normally law abiding citizens wishing to exploit the pusillanimity of the political class- Manikaran, Kasol, Mashobra, Kasauli- for commercial gains. To cite just one example: the entire stretch in Mcleodganj ( Dharamsala) between the main crossing and the Dalai Lama’s residence is a declared heritage zone where all existing buildings are to be preserved. But it has now been reported that after the last “regularisation” scheme announced by the Congress govt. about four years back 98% of the heritage structures have been demolished and replaced with multi-storey buildings, mainly hotels and shops. This internationally famous zone has been destroyed and desecrated for ever. Just last week it was reported in the TRIBUNE that more than 3000 illegal buildings have come up within the 30 meter prohibited, no-construction zone of the Kalka-Shimla railway track, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, putting its heritage status in jeopardy. How were they allowed to come up all these years?
The same disgusting, vote pandering, spineless and short-sighted policies have been the bane of Himachal’s forests which have been encroached upon on a massive scale. The first, relative authentic figures of encroachment emerged in 2001, when the then government floated a scheme for regularisation of encroachments on forest land, just ahead of elections. Those wishing to avail of the benefit of the scheme were asked to submit affidavits detailing the extent of the encroachment. These affidavits revealed that there were a mind boggling 1,67,223 violators and the total forest area encroached upon was 24, 980 hectares, or 249 sq. kms- three times the size of the Shimla Planning Area! It is no coincidence that almost 70% of these encroachments is accounted for by just three districts: Shimla, Kullu and Mandi- all prime apple growing areas. It is common knowledge that vast swathes of forests have been chopped down by the politically influential over the last four decades to plant apple orchards. The primary historical culprits for encouraging this has been the Congress, but in the rat race that our political system has now become, even the BJP ( post Shanta Kumar) has not lagged behind. When the 2001-02 regularisation policy of the Congress ran into the obstacle of the Forest Conservation Act, Mr. Dhumal’s BJP came out with a modified policy in 2008. That, fortunately, was stymied by the High Court.
The same story is repeating itself in the Manali area where the NGT has been endeavouring to do what the state govt. itself should be doing- protect the Rohtang pass from the ravages of unplanned tourism and unsustainable vehicular traffic pollution. It has been passing orders to prohibit some types of environmentally damaging activities, restrict the number and types of vehicles going up to the Pass, remove the encroachments at Marhi and the Pass itself, collect and dispose of the garbage, etc. But at every stage the court has been opposed by the govt. itself, either by delaying tactics, or lack of cooperation or outright defiance. The Palchan- Rohtang ropeway ( which would obviate the need for any tourist vehicle to go to the Pass) has made little progress in the last nine years. The green electric buses bought to replace the highly polluting diesel/ CNG buses have just been ordered off the roads by the new Transport Minister and told not to ply! All this is being done under the pressure of a few dozen taxi operators, who fear loss of business. In actual fact, their business is extorting money from tourists, charging four to five times the rates fixed by the govt. They are perhaps the most pampered lot in Manali: as far back as in the late 1980s , when complaints of overcharging air passengers for the journey from Bhuntar airport to Manali became endemic, the HRTC introduced its own deluxe bus service on this route. On the very first day itself the bus was vandalised by the taxi union and was not allowed to run. No action was taken by the administration, and this service has never been reintroduced. The govt. always chooses the easier, electorally beneficial appeasement route. It should realise that by capitulating to such elements it only engenders contempt for the law and for itself, encouraging a criminalised mindset that does not hesitate to take the law into one’s hands, as Vijay Singh did in Kasauli the other day.
This needs to be stated clearly: by its myopic appeasement policies the govt. has been complicit in illegal urban constructions, environmental destruction and forest encroachments. By legitimising the violations it has only emboldened the violators to aggressively resist any attempt to undo their illegalities. It is only the courts- the High Court and the National Green Tribunal- which have been proactive in trying to preserve the rule of law and in trying to save Himachal’s towns and its forest areas. But successive governments have consistently tried to undermine the orders of the courts, instead of deriving strength from them to do the right thing: filing appeals and review petitions, bringing in new legislation, going slow in implementing the judicial verdicts. Civil society, regrettably has been a mute and silent spectator to this govt. sponsored vandalism and defiance. Finally, however, the courts appear to have realised that the political executive or the administration cannot be trusted with either framing rational policies or with implementing the laws of the land. Increasingly, therefore, they have taken matters into their own hands, passed orders to demolish irregular buildings and vacate forest encroachments, constituted SITs and Committees to implement and monitor execution of these orders. The government of the day has been completely side-lined in the matter, and this should be welcomed by all right minded citizens. Perhaps the concerned officers of these departments will now be able to carry out their duties without fear of political intervention or influence.
It remains to be seen whether the courts can deliver where the govts. have failed. But the real damage to the body fabric of the state has already been done: the state administration has been fenestrated and rendered impotent, as the criminal negligence and inaction of the police force accompanying Shail Bala demonstrates. Even more worrying, the shameful opportunism of the various political parties over the years has embedded a certain contempt for the law among the citizens of this once law abiding state. It has bred a feeling of entitlement among them- that they are entitled to break the law in certain matters, that they are entitled to occupy public lands and forests, and that anyone who tries to stop them from doing so is acting against the public interest and can be lawfully resisted. The whole concept of public interest has been turned on its head. It is this warped feeling and mentality, actively encouraged for years by all political parties in the state, that killed Shail Bala and Gulab Singh. The bullets were only the medium.