Haphazard constructions, tremors fail to move Himachal authorities

Shimla, Aug 2 : Haphazard constructions -- commercial and residential -- and tremors in the past have failed to shake authorities in Himachal Pradesh out of their slumber.

The quake-prone erstwhile summer capital of the British, Shimla and other tourist resorts such as McLeodganj, Kasauli, Chail, Manali, Palampur, Mandi and Kullu cannot afford a high-intensity quake that can turn them into a tomb of rubble.

Most of the picnic spots in the Himalayan state fall in high seismic zones IV-V, suggesting severest seismic sensitivity, said an official who didn't wish to be identified.

Advocating sustainable development, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the state High Court time and again have rapped the state authorities over their lack of response to the growing unauthorized constructions across the state.

Locals blame the politicians for converting the picturesque towns into concrete jungles.

"Such encroachments take place regardless of whether the buildings are structurally safe," said Suresh Sharma, a Shimla resident.

He said 14 major areas in Shimla are located on an average gradient of 70-80 degree where a majority of the buildings violate by-laws and building norms and haven't even adhered to seismic norms.

Officials of the Town and Country Planning Department told IANS that Shimla's northern slope of the Ridge, an open space just above the Mall that extends to Grand Hotel in the west and Lakkar Bazaar in the east, is slowly sinking.

"Most buildings are precariously hanging on to steep slopes and clinging to one another.

A moderate or high-intensity quake can be catastrophic for congested settlements with no escape routes.

They can collapse like a pack of cards," the official added.

Planned for a maximum population of 16,000, Shimla is now home to 2,36,000 people, as per provisional census figures of 2011.

At present, Shimla has 187 buildings with more than five floors, including a 12-storey commercial building constructed by Jagson International Ltd, an eight-storey building of Oberoi group's five-star hotel Cecil and a 10-storey building of the Himachal Pradesh High Court.

More than 200 public utility buildings comprising hospitals and government schools and colleges within the municipal limits of Shimla required seismic strengthening, city's former Deputy Mayor Tikender Panwar admitted.

Even the mushrooming of illegal constructions in McLeodganj, located on the suburbs of Dharamsala, is threatening Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama's security.

"unauthorized and illegal constructions by certain hotel owners are threatening the security of the Dalai Lama, besides obstructing the working of the office of the Union Ministry of External Affairs, which is also the liaison office to the Tibetan spiritual leader," said a letter last year by the Union Ministry of External Affairs.

Experts fear a high-intensity quake can turn the uphill town McLeodganj, known for attracting a steady stream of Tibet enthusiasts, Buddhist scholars, backpackers and even Hollywood stars, into a tomb of rubble as it falls in seismic zone V.

McLeodganj in Kangra district supports around 16,000 exiled Tibetans and an equal number of Indians.

A devastating earthquake in 1905 severely damaged property in the Kangra region, including St.

John's Church where many British officials were buried, and claimed over 20,000 lives.

Records of the field station of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, an autonomous research institute of the Department of Science and Technology, at Naddi near McLeodganj, show that several earthquakes have struck this region since 1905.

Prominent among these were the ones on June 15, 1978, and another on April 26, 1986 -- the first being of magnitude 5 and the other 5.7 on the Richter scale.

"McLeodganj and its nearby villages fall in the highly-sliding zone.

The construction of multistoried buildings is not advisable in this area," an official of the Wadia Institute told IANS.

Similar are the hills in Kullu, Mandi and Kinnaur districts as they too are prone to natural disasters.

The frightening reality of a performance audit in 2017 on disaster management, with specific focus on earthquake and fire, conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)to ascertain the state's preparedness says 90 percent of buildings, mainly houses, in rural areas of the state do not follow safe construction rules.

In Shimla, 83 per cent out of a sample of 300 selected buildings are highly vulnerable if there is a major earthquake.

Quoting 2011 Census, the auditor said there are 1.477 million houses (166,000 urban and 1.311 million rural) in the state.

However, construction of buildings and houses in rural areas (89 percent of total houses) is not regulated by any law.

Construction of seismic-resistant buildings in rural areas has, thus, not been ensured as of June 2016, the CAG had observed.

This is a wake-up call for authorities as seismic sensitivity of the state is high.

Seven out of 12 districts have over 25 per cent of their area falling in seismic zone V (very high damage risk).

The remaining parts fall in seismic zone IV (high damage risk).



Source: IANS