Shimla's Ridge, Once Open Only To British Rulers, Buckles Under Human Pressure

Shimla, June 4 (IANS) The historic Ridge, once the only promenade for the British colonial rulers when Shimla was their summer capital and rests on the city's crucial over a century old water supply system that quenches the thirst of 40 per cent population, is buckling under human pressure.
Locals blame successive governments for their callousness to save the iconic landmark from sinking with surfacing of major cracks in 2008 when about 20 shops of the Tibetan market beneath it collapsed, while geological experts say over the years the strata has become fragile.
The experts warn that surfacing of caving in at one point or the other can't be good for the Ridge and may amplify ecological risk and could turn unsafe threatening the British-era landmarks, including Gaiety Theatre where Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling and legendary actors Prithviraj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni once performed, that adorn the place.
The 'Queen of Hills' moniker was given to the hill station by the British colonial rulers and the town still has 91 British-era heritage buildings.
Advocating sustainable development, the Himachal Pradesh High Court has time and again rapped the state authorities over their lack of response to the growing activity on the Ridge.
Old-timers charge the successive BJP and Congress governments for staging massive public events and political rallies on the Ridge, an open space just above the Mall that extends to the Grand Hotel in the west and Lakkar Bazaar in the east.
Excavated debris was dumped on the sinking northern portion of the Ridge a long time ago, which keeps on sinking every year during monsoon.
Geologists have found that blocked natural drains and loose soil are responsible for the cracks. They say the sinking portion can be stabilised by raising breast walls and maintaining the drainage system.
Apart from a portion of the Ridge, the water tank beneath it has been sinking and the stabilization work is yet to start. Locals say the surface above the water tanks should be declared a no-vehicle zone.
Besides the Ridge, Shimla's sinking zones comprise Grand Hotel -- located in the vicinity of the famous Kali Bari temple and close to Scandal Point -- Lakkar Bazaar, Krishnanagar -- the city's slum -- and areas close to the century-old prestigious Hotel Oberoi Clarkes that was shut in 2012 due to landslides.
Now callousness of the local authorities once again comes to fore with local authorities hosting a five-day annual Summer Festival on the Ridge that began on June 1.
Responding to the hosting of the festival, former deputy mayor Tikender Panwar told IANS it is happening right over the water tank, and the stage has been erected just over it. Even the seating arrangement is just over the water reservoir.
In a missive to the Himachal Pradesh High Court Chief Justice, he wrote: "I remember that during the days when I was serving the city, we had marked the entire water tank zone with yellow markings and it was made a no-vehicle zone. Even ambulances were not allowed to ply over it.
"To further apprise you, just a few years ago nearly Rs 2 crore was spent by the Shimla Municipal Corporation to repair the leakage in the tank. I request you to kindly take cognizance of the matter and ensure that the Summer Festival site is shifted immediately, and no further gatherings are allowed at the site. This site is not just of heritage value, but also is extremely vulnerable from the disaster aspect."
CPI-M leader Panwar, the directly elected deputy mayor from 2012 to 2017, says the large water reservoir underneath is more than a century old. The construction is with simple mortar and brick and there are no reinforcements.
"I have myself been into the tank during cleaning operations. It is a sensitive area. This area also falls under the heritage zone and no activity contrary to the guidelines is allowed including holding meetings etc."
The High Court has time and again intervened ensuring the protection of the legacy and the legitimacy of the region, the Mall, and the Ridge.
He apprised the Chief Justice that on September 12, 2008, the High Court passed an order that the portion of the Ridge over the water reservoir will not be allowed for any gathering.
Old-timer resident Ramnarayan Khemta told IANS that since the Ridge is losing load-bearing capacity all political rallies and public events should be shifted elsewhere.
"Otherwise our guests (the tourists) will not admire those soothing, refreshing peaks,a he remarked while pointing towards the mountains viewed from the Ridge that remain wrapped in a thick white blanket of snow in winter.
In view of threat to the city's lifeline, even the Shimla Nagrik Sabha, a Left-affiliated non-profit NGO, has been urging the government to ban political rallies and commercial activities on the Ridge and shift them to the Annandale ground, situated 4.5 km from the Ridge. It has been under the Indian Army's control since World War II.
Besides the famed Gaiety Theatre, the Ridge has two other heritage buildings, a neo-Tudor style Town Hall and the Anglican Christ church built in a neo-Gothic style that opened in 1857.
The Ridge was established by the British and served as the main bazaar with shops all around.
Later, the British decided to clear the Ridge for public events and the shops were pulled down.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at )



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