Shimla: after 1947
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➤ Shimla is the most populous city in the western Himalaya. Planned for 25,000 people, it had 55,368 residents in 1971. The number had grown to 169,378 in 2011, and is estimated at over 2.3 lakh now
➤ Parts of Shimla have 2,500-3,500 people/hectare, as against the recommendeddensity of 450
➤ Massive construction in the last two decades has loaded the hills to breaking point. Shimla’s underlying rocks have become weak, deforestation has resulted in soil erosion, causing the land to sink. Poor drainage and seepage also aid the movement of loose soil
TREAD LIGHTLY: There’s a 10-lakh-gallon water reservoir under the Ridge in Shimla
Himachal Pradesh’s capital Shimla is sinking under its own weight. More than 25% of old Shimla’s core, including the historical Ridge, Grand Hotel, Lakkar Bazaar and Ladakhi Mohalla, lies in a sinking zone and has been declared unsafe in many geological surveys and studies. Experts blame unregulated construction, deforestation and slope-cutting for the land subsidence.
Founded for a population of 25,000, the city is estimated to house 2. 3 lakh people now. To make matters worse, buildings have been allowed on slopes of up to 70 degrees, even though Shimla lies in seismic zone IV.
“Construction weight and fragile geology are creating sinking zones in Shimla. The seepage due to poor drainage has further weakened the soil underneath, making the land sink,” says Sreedhar Ramamurthi, a geoscientist and managing trustee of Environics Trust, a New Delhi-based research and community development organisation.
The first warning signs appeared in the early 2000s when people noticed huge cracks on the sprawling Ridge that has landmarks like Christ Church and the State Library. Many attempts have been made to repair the Ridge that covers a 10-lakhgallon water reservoir from the British era.
Taking note of the situation, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2017 banned all construction – residential, institutional and commercial – in Shimla’s core and green areas. The Dehradunbased Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology also made the same recommendation that year.
However, the state government brushed aside all warnings. In its Shimla Draft Plan, 2041 (SDP-41) notified lastFebruary, it proposed to allow construction in the core and green areas, including the sinking zones, if certain conditions like clearance from a geologist were met. When the NGT quashed SDP-41 and termed it illegal last October, the state moved the Supreme Court and the case is pending there.
“The government has been persistently trying to allow construction in these areas only because the real estate prices are high there,” says Yogendra Mohan Sengupta, an environmentalist whose petition led to NGT’s 2017 ruling. “It has been praying since 2019 in the SC for lifting the ban on construction in the sinking zones. The government actually tried to get around the ban by allowing constructions in SDP-41. ”
Sengupta says the city has already crossed the tipping point. “Shimla is like an overweight person with weak knees. It’s over-populated, and prone to landslides and earthquakes. A minor natural or man-made disturbance can trigger a total collapse of this town. And if the Ridge goes down, it will open the floodgates for the lakhs of gallons of water stored there. ”
Researcher Smita Chakraburtty says that the open prison system is 78 times cheaper than a closed one
Lifers Lodged In Open Prison Run Cafes, Teach In Tuition Classes
It’s lunch time and there is a rush of people near Shimla’s Indira Gandhi Medical College. Bhupender Singh, 46, is busy doling out plates of rice, curry and rajma for Rs 25 from a mobile van. As people gobble up the meal, little do they realise that this is “jail ka khana”. “When we tell them that we are convicts they ask ‘aapko bahar kaise chhoda (how have you been let out?)’,” says Singh.
Singh, convicted of abetment after his wife committed suicide in 2000, is serving a life term in Kaithu jail. But as one of the 150 prisoners in Himachal Pradesh who are part of the open jail system, Singh is allowed to go out of prison premises and earn a living, returning to the barracks at night. The other prisoners work in factories, teach, run mobile lunch vans, and even a café in the heart of Shimla city.
The Book Café opened in 2017, has now become a popular hangout for locals to browse through the shelves over a cup of steaming coffee or tea.
Jai Chand, 49, is serving life for his wife’s murder, and manages the place with the help of other inmates. “Initially, common people were hesitant to come here, especially those with children. But now students come to our cafe a lot,” he says.
Chand, who used to work in the front office of a wellknown hotel chain in Manali before his life took an unexpected turn, used to meditate and work in the canteen in Kaithu prison. “Time used to hang very heavily on me. But now I meet and talk to other people. It makes me happy,” he says.
Ram Lal, 60, who sells biscuits made in the prison bakery, is also a murder convict, and has been incarcerated for 18 years. He stepped out of prison for the first time two years ago.
Need to treat prisoners humanely: DG
I used to be so tense all the time, afsos hota tha (was filled with regret.) I used to keep thinking about the same things over and over. Now I meet people, talk to them and the stress is much less,” Ram Lal, a murder convict who sells biscuits made in prison, says.
DGP (prisons) Himachal Somesh Goyal repeats an old Hindi saying — khalli dimaag, shaitan ka ghar (idle mind is devil’s workshop) — that is inscribed on most prison walls as the reason why he felt it was important to revitalise the open jail system in Himachal. “Incarceration of a criminal is an important aspect of justice, but we need to treat prisoners humanely and convert them into productive citizens,” he says.
Gaurav Verma, a 28-year old former IIT student who is convicted of killing his girlfriend, remembers the early years in confinement when he did nothing but cry. Recognising his tech skills, Verma was given the task of designing a website for products made in prison, a visitor management system, and finally a recruitment portal. He now teaches chemistry and physics at a coaching institute in Shimla. “Repenting is not a one-time thing. It’s not as if I can repent today and I am done. It is a lifelong process,” he says.
Of the 150 prisoners in the open jail, there are no women. But Goyal says that he hopes that anomaly will be fixed soon. Among his plans are setting up a beauty parlour run by women prisoners and radio broadcasting system within the prison premises.
The idea is not a new one, but two Supreme Court orders in the last six months ordering states to hasten the implementation of the system have given it a fillip. It makes economic sense too. Researcher Smita Chakraburtty says that the open prison system is 78 times cheaper than a closed one.
Her research — she has visited 200 jails and met with thousands of prisoners — found that while the Jaipur Central Jail cost the public exchequer Rs 7,000-Rs 10,000 per prisoner every year, the government spent only Rs 500 on each prisoner in Sanganer, which is the world’s largest open prison with 400 prisoners and their families.
A common question is: What about justice? Chakraburtty says, “Justice is not revenge. The prison system is not supposed to be inhuman, repressive. It should be able to reform and rehabilitate the prisoner.”
Girish Minocha, owner of Minchy’s in Shimla, says the staff at his juice factory were scared when they first found out that they would have to work alongside convicts. “They were referred to as kaidees (convicts). But working and eating together made a difference both for those who came from the jail and our regular staffers,” he says. “It’s worked for us. We get people who are keen to work hard and keep the freedom that they have got.”