“Will I be able to watch Shimla’s first snowfall before I return to Patna after my semester examination in December 2019?” Ankit Kumar, a student at Shimla APG University asked his teacher. Hailing from Bihar, Ankit said one of the reasons he chose to do his journalism course in Shimla was to see his first snowfall. “I have seen lots of lovely pictures of this beautiful hill station completely wrapped in soft white snow. It’s my life’s dream to experience this”.
With the sudden drop in temperature to 6 degrees centigrade on November 29, and popular tourist spots like Noranda, Karapatan and Figo in Shimla’s apple-belt experiencing their first snowfall, Shimla is expected to get its first snow soon. Though Dr Manmohan Singh, Director, Shimla Meteorological station said the first week of December is predicted to be dry. “Even the second week doesn’t have great chances of snow,” added Dr Manmohan Singh. “But, third and fourth week, will definitely bring good news for the tourists and snow revellers. January could be a peak snow period for Shimla, and also rest of Himachal”. Met department normally issues weekly forecasts, and issues advisories on snowfall and rain possibilities.
The local administration is all geared to cope with all the problems that snow will bring — maintaining facilities for tourists, and ensuring smooth mobility and functioning of the city and other essential services like electricity, water and medical emergencies. “A snow manual”, an official document that guides government agencies before and during the snow months has already been activated to advance preparedness. The manual, first drafted in the early 1980s and updated over time, makes the deputy commissioner, superintendent of police (Shimla), and the municipal commissioner the key officials in ensuring the smooth running of the administration.
“Till now, I have already held three meetings of the snow manual committee,” said Amit Kashyap, Shimla’s Deputy Commissioner. “Duties have been assigned to every department. There is regular weather update and forecast on our district website. A control room has also been activated. Last year, we had given a time-schedule for snow clearance work with road-wise details and timelines for day and night clearance work. Same model will be followed this year too. I will not spare anyone’s laxity. Complaints on power supply disruptions and roads will be dealt on top priority.”
No extreme forecast
As per early weather forecasts, the met department is not willing to speculate about the likely extent of snowfall this winter. While Srinagar in Kashmir has already experienced the season’s first snowfall, Shimla’s wintry weather remains mild so far, though citizens are hoping for a good snowfall in the coming weeks.
December is normally considered the start of the winter months but countdown begins in November if the temperature drops. Shimla witnessed two spells of rain and thunderstorms in the last days of November and snowfall in the higher reaches including in upper reaches of Shimla district. Hoteliers confirm that they are getting regular queries about the snow schedule of Shimla to book their rooms. Winters do not see the same numbers of tourists as does summer, but when it starts to snow, tourist numbers do go up, though popular sites like Rohtang Pass are officially closed to visitors from Nov 15th for a few months.
“We will be on duty 24X7 immediately after the snowfall,” said municipal commissioner Pankaj Rai. “We have a three-pronged approach. There will be a new snow cutter, JBCs and manual clearance of snow. All roads leading to hospitals, the Indira Gandhi Medical College (IGMC), Kamla Nehru hospital which is a state-level woman and child care hospital and Deen Dayal Upadhaya hospital will be kept open 24×7”. The Municipal Corporation has also hired additional labour to manually clear snow from the roads for pedestrian as well as vehicular mobility, particularly for emergency services. Roads leading to cremation grounds will also be kept open.
On the safety front, unsafe trees have been identified and will either be cut down or kept under watch so that they do not hurt people or block roads if they come down. The electricity board is testing the supply lines while the Shimla Jal Prabandhan Nigam (SJPN) is checking all water supply lines and storage tanks, which face the possibility of bursting due to water freezing in the pipes when temperatures drop.
“We will devise a new water supply schedule during snow days,” said Dharmendra Gill, Managing Director SJPN. “Most areas where the water pipes get frozen will get the supplies during day time only. Everything else has been worked out to maintain the water supply to citizens, hoteliers and hospitals”.
In 2017, a year of record snowfall, a 23-year-old pregnant woman in Bhont village near Shimla had to be carried to the Kamla Nehru hospital by six Himachal Pradesh police jawans walking almost 10 kms distance on foot. There was no electricity in the area nor any possibility of an ambulance reaching her. Temperatures had dipped to minus three degrees centigrade then and snowfall was almost over one feet. Maintenance of emergency services poses a major challenge if snow is heavier than expected.
So, the question is will Shimla have a white Christmas? Unlikely, according to data available with the Shimla Meteorological Centre.
The last time it snowed on Christmas day was in 2016. Shimla rarely gets much snowfall in December. In 2018, there was only 7.1 cm snow recorded in December while it was zero in 2017. During 2016, Shimla recorded 3.0 cm of snow and almost same in 2015. Exception was 2014 when Shimla witnessed 38.1 cm of snow. But even mild snowfall brings problems, roads getting blocked being the most common due to snow, uprooting of trees, falling electric poles or snapping of over-head electric lines. Water supply pipes freeze. While forecast for the coming weeks is mild, the administration’s ability to maintain services could be tested despite their preparedness.
Experts like Sunita Narain, noted environmentalist, caution about extreme weather conditions due to climate changes. “The entire cycle of rains and snow has got disturbed,” said Sunita Narain. Snow months in Shimla have shifted to mainly January, instead of December as it once was. The MeT data reveals that Shimla recorded the highest snowfall on a single day in January 2019, which was 44.5 cm on January 22. The maximum snowfall before this was in 2004, which was 57.7 cm on January 23. There was 94.3 cm of snowfall in January 2005 and 96.6 cm in January 2004. In 2017, it was 65.6 cm.
“When we were school kids, we experienced the best snow time in 1960-1970,” said Shimla-born Balbir Thakur, a retired IPS officer. “Four to five feet snow was a normal feature in the town. Snowfall used to begin in October and everyone coming to Shimla in March-April could see mounts of frozen snow almost up to waist height. In 1990-91, Shimla had unprecedented snowfall, perhaps the last time it happened at that scale. The town remained completely cut off from the world for more than a week,” he recalls.
Yet, Shimla continues to be a fascinating place to experience the charm of snow that draws plenty of tourists to the place, despite problems of vehicular mobility. The hotel industry is pinning a lot of its hopes on good snowfall in December. “Had early snow happened, winter tourist arrivals could have begun in November itself,” said Nand Lal, Deputy General Manager at HPTDC’s premier Hotel Holiday Home. “I hope December goes well for us”.