Smart city Dharamshala aspires to be more than a picturesque spiritual retreat

For decades, Dharamshala’s only claim to fame was as the home of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. A recent spurt of growth and the tag of 'smart city' has seen the town aiming to emerge as one of the best business and tourist destinations in India. Can it succeed?

The snow-capped Dauladhar mountains paint a picturesque backdrop to the town that today aspires to be a popular hub as a global tourist destination, as the business capital of Himachal Pradesh and as a centre for promoting sporting talent in the region. For decades, Dharamshala’s only claim to fame was as the home of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the creation of McLeodganj as the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile, now renamed the Central Tibetan Administration. “Today, Dharamshala can become one of India’s best towns,” said I. D Bhandari, retired IPS officer and former DGP who had served as Superintendent of Police (SP), Kangra.

Cricket stadium at Dharmshala. Pic: Pradeep Kumar

Bhandari’s optimism is not misplaced. Dharamshala, is the only town which has the potential of becoming Himachal Pradesh’s cosmopolitan amalgamation, given its excellent road connectivity and airport which currently has flights to Chandigarh and Shimla, with plans to expand its existing runway to accommodate bigger planes. While the town has been steadily growing since the 1990s, the last few years has seen a sudden spurt in growth, thanks to the Global Investment Summit held here in November and the construction of a world class cricket stadium in 2002, the brainchild of young politician Anurag Thakur who is now MoS (Finance and corporate affairs), and has since hosted many an international game putting Dharamshala on the country’s cricket map.

However, the people’s ambitions and aspirations are finding slow implementation on the ground in this growing urban entity with a population of one lakh plus. The smart city projects have been disappointingly slow to take off, despite Dharamshala getting the smart city tag before capital Shimla.

It was expected that the earlier Congress Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh’s 2017 move to make the town the state’s winter capital and move some of the state’s key administrative offices there, besides building a second Vidhan Sabha, would speed up matters and bring the party political gains by making inroads into the BJP strongholds in Kangra.

But public disappointment over non-implementation of promises and projects saw the Congress losing the last assembly elections to the BJP. Even Congress’s minister for Urban Development Sudhir Sharma, a Dharamshala MLA, was defeated.

Angry voters

Voters of Dharamshala believed that the second capital announcement was an attempt to hoodwink them, while the real developmental issues of Dharamshala, in terms of delivery of civic services, were overlooked. Garbage disposal, traffic congestion, leaking water pipes and unchecked illegal constructions are issues that need immediate attention.

Despite this, it can be seen that there has been a transformation of lives and living standards in Dharmshala. But the people want more.  “Smart city projects, a ropeway to McLeodganj and the Rs 250-crore Skyway project promised by Sharma did not make any headway,” said Krishan Kapoor, the new Kangra MP who had defeated Sharma in 2017. But the current chief minister Jai Ram Thakur strongly believes in Dharamshala’s destiny as the new urban growth centre.

“We chose Dharamshala as the venue for our mega Global Investors’ meet—the first of its kind held in Himachal Pradesh only because of Dharamshala’s positioning as an emerging town for business opportunities,” said CM Thakur. “Air connectivity helped bring ambassadors of 12 nations and 200 foreign business delegations to Dharamshala. The investors showed serious interest in investing here. The government is working seriously to tap its vast untapped potential. Dharamshala is going to see huge transformation as a much-favoured hill destination.”

The growth of the hospitality industry in the town over the past 10 years is one indicator of the town’s growth. Reputed hotel chains and five-star resorts like Hyatt and Fortune Park Moksha have invested in Dharamshala and McLeodganj with many other hoteliers hiring professional service providers to upscale facilities for high-end tourists. “When we built the cricket stadium in 2002 and wanted to host International matches in 2005, there was not a single five-star hotel to lodge the cricket players,” said Arun Dhumal, President HP Cricket Association and BCCI treasurer. “So we built our own Hotel –The Pavilion. Thereafter, other hoteliers decided to upgrade their facilities and built world class ventures. Now, Dharamshala can take pride in having the best lodging facilities.”

Spiritual healing

Dharamshala-McLeodganj has earned a reputation in recent years, nationally and internationally, as the centre for meditation and natural and herbal healing practices. Apart from Tibetan practices of spiritual and herbal heading, a number of high-end ashrams and yoga centres run by NGOs and well-known spiritual organisations in and around Dharamshala have emerged as a unique selling point for the town. Thousands of foreigners and Indians visit Dharamshala every year for spiritual healing, meditation and yoga and herbal treatment. Some five-star resorts too offer such healing and rejuvenation packages.

“I want to take up this issue with the government to promote Dharamshala as a model for herbal tourism and spiritual healing,” said Vishal Nehria, newly elected young BJP MLA from Dharamshala. “There is huge scope for it. Smart city projects can go side by side to re-position Dharamshala as a clean, green, vibrant and divine town”.

Smart city progress

Which brings us back to the issue of tardy progress of the Rs 2110-crore smart city schemes. Despite Rs 196 crore received from the centre and Rs 50 crore transferred by the state government under the Smart City mission in the current year, there has not been much headway in any of the planned schemes.

Some landmark projects planned include a smart roads project worth Rs 84 crore, augmentation and automation of sewage treatment plant, state-of-the-art water treatment plant for potable water (Rs 17.19 cr), intelligent and barrier-free bus shelters, parks, playgrounds, digital payment system for tourists and citizens and public bike sharing. Also planned are smart classrooms, and construction of an integrated command and control centre of the smart city worth Rs 67.71 cr. Of the five proposed root-zone sewage treatment plants, two are complete and a rooftop solar power plant project is under implementation.

The biggest problem however remains the inadequate and inefficient construction regulatory machinery, and the delivery of civic services like waste management. “The waste to energy plant for solid waste treatment has failed to take off,” said Virender Sood, a Dharamshala businessman. “Officials blame it on delay in forest clearance. The work on schemes proposed for the core Dharamshala areas too are moving at snail’s pace.”

Ambitious plans

The town did get a major facelift before the investor summit. The government sanctioned a special budget to widen roads, create pathways, install street lights, create parking spaces and cover-up open drains. The walls in the town were painted with Kangra miniature art. Mobility was reworked to ensure that there were no traffic jams.

“The biggest advantage in Dharamshala is availability of space,” said Rakesh Prajapati, Deputy Commissioner, Kangra. “The town can be expanded horizontally in a planned way. Which is why some recent developments have come-up in places like Daramkote, Naddi, Sidhwari, Dari and Khayara near the main town”.

Being the headquarters of Kangra district, Dharamshala houses some of the state’s important government offices and a mini-secretariat built to facilitate the sitting of the Chief Minister and cabinet ministers during winter months. The second Vidhan Sabha, a brainchild of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, had initially evoked criticism for the spend of Rs 20 plus crore on the complex as it hosts just five to six days of the assembly’s winter session. But it does boost the town’s economy during its session as it brings business to hoteliers and other service providers and the town gets better attention in terms of services.

Future plans for the region’s growth are ambitious. Pradeep Thakur, Commissioner Dharamshala Municipal Corporation, who is also CEO of Smart City project, says capacity building projects are underway, like the 40 plus underground public dust bins for handling the town’s garbage problem. A dozen other smart solutions have also become operational, including an information system for residents, tourists and city managers/policy makers to strengthen real time data access for data-based planning and decision making.

“Projects worth Rs 500 crore on PPP mode are in the pipeline,” said Pradeep Thakur who admitted that there have been delays in implementation. “Initially, the state government was insisting that with Himachal being a special category state, the the Centre to state funding pattern should be 90:10. But the Centre has now made it clear that funding has to be on 50:50 basis. Let’s hope things will move faster now”.

“Many issues including funding pattern have been resolved now and the projects will be on fast track mode,” added Sanjay Kundu, Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary. “We recently reviewed the project’s progress. I believe, Dharamshala is all set to become the best global tourist and business destination in a few years from now.”

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