“Urban administration and urban planning in India is undergoing a major change,” says Rajneesh, Principal Secretary, Housing and Urban development. “Himachal Pradesh, a predominantly rural state, has to make this transition given that urbanisation is a fact of life and new ULBs (Urban Local bodies) must be strengthened”.
This was the rationale given by the Himachal Pradesh government to form three new municipal corporations to administer Solan, Palampur and Mandi .
While Solan is a fast growing town with several educational institutions of higher studies and a bustling business community, Palampur in Kangra district is a popular tea town and home to a university and CSIR’s Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technologies (IHBT). These institutions, earlier located in the panchayat areas, will now come under the new corporation’s ambit. It also has huge army presence and and tourism resorts. Mandi is an ancient town also called “Varanasi of the Hills” or “Chhoti Kashi”.
Till October 2020, the state had only two municipal corporations, one for its capital Shimla and another for Dharamshala, the headquarters of the state’s biggest district Kangra and also home to the Tibetan Government in exile and the Dalai Lama. Dharmshala is also seen as the nerve centre of the state’s politics and tourism.
Dharamshala became a Municipal Corporation in 2015 after the merger of a dozen localities and extending the boundaries of the town to areas previously outside Dharamshala Municipal Committee limits. This town also managed a ‘Smart City’ tag, though not much has changed on the ground since then.
In recent local body elections, the BJP won Mandi, the chief minister’s home turf and Dharamshala, with Congress emerging surprise winners in the two newly carved municipal corporations of Palampur, the home town of former chief minister Shanta Kumar and Solan, the gateway town to Shimla.
Of doubtful benefit to citizens
None of three towns met the official criterion of minimum 50,000 population to get a municipal corporation. The state’s BJP government had to change the criteria to 40,000 population, through legislation, to make these towns eligible. This was done by merging adjoining villages, which earlier had been part of peripheral panchayats, into the proposed corporations. That exercise was not without resistance from the people and political parties, but the government had its way.
There is, as yet, little clarity on how the formation of these three new Municipal corporations will benefit the residents of these towns in terms of improved delivery of civic services. Especially as most of the state’s hill towns, including Shimla, are literally bursting at the seams.
Palampur, for example, got 14 panchayats — villages around Palampur which were merged in the new urban body raising its population to 40,385. Basically, it was to keep Shanta Kumar’s promise to upgrade the existing municipal committee into a municipal Corporation. The Mandi Municipal Council earlier covered 26,431 residents though the new corporation will now cover 41,384 people. In Solan, the population went up from 39,256 to 47,418 under the corporation. A total population of 1.29 lakh people were brought into the urban fold in these three towns.
Palampur has also seen a significant expansion of business activities which the new corporation is expected to facilitate better. “Once the new Municipal corporation gets constituted and new projects are prepared, the development process will become much more organised and institutionalised,” said Deputy Commissioner Kangra Rakesh Prajapati.
As per the 2011 census, 89.97 percent of the state’s population live in villages, some of which still lack basic facilities like a road network, dependable health care infrastructure, safe drinking water, regular electricity supply etc. Even today, a large number of villages situated at high altitudes remain totally cut off from the rest of the world in winters, especially after heavy snowfall.
Himachal’s minister for Urban development Suresh Bhardwaj says formation of new corporations would help in better governance, planning and implementation of development projects. “It is also needed to enable easy flow of the funds from the Centre and mobilise external funding for faster development of these towns,” adds Bhardwaj. “Now, that the 15th Finance commission has raised the share of funding to urban bodies from 32.5 per cent to 35 per cent, it will make it easy for the state government to offer new projects and better facilities like water supply, sanitation and urban mobility.”
The state government has already released an additional grant of Rs 1 crore to all three new Municipal corporations. This is in addition to other allocations as grant–in-aid to urban local bodies.
The government admits that there have been voices of opposition to the merger of panchayats and villages. During the recent local body polls, the villagers wanted an assurance from the political parties not to tax services like water supply, sewage treatment and domestic animals. They feared harassment in getting approvals and sanctions for construction of even cow sheds .
The state cabinet has, according to Suresh Bhardwaj, taken note of these concerns and has decided to exempt land and buildings payment of general tax in these areas for three years. Their customary rights as protected by law will also be retained .
“But if the people from these areas feel that they were better off earlier, we will have no problem to de-merge those areas once the 2020-21 population census is done,” said Bhardwaj. “The new corporations were created because there is a need to incorporate them with the bigger vision and a master plan to develop Himachal Pradesh”.
But the fear among residents of panchayats that have been merged into the corporation on decline in quality of civic services are not completely unfounded. For example, the people of merged areas of Shimla, the oldest Municipal Corporation, are still holding protests and dharnas to seek better facilities in terms of roads, water supply, public transport and exemptions in taxes. The building regulations make it more difficult, and expensive, even for long time residents, to get approvals for construction of even a small house.
And the smart city tag remains in name only. “Now, when Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur is talking about bringing Mandi or Solan under the Smart city mission, one can only laugh at this” says Sanjay Chauhan, former Shimla Mayor.
Former Deputy Mayor Tikender Singh Panwar points out that none of these towns has a city development plan with a long term vision. “It is high time that the government engages planners and ties up with planning institutes to ensure that development plans of urban local bodies are prepared in consultation with the people,” said Panwar. “Dharamshala, for instance, does not have a solid waste management plant, it just dumps garbage in a landfill site. Shimla has a waste to energy plant which has not functioned optimally. Capital intensive solutions are not sustainable and tend to put the burden on the people”.
But former BJP minister Dr Rajeev Bindal, who had served as President of Solan Municipal Committee in the 1990s before becoming MLA from there, dispels the fears. “The elected body with Mayor and deputy Mayor will be an autonomous institution which will ensure better execution of works and mobilisation and utilisation of the funds,” insists Dr Bindal.
But the people of Shimla and Dharmshala have been hearing these words for years, with little actual change on the ground. Now, the people of Mandi, Solan and Palampur are hearing them, most likely with the same results.