Why Shimla smart city projects worth Rs 2905 crore look destined to fail

53 projects in all are envisaged under the Shimla Smart city mission, all to be completed by 2022. But a severe crunch of funds, coupled with an NGT ban on new construction to arrest haphazard and risky sprawl, makes it all seem unrealistic and unattainable.

“The beauty of Shimla lies in its conceptualisation by the Britishers,” says Dr Ravinder Dhiman, a Shimla-based history researcher. “Primarily, it was modelled as a hill station for their summer recess. Yet most features and facilities built by them were similar to the Smart City concepts currently being drawn up. But in the existing conditions, these smart city concepts sound utterly unrealistic and highly impracticable”.

Shimla is one of the 30 urban centres chosen under the Smart City Mission launched by PM Narendra Modi in 2015. The Rs 2,905 crore project, which has been approved by the centre, aims at transforming the over 200-year old hill town into a world-class, modern, urban paradise.

The British, as Dr Dhiman pointed out, established Shimla in 1815 as a small town with a very limited population of 30,000 people. The completed town then had five tunnels for pedestrian mobility, earthquake proof buildings, ropeway for goods carriage, snow harvesting units, one of which Dr Dhiman found at Jakhu, Shimla’s highest peak at 8,054 ft where a temple of Lord Hanuman is located, and the fashionable Mall Road. They also kept a strict check on its physical expansion and population”.

But the Shimla of today is an unplanned and haphazard urban sprawl with a population of over 2.6 lakh, with 20,000 to 25000 tourists descending on the town daily during peak summer season, far over its carrying capacity. Not surprisingly, the NGT in its 2017 judgement on unplanned construction in the town dubbed the “Smart City Shimla” project as “building castles in the air”.

A total of 53 projects are envisaged under the Shimla Smart city mission, all to be completed by 2022. Some of the project highlights comprise smart mobility services and use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions. On the ground, these involve redevelopment of the town from the Mall Road to Krishna Nagar, retrofitting of buildings, vertical and horizontal development, 24X7 water supply, improved sewerage facility, hazard reduction, solid waste management and decongesting the town.

To ease the project’s implementation, the municipal project has proposed categorisation of the various components as high priority, medium priority and low priority. Of the total 53 schemes, 19 fall in high priority, which means they can be taken up immediately. But even that looks impossible as the NGT order prevents any new construction in Shimla’s core area, the old town, which comprises almost one third of composite Shimla municipality. Efforts to seek a review of the ban have failed so far.

Also, the smart city proposal to rebuild old, unsafe buildings in Middle Bazar, Lower Bazar, Ganj Market and Krishna Nagar (which has become the town’s biggest slum) seems a pipe dream, as it would involve displacement of half of Shimla’s population.

In addition, Shimla’s hill landscape is already under threat due to haphazard constructions and encroachment of open spaces, especially as the town falls under seismic zone IV, meaning the area is highly prone to earthquakes, as per the official quake vulnerability mapping studies. So any reconstruction will not only have to overcome the NGT ban but also will need to conform to norms to make the buildings earthquake proof.

View of Shimla city. Pic: Pradeep Kumar

None of which has deterred the state government and the Shimla Municipal Corporation from trying to get the projects off the ground. “We have hit some road blocks, one of these being the NGT ban on all new constructions in Shimla town,” said Pramod Saxena, Principal Secretary (Urban Development). The fall-out of the NGT ban is that no private investor has shown interest in taking up Smart City projects. There are also some funding issues, admitted Pramod Saxena. “Maybe next month, when we sit down to thrash–out issues, some way-out could be found. But the smart city project is very much on, as far as the government is concerned”.

“We had done a detailed exercise to draw-up plans,” said Tikender Panwar, former deputy mayor. “I had spent hours with teams which included then Additional Chief Secretary (Finance) Srikant Baldi. I feel sorry about the way things have gone downhill. There is no hope anymore on the Smart City project seeing the light of day,” added Panwar. Especially as the government has not been able to put in place the Special Purpose vehicle (SPV), notified in August 2017, to fund the works.

Where’s the money

Financial planners offer little hope that the projects will actually get started. “Where will the funding for such an over-sized project of Rs 3,000 crore come from when the state government itself is constantly struggling to cope with financial crisis,” asked D K Sharma, former Advisor (Planning) with the state government. “Secondly, the Smart City project calls for citizens paying for the new smart services. Sorry to say, Shimla’s citizens may have turned rich, but they are not ready to pay user charges. To me it looks an uphill task”.

There is no shortage of suggestions from citizens who had attended project preparation meetings held in all Shimla municipal wards: monorail, battery operated golf-carts, pedestrian pathways, cycling lanes, smart parking, green buildings and shifting of all government offices out of Shimla to decongest the town. But like with most good ideas and intentions, implementation of even the most basic smart requirements now seems impossible. Going by the pace of planning, implementation will involve major time and cost overruns.

“The Municipal Corporation has made the project really unrealistic,” said Additional Chief Secretary (Finance) Anil Khachi. “The size of the project is not at all attuned to the town’s ground realities. We have given Rs 50 crore in this year’s budget. But I feel we have to work with realistic plans.”

Though the Centre is committed to providing Rs 500 crore for the Shimla project with the state having to raise the balance required, it has released only Rs 64 crore so far, which gives the Municipal Corporation a corpus of just over Rs 100 crore to get the project started. But given the state’s debt liability of Rs 52,000 crore, it is very unlikely that the state will be able to raise the rest of the money needed to complete the project.

“The government is approaching the centre to convert the 50:50 funding formula into a 90;10 (Centre and State respectively) formula by treating Himachal as a special category state,” said Pankaj Rai, Commissioner, Municipal Corporation. But that is a remote possibility as it would unleash similar demands from other cities that are implementing smart city projects.

Given the ground realities, many well-known citizens are mooting the idea of using the Rs 2905 crore to develop satellite townships in the periphery rather than invest it all on Shimla. Like Raaja Bhasin, a noted author who has written several books on Shimla’s heritage. “The issue of having a second hill station at Mashobra, a few kilometres from Shimla, was mooted by the Britishers too,” said Bhasin. “It is certainly time to think of developing small hill stations to decongest Shimla”.

Ironically, Shimla was not the original choice in the smart city rollout in 2015. That honour went to Dharamsala (pop 53,543), the district headquarters of Kangra, 248 kms from Shimla and the home of Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama. Shimla was included only in the second phase, in June 2017, ahead of the Assembly poll, giving the state two smart city projects to implement. “Both projects have flopped,” said Chauhan.

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