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Two hours up from Chandigarh into the Himalayas, along the leisurely curves of National Highway Five, is a road that juts off in the direction of a touristy hill town called Kasauli. After a few minutes weaving through thick pines interrupted by the glass fronts of hotels, it branches off into a little grey-tiled lane. At the other end of this cul-de-sac stands a desolate building that, in a way, ceased to exist four years ago.
Columns stick out of the roof of the Narayani Guest House like ruins that no archaeologist has bothered to preserve. Blue, chewed-up tarps flutter in gusts of wind like the flags of a nation at the end of a lost battle. Inside the front door is a reception desk that is still tended by the caretaker, Anil Sharma, though a purple-brown futon in the lobby releases poofs of dust that give away just how long it’s been since anyone has come looking for a room. Beyond the lobby is a staircase and not much else, just pillars holding up the vacant floor above.
On a Wednesday in August, Sharma was in the middle of saying that the elderly woman who owns the place had left for the morning when he looked out the front window and spotted her walking back. She was crossing a muddy stretch that links this little alley with the main road, right around where her son, a co-owner of Narayani Guest House, shot and killed a woman from the state government four years before.
The hotel and the unchanged muddy strip outside now act as an unwitting memorial, not just to the killing, but to a deeper violence cutting through Kasauli and other hill towns in Himachal Pradesh. It’s the result of politicians realising they can sell the scenery of these places at the cost of the scenery itself.
n the 1990s, an influx of cash from economic liberalisation helped grow an Indian middle class who suddenly found themselves with money to spend on summer vacations. Many of them started doing what rich Indians and members of the British Raj had always done during the hot months: head for the hill stations.
Towns such as Kasauli and Shimla offered the right balance of proximity and otherworldliness for families looking to flee the heat and dust of the plains. Rain washed down mountainsides thick with the deep green of pine, fir, and spruce. Clouds crept across ravines that spread low and wide just outside of hotel windows. At night, the cities glowed like small galaxies coming to life.
The newly flush tourists needed places to stay, and there were plenty of forested slopes in the Himalayas that could be mowed down, levelled off, and turned into hotels.
The state body in charge of approving or turning down those hotels was the Town and Country Planning Department. In the 1990s, its engineers and draughtsmen sifted through stacks of paperwork, ranging from floor plans to revenue forms, before a senior town planner took a final call. As the decade advanced toward the new millennium, the department’s office was overflowing with applications, and politicians began to hound officials about why so many things needed to be approved in the first place.
“The staff was limited,” said Rajinder Chauhan, a retired town planner who worked at the department in the 1990s. “The officers were very busy, very busy, no time for even family.” After the planners gave developers the go-ahead, the lack of staff made it nearly impossible to monitor those building sites for illegal additions. With no one dropping in on them, builders could do what they liked.
Amid all this, in August 1997, the Town and Country Planning Department approved an application for the property that would become Narayani Guest House.
round noon on the first day of May in 2018, a man with a bullhorn blared a final warning to anyone inside the hotel: Get out before the demolition starts.
Vijay Thakur, the guest house’s 54-year-old co-owner, marched out of his front door wearing a brown button-down shirt two sizes too large. He walked up to Shail Bala Sharma, the 51-year-old official from the Town and Country Planning Department in charge of the demolition crew. She was dressed in a grey kurta with a bright blue dupatta wrapped around her neck.
In April, the Supreme Court had upheld a National Green Tribunal decision calling for the tearing down of 13 properties around Kasauli, whose additions were in violation of environmental laws. “You just demolish it. What is going on? You are admitting that you were supposed to make only (a) two-storeyed building,” the judges told a group of hoteliers who appealed the initial ruling. The owners of Narayani Guest House weren’t among the appellants, but their property was one of the 13 on the list.
India actually has very beautiful environmental laws,” said Abhiroop Chowdhury, joint director of the Environmental Law and Science Advocacy Forum at O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana. “The only problem is that the laws are not taken that seriously.”
Officials at the Town and Country Planning department told me that, between 1991 and 2008, the Himachal Pradesh government regularised illegal construction six different times. The state’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, and politicians said demolishing the unapproved buildings could plunge it into economic ruin. As of 2018, the holiday industry made up around seven percent of Himachal’s GDP, nearly double the share of most states in India. Bulldozing hotels would mean losing out on the licence fees that added to the state’s coffers, and it would force tourists to spend their vacation money elsewhere.
Officers who tried to do something about illegal buildings were “pressurised” and “threatened with transfer,” said Chauhan, the retired official. The Town and Country Planning Department began to “buckle under the pressure,” and the state’s dependence on unregulated tourism started to eat at its own foundation.
Smoke and dust clouded air that had been pristine just years before. Construction crews levelled so many trees and sliced into so many slopes that the ground began to slip. Groups of tourists shed plastic bags and bottles like loose change. All that trash started sliding into streams that provided the hill towns with water.
“People don’t understand that, ultimately, they are deteriorating themselves,” said Ghulam Jeelani, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Kashmir who has studied similar problems in the region. “You will be hit back by those mountains.”
A backlash began to build, not just in the environment, but within the corridors of government, too. There were no more blanket legalisations after 2008, yet developers kept at it as if there would be. Thakur and his mother did the same, constructing additional floors of the Narayani Guest House that the Town and Country Planning Department never objected to, but also never approved.
urrounded by onlookers and a smattering of police, Thakur and Narayani Devi tried to convince Shail Bala Sharma to reconsider the demolition. Thakur offered her money, which she refused. Devi supplicated at Sharma’s feet. But Sharma insisted that she had to carry out the court’s order. If they wanted to stop the demolition, she said, they should have appealed the decision in the weeks after the judgement.
The shouting went on for two hours, until Sharma and her team decided they should get lunch. They walked a few minutes up the road to Dippy’s, a small hotel with an in-house restaurant. When they got back, Sharma and a colleague named Gulab Singh walked into the Narayani Guest House, and Vijay Thakur pulled out a gun.
he centre of Kasauli is a stack of parking garages and small shops overseen by a stone church with a Gothic façade. On a rainy afternoon this past August, a drainage ditch had overflowed in front of a row of food and clothes vendors, and a shop owner had placed a couple of square stones outside his store as a kind of bridge. A woman stood in the entryway and examined the makeshift path in front of her. She spread her arms like a bird debating take-off, careful to balance herself as she stepped onto the stones and back into the street.
Kasauli looked as though it had been washed clean that day. There were no wet lumps of cardboard, plastic bags, and chicken bones stewing in potholes or at the end of low-lying streets, but anyone who followed the flow of rain runoff would see where it all wound up.
Just outside town, a bright, shiny wedge of slope spreads down from the road and reflects each ray of sun that manages to sneak through the clouds. Every bit of translucent trash ever tossed aside in Kasauli seemed to have travelled like a toy boat along the currents of runoff, spilling over the mountain at this exact spot: so much plastic that it looked like a new kind of organic growth.
he first bullet pierced Shail Bala Sharma’s chest. She stumbled back out of the hotel’s front door, her black shoes slapping against the grey tiles that paved the road. The second shot hit Sharma’s colleague, Gulab Singh, just below the ribs.
Sharma turned to run. The pavement gave way to mud, her shoes slipping and squishing as she dug them into the ground for whatever traction she could get. The main road was just a few metres away, intersecting this small cul-de-sac at a right angle, and if she had reached it she could have veered out of Vijay Thakur’s line of sight. But Thakur was right behind her. He raised his gun and fired again, hitting Sharma in the back. She collapsed to the ground. Mud smeared her kurta.
Despite all the police who had been standing outside the hotel that day, Thakur disappeared into a thick line of trees.
n 2016, the Himachal government tried once again to legalise a new slew of haphazard buildings, but the state’s High Court had grown weary of the same old trick. A bench blocked the attempt, triggering a series of anti-development rulings that culminated in the April 2018 Supreme Court order to demolish 13 properties around Kasauli. “You are putting the life of people in danger,” justices Deepak Gupta and Madan Lokur told the hotel owners. “For what? Money.”
Akshit Mehta, a planning officer with the Town and Country Planning Department, told me that environmental legislation started to carry more authority in the wake of the 2016 High Court judgement, but caveats still allow developers to undermine it. For instance, a National Green Tribunal ruling in 2017 outlawed construction inside Shimla’s core area, but that didn’t apply to any building that was already underway, even if workers had only laid the foundation after they heard a ban was coming.
The state government was also ordered to produce a development plan for the city instead of continuing to riff off a few interim documents from 1979, which had allowed buildings to pack Shimla’s downtown and come up in places without access to water and electricity. (The new plan is currently hung up on a jumble of competing interests.)
After Sharma’s murder, a quiet shock fell over the field workers charged with overseeing demolitions. They had expected hotel owners to be upset, but the possibility of losing their lives would have seemed absurd. Tense and afraid, they demanded protection from their superiors in the Town and Country Planning Department.
In response, the department created three enforcement divisions to continuously sweep the state for illegal constructions. But when I met with officials this August, they told me that none of those positions had been filled.
Karam Chand Nanta, a senior officer in the department, said that staff drive around looking for unauthorised buildings two or three times a week. “They can randomly carry out inspections,” he said, no different from the way things had been done before Sharma’s death.
hakur darted into the trees and disappeared down a six-kilometre path through the forest. After he popped up along the roadside, he called a friend from his cell phone, who arranged for a car to drop him off at a nearby bus stop. From there, he jostled his way down to Chandigarh, at some point deciding to turn off his phone.
In Chandigarh, Thakur asked how he might catch a bus to Delhi. He trimmed his hair, got rid of his moustache, and bought some new clothes so he wouldn’t be spotted wearing the same brown button-down.
Though it’s not clear whether he ever reached Delhi, he did head in that direction. Thakur crossed into Uttar Pradesh and made his way to the city of Mathura, a three-hour drive from the capital. In the meantime, his mother hoped her son would turn himself in.
“I know what he had done is not right,” she told The New Indian Express. “It should not have happened at all. Now, I fear he might kill himself or someone else.”
he Himachal Pradesh Town and Country Planning Department headquarters sits on the edge of the Kasumpti Valley in Shimla, and directly behind it is one of the best office views anyone has ever had.
The valley rolls out like a forested bowl, cupping an open expanse of air. Crows, kites, and pigeons glide and flap across it, rising and falling with unseen pockets of heat. Homes and shops are painted yellow, pink, turquoise, tan, blue, green, and salmon, so that from a distance it looks like someone has assembled a small Lego city in the middle of a bush. The roofs are almost all winter green or stop-sign red, as they seem to be in every Himalayan town. Ghostly fingers of mist spool over balconies and through open windows, always blurring part of the valley from view.
Vacationers flock to hillsides with sights like this, but the flaws are obvious once the wonder wears off. Hotels, homes, and shops are all jammed up next to each other. Forget alleys to walk between buildings; there’s hardly any room for water to run downhill. If one building collapses, it could easily drag down a few more.
Seemingly everything built in Himachal rests on slopes that are constantly disintegrating. The road up from Chandigarh is twice as wide as it needs to be, because the half closest to the hillside is blocked off to make way for rocks that are always dropping and shattering against the asphalt. On that side of the road, mounds of fallen red-brown earth clump together like someone has started sculpting the mountains in miniature.
The Himalayas are young, and they get a little taller each year as the subcontinent crunches into the Eurasian tectonic plate, sending shivers down slopes that loosen a few rocks at a time.
Landslides are a constant threat, and videos of them in Himachal are everywhere. They begin after the person behind the camera has heard a low rumble, or maybe they’d been watching skull-sized rocks tumble down the hillside and figured something more was about to happen. The cliff face looks like any other for a few seconds, until a portion of it separates from the rest and liquifies. The mountain is suddenly more wave than earth, a waterfall of mud, rock, and dust storming down to the street.
These are little ripples within the scope of what’s possible. In 1905, the Kangra earthquake pulverised whole towns, sending up their remnants in hazy clouds. At least 20,000 people died, and some 100,000 buildings toppled. Aqueducts that fed water to the hill stations were obliterated. People felt tremors as far as Lahore.
Much of Himachal lies within a category four or five earthquake risk zone, the two most dangerous brackets, but hotel construction has carried on as if that threat is theoretical. Hard hat crews mow down trees whose roots hold the soil in place, and they level off mountainsides like the top of a cake, freeing up land for roads and new vacation spots.
“Such constructions are closely connected with landslide risk in the mountain regions,” Pawan Joshi, a professor at the Special Centre for Disaster Research at Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote in an email. “These are precursors of slope destabilisation.”
Himachal Pradesh does have rules about where things can be built and how. Hotels can’t be erected on a slope where the angle is too sharp, and a 2017 National Green Tribunal order declared that no new building around Shimla is allowed to have more than two-and-a-half storeys unless it’s a public utility such as a hospital or a school.
It’s the job of the Town and Country Planning Department to enforce these things, but they don’t have jurisdiction over every kind of work. The Forest Department decides what trees get sliced. The Public Works Department collaborates with the Road and Infrastructure Development Corporation to oversee any hill-flattening.
Even when something falls within their realm, it can be difficult to keep up with the builders’ workarounds, Akshit Mehta told me. Developers will level off a slope so that its altered angle falls under the legal limit for construction, then they’ll submit plans with a modified slope gradient that government workers won’t always catch.
If property owners simply want to hurry things along without bothering to alter their ground or their paperwork, they can always offer a bribe. “It is not a problem with the Town and Country Planning Department,” Nanta told me. “It is a problem with the Indian government.”
Nanta said he’s turned down money before, and Mehta is in the middle of defending himself against charges of bribe-taking at a previous post in the town of Nahan. He told me he was framed after refusing a land owner’s request to overdevelop his property.
A new road or an ill-advised building, a tremor here and a falling rock there—none of it increases the chance of a massive earthquake by a measurable percentage. But small things pile up, and there is now a broader danger hanging over the Himalayas that Joshi says amplifies the threat of every cut.
ometime during the two days after he fled his hotel, Thakur switched his phone back on and made a call. Police found him in Mathura, sitting inside a temple.
In the initial picture of his arrest, Thakur is crouched at the centre of the frame, eyes closed, surrounded by a semi-circle of plainclothes officers toting rifles and wearing jeans. The fugitive looks about half as big as any of the policemen, a scrawny man in a slate shirt and pants, a purple dupatta wrapped around his neck much the way Sharma’s blue dupatta had been wrapped around hers.
Gulab Singh, Sharma’s colleague who was shot just moments after her, died 10 days later. Officers sent Thakur back to Himachal. He remains in jail.
n each day that I was there in early August, rain fell over Shimla after sunset. It crashed onto the hills for hours, a constant rattling backdrop, washing down the streets in ankle-deep waves. The roads seemed to ripple under the runoff, undulating like a kind of mirage.
Downpours like this are becoming more common in the Himalayas. Rising temperatures are leading to bigger clouds that store more rain. They do have to drop it all somewhere, though. As clouds float up from Chandigarh to Shimla, the air cools and forces them to shrink. Thick spouts of water spill from the sky as if someone were wringing out a giant sponge.
Mountain soil can absorb regular rainfall, but the flood from these storms flies downhill so quickly that it turns the ground into liquid. Tree roots help keep the earth locked in place, but forests have been ripped out of so many hillsides that much of the soil underneath guest houses and above roadways is little more than loose dirt.
All that water rushing below sleeping tourists could one day “wash away many hotels,” said Jeelani, the University of Kashmir professor. “These areas are very vulnerable to cloud bursts.” Rainfall intensity has ramped up across Himachal Pradesh since 2011, and a report produced by the state’s Department of Environment, Science, and Technology said that much of it is subject to “intense soil erosion.”
On 30 September 2021, an eight-storey residential building in Shimla crumpled because of a combination of these problems. Rain had dampened the loose earth into a muddy slush that could no longer support something that tall. The building smashed into two others on its way down, disintegrating into an eruption of dust. Officials had evacuated everyone in the hours before. No one was injured.
arayani Devi walks with a stoop these days, but the way she cranes her neck and furrows her brow lends her words a certain intensity. On a recent morning nearly four years after her son shot two public servants, she wore a grey shawl and stood just outside what is left of her property, still unable to come to terms with why part of it had been torn down in 2018.
“Nobody from the Supreme Court came and investigated,” she said. “I went to appeal to everyone but no one could help.”
Devi and her son had expanded their hotel beyond its legal limit, putting pressure on the hillside that could have collapsed more than what the government demolished, but the guest house and the dozen other properties listed in the Supreme Court ruling were also far from Himachal’s only illegal constructions. At the time, in April 2018, there were around 25,000 of them.
The court made an example of those 13 properties, sending a message to developers and politicians that the state could no longer sacrifice its environment for cash and expect to avoid catastrophe.
But Himachal’s turn toward environmentalism might prove to be more of an anomaly than a trend. Some officials in the Town and Country Planning Department believe that much of the state can only be pulled back from the precipice by many years of limited development, and yet the department’s court-directed path may always be threatened by the political push to normalise another batch of illegal buildings.
“Legalisations are usually brought up during election years,” Nanta said. “It is a political gimmick. They try to appease the vote bank.”
When asked whether the state government might try to pull off this gimmick again anytime soon, Town and Country Planning Director Kamal Kant Saroch chuckled. “You have asked us a very difficult question,” he said. “Honestly, I cannot answer fully. It is a very slippery question.”
Colin Daileda is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru, India. He has written for The Atlantic, Longreads, The News Minute, and many others, and now often writes about climate change and environmental degradation. When he is not doing that, he is maybe playing basketball or eating a doughnut.