The loss of livelihood and ecological devastation that followed the expansion of a part of the Kalka-Shimla highway can be prevented if local communities, workers and authorities work in co-operation with each other on such projects.
People of Dharampur and Sukhi Jori, adjoining market settlements on the Kalka-Shimla highway (Himachal Pradesh), say that they will never forget the week starting May 29 when large-scale demolition work began in those areas using heavy machines. Right till June 2, when this reporter visited the demolition site, people looked on in silent grief as even shops believed to be outside the range of the expanding four-lane highway were razed to the ground.
Pradeep Kumar, one of the shopkeepers, said, “Many shopkeepers who never expected eviction were asked to clear all their belongings at a very short notice. I am also one of them. My estimate is that about 40% of the demolitions could have been avoided easily. In all nearly 2,500 units were destroyed in this and adjoining market cluster alone.”
Sanjay Kumar is another small shopkeeper who faced the wrath of the demolition squad. He said, “I will of course try to start all over again but it will not be easy. About 50% of the small businesses destroyed by demolition do not have the capacity to re-establish at a new place. Their livelihood is simply ruined, while some households have even lost their shelter.”
These demolitions took place as a part of widening of the stretch of the highway from Timber Trail to Chambaghat. Over the years, several clusters of shops, particularly small dhabas and restaurants, as well as other daily goods shops, have come up near the highway at places like Chambaghat, Kanjghat, Shaughi, Jhabli, Koti, Datiyar and Kumarhatti, apart from Dharampur and Sukhi Jori.
Some of these eateries expanded and became famous over the years. Some like Gyani Ka Dhaba acquired an iconic status with generations of tourists and boarding school students swearing by the parathas served here. Such iconic establishments have also been razed to the ground in the recent demolitions, despite assurances that only a relatively small part would be demolished.
While many small shops and eateries have been demolished, most others would also be cut off from the tourists after the widening work is over.
At a time when there is an increasing need to link small-scale local livelihoods more closely to tourism, any disruption of even the existing meagre linkages needs to be questioned, particularly when alternatives of better linkages with local livelihoods are available. The response of the administration is that they have provided compensation or are committed to providing compensation to all those who have the required legal ownership documents. Hence, those who do not have the required papers face utter ruin.
Another concern is the large-scale felling of trees. According to information obtained through an RTI, the authorities admitted to having felled about ten thousand trees until March 31, 2016, but local people say that the actual figure till date is likely to be much higher. There has been an adverse impact on roadside trees, birds and small wild animals. Availability of fodder for farm animals has also been adversely affected, and the possibilities of farmers bringing their produce for roadside selling are fast diminishing.
In recent months, tourists as well as locals have been troubled by the mounds of rubble spread indiscriminately. There have been several accidents. Mukesh, a driver of nearby Garkhal, was hit by a huge boulder tumbling down the hills destabilised by the heavy construction work and tree felling. Even after spending a long time in the hospital, he is barely able to walk a few steps. No compensation was provided to him.
Several landslides have made some zones particularly treacherous. Boulders and rubble perched precariously on roadsides can be washed down the hillsides by heavy downpours and storms, causing damage to the fields below.
There is a need to take note of the lessons from this highway expansion, since highly ambitious construction and expansion projects have been announced recently. Great caution has to be observed during construction of roads in the fragile geological and ecological conditions of the Himalayan region. But when large scale planning and construction of highways is taken up without any involvement and participation of local communities, then the chances of avoidable ecological damage greatly increases.
If the authorities consult local people, they will be surprised by how many practical, low-cost suggestions they can get for smoothening road traffic, and for protecting and promoting local livelihoods and ecology.
But the authorities are more interested in awarding contracts than consulting local people. The companies who win contracts often work with migrant workers from distant areas. They too face serious hazards but often have no one to help them when they are toiling so far away from their homes.
A lot of livelihood loss, serious hazards and ecological devastation can be prevented if local communities, workers and authorities work in co-operation with each other in the planning and construction of such projects.
Bharat Dogra a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.