In April 2007, I wrote in India Together about how, in the small town of Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh, a hotel and a shopping complex were being constructed on the basis of permissions given to construct a bus stand and a parking lot (see here). The article also highlighted the fact that an application raising the above issue was filed before the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court. The petitioners were Atul Bhardwaj, a resident of Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh and Samir Mehta, Bombay Environment Action Group, Mumbai. The case was filed by Ritwick Dutta, an advocate based in Delhi. Since then a series of interesting developments has taken place, all giving a fine twist to the tale.
The case came up before the CEC on 10 July 2007, as application number 1018. The responses before the CEC brought out an interesting chronology of critical facts.
Two attempts at 'regularisation'
On 8 May 2007, after the petition before the CEC was filed, Ashok Thakur, Principal Secretary (Forests), Government of Himachal Pradesh wrote to the NRO at Chandigarh. The letter sought the diversion of 0.573 hectares of forest land in favour of the Himachal Pradesh Bus Stand Management Authority (HPBSMA), the agency executing the constructions in question. It was highlighted that out of 0.573 ha for which permission was sought, 0.093 would be for the parking place and 0.48 ha for the bus stand to be established by Himachal Pradesh Tourism Department.
In this letter, Thakur sought a change in the land use for which clearance had been granted earlier, to accommodate the construction of the hotel and shopping complex which had been carried out without permissions. If such a change was permitted, the violations that were brought out in the application before the CEC would have been 'regularised', voidng the petition.
However, as it turned out, this did not happen. S K Sehrawat, Conservator of Forests (Central) based at the NRO, replied on 12 June 2007, expressing inability to consider the Secretary's request, thereby rejecting any change of land use (see rejection letter).
The hotel coming up in place of the parking lot.
The next afterthought took place vide a letter dated 19 June 2007, again from Ashok Thakur. This time, he sought a change/amendment in the two original forest clearances. This time Sehrawat replied on 28 June 2007; he pointed out that the Conservator of Forests had launched an inquiry into the whole matter this had been partly precipitated by the publicity around the violations when the appeal in the CEC was first filed - and that the conservator's report clearly showed that the construction of a hotel instead of a parking place, and another building instead of the bus stand, were both in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The NRO emphatically stated that no prior permission had been sought for the construction of these; and therefore the work must be stopped immediately and responsibilities fixed for the same (see this rejection letter).
Immediately following this exchange, was the hearing before the CEC on 10 July. The CEC stayed the construction of the hotel, and said that it would take a final call on the bus stand following a site inspection. An assurance that the construction would be halted pending the site inspection was also received from the state's Chief Secretary as the NRO, the CEC revealed.
Following the site inspection, the CEC Chairman informed all present that the committee would file its report on the case before the Supreme Court, and directed all parties to file any additional documents or views within a few days. The petitioners took the opportunity to not only re-iterate their stand, and the newly-revealed facts about rejection of the clearances by the NRO. They also brought to light the fact that the consultants for building the bus stand, Engineering and Planning Consultants (EPC), had in their letter way back on 17 July 2006, clearly indicated to the HPBSMA that the construction was being carried out in contravention to the approved plans.
EPC had written this letter to HPBSMA in response to the drawings submitted by the "Concessionaire" of the project, seeking the EPC's observations on whether it conforms to the tender/agreement. The letter observes that, for the terminal block towards the valley side there are major deviations from the conceptual drawings. Also 3700 sq m of area has been added.
Against this background, we must now wait and watch what the CEC's report to Supreme Court contains, and how the story unfolds hereafter. How will the committee's report view Ashok Thakur's attempts to get the land use and forest clearance terms changed well after the original application, and while an application challenging them was before the CEC? And will the committee recognise the ecological fragility of the area, and order the demolition of the unauthorised constructions? If it does, it will set an important precedent for several other fragile hill terrains in the country where construction activity is being carried out not just in contravention to law; but also at great cost to the landscape, aesthetics and carrying capacity of these regions.