With hill stations being popular tourist destinations throughout India, most tourists have become familiar with the long decline of these locales in the face of their ever-growing line of visitors. Wherever hill tourism has reached it has brought with it unregulated traffic, water shortages, garbage heaps, and other woes. A parallel 'development' has been the complete aesthetic makeover of many mainstream hill destinations; dozens of hill stations have seen their main thoroughfares, and sometimes even quaint side roads rebuilt with styles and facades completely out of character.

Mcleodganj (Upper Dharamsala) in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, has not fully succumbed to the pressures of tourism. Surrounded by pine, Himalayan oak, Rhododendron and Deodar forests, the town's big claim to fame in the travel industry is its resident religious head, the Dalai Lama, spiritual head to millions of Buddhists worldwide, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and a highly noted and respected figure in matters of faith and peace. Hordes of travellers - some of them pilgrims, others scholars, and still others plain tourists - visit McLeodganj to seek his blessings and to learn about the teachings of the faith. The Dalai Lama has made his home in the area since fleeing China decades ago, and a constant trickle of migrants and believers persecuted by the Chinese government have arrived here, and Upper Dharamsala's population has swelled to be mostly made of Tibetans, in contrast to Lower Dharamsala, which is populated mostly by the local Himachali people.

If the mention of woods and peace conjures up a vision of natural harmony free from any threat of human designs, it is quickly crushed as one drives towards McLeodganj from the lower reaches. Two structures quite incongruent with their surroundings appear on either side of the highway. From a distance, they appear to be holes dug into the otherwise green patches of the mountainside. As one gets closer, one sees designs of multi-storied buildings; on the upper side lies a four-storey building, and on the lower side is emerging another one, with three floors already constructed.

What are these structures? And why are they here? Being curious of such things, I investigated their origins, and a very curious story began to emerge. If one is to go by forest clearance records; the construction on the upper side of the road is a parking place and one below a bus stand! The present constructions, however, clearly show no signs of conforming with those claims.

Violations of forest and town planning laws are, to say the least, obvious.

 •  How much for that forest?
 •  Update: New facts emerege

In 1997, the Northern Region office of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (Chandigarh) granted permission to divert 0.093 hectares of forest land for the purpose of a parking place at McLeodganj. The forest land is part of the Banoi Reserve Forest forming part of the Dharamsala Forest Division. The first condition of this clearance stated that the legal status of the land will remain unchanged and that if the land is no longer required for the designated purpose it must be returned to the Forest Department. In reality however, what is under construction is not a parking lot but 5-storey, 40-room hotel. To say that it is illegal would be an understatement. According to building plans of this hotel, the lowest floor is meant to be a parking space. However, looking at the plinth levels, it is evident that even for the hotel's guests will be forced to park on the road, unless this is encroached upon to construct a ramp.

A similar tale explains the construction taking place on the lower side of the highway as well. In 2001, the same regional office accorded forest clearance for 0.48 hectares in favour of the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Department, for the construction of a bus stand. The letter clearly stated that the forest land will not be used for any other purpose other than specified in the proposal; i.e. a bus stand. The 5-storey structure under construction today, claims to have one storey as a bus stand and the other 4 for commercial purposes. Perhaps some ingenious scheme can be found to park buses here, but this humungous structure is nothing like any bus stand I've ever seen, certainly not in the hills.

Violations of forest and town planning laws are, to say the least, obvious. Both structures violate the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which is clear that no forest land can be diverted for non-forest use without the permission of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and that the diverted land can only be used for the purpose for which it is cleared, which finds mention in the clearance letters. However, the administration has changed the scope of the projects without seeking any revisions in the clearances granted. Moreover, neither of these building plans has received final approval by the Town and Country Planning Department of the district, clearly violating of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1977.

Oct 2007 Update: New facts emerege

You may ask, in a country littered with illegal construction only a stone's throw away from most people's homes, and in many cases within them, what is important about two buildings on a hillside in Himachal Pradesh? As it turns out, the argument over the legality of these buildings has implications for a lot of other development in similar areas, and this battle is being waged in the Supreme Court now.

Two activists - Atul Bhardwaj from Dharamsala and Samir Mehta from Bombay Environment Action Group - challenged the illegal construction before the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), a monitoring body set up by the Supreme Court as part of the ongoing T N Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India case. Using the Right to Information Act, the appellants discovered that these two structures are not the only ones permitted as bus stands and parking lots in Mcleodganj. There are five others awaiting final clearance, with "in principle" approval having being granted, in the name of bus stands and parking lots. As detailed in the application filed before the CEC, clearances under the Forest Conservation Act for the strucutres already approved and those with in-principle clearance from MoEF for the purpose of parking add up to nearly 16,000 square metres.

A series of transfers and leases of the land between state departments and agencies, and eventually to a private developer, facilitated the construction of the structures. The specified forest lands have been illegally transferred or leased to Himachal Road Transport Corporation by the H.P. Tourism Department. The HRTC has in turn leased the land to Himachal Pradesh Bus Stand Management and Development Authority, who have further leased it to Shimla-based Prashanti Surya Construction Company for developing the bus stand and car park on a Build-Operate-Transfer basis.

It is with good reason that hill regions across the country did not usually permit the construction of multi-storey units. Simple homes nestled into the mountains did not put too much pressure on the fragile ecosystem of these areas, whereas it was felt that high-occupancy buildings would quickly threaten the delicate balance.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests has come up with a report in the year March which identifies the ecological sensitivity of the hill stations and lays down criteria for declaring hill stations as "ecologically sensitive". Dharamsala is one the Hill Stations listed in this report that needs to be declared an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). These parametres match those listed and finalized earlier by the Ministry in 2000 for declaring ESAs all over the country and include both species based and conservation based (see here). The report clearly says, "The ecological and environmental conditions of many of the hills and hill stations today are in a very bad state. A large part of the hills, natural mountains and specially hill stations have been destroyed by the unplanned and unregulated tourist activities - and this destruction continues.

But the logic of ecology seems to have no place anymore in deciding what is permissible or appropriate. Instead, clever workarounds, such as the ones used for these structures, are now being applied to overcome hurdles in construction.