The jasmine-scented promenades of what was once the summer capital of British India have been drawing crowds for more than 150 years, enchanting visitors and literary luminaries like Rudyard Kipling.
But a severe water shortage has meant thousands of Indian and foreign tourists to the Himalayan city of Shimla have been told to stay away, cutting off the hill station’s main source of income.
The former summer residence of the British Raj, the town is suffering from antiquated infrastructure, poor rainfall and burgeoning visitor numbers each summer, meaning local residents are having to queue for hours to receive two or three buckets of water a day for drinking, washing, cooking and cleaning.
The local government has been forced to distribute water under police protection, with over 70 officers deployed to deal with the situation. Sales of bottled water have reportedly jumped around 60 per cent, and demonstrations have been taking place across Shimla.
Social media posts by locals have begged tourists not to visit and risk exacerbating the crisis.
The Himachal Pradesh high court on Wednesday directed the commissioner of the water board to immediately disconnect the water supply of hotels which have not paid their municipal dues, and all construction work was postponed. People have been told to stop washing cars. The annual international summer festival, due to be held next week, was also cancelled.
Shimla, sometimes spelt Simla, lies at the foothill of the Himalayas, in the state of Himachal Pradesh, and offers respite from the claustrophobic heat of the rest of India during the summer months, with temperatures in Delhi currently hitting 43-45C. The blend of clement weather, European style architecture and frequent festivals are the reason it remains fascinating for Indians and foreigners alike.
However, the hill station that was built in the early 19th century for around 20,000 people now has a population of nearer 200,000, with nearly half that number descending on its trails and walkways annually as visitors.
Tourists visiting the state overall number around 12 million annually, according to the state’s tourist board, with 400,000 of them being foreign. Travellers from the UK, USA and France are the top three contributors towards tourist revenue generated by the state, followed by Australia. Tourists to Shimla itself number around 90,000 – 100,000 every summer, according to recent figures.
The former deputy mayor of Shimla, Tikender Panwar, said wholesale change needs to come, even if it meant cutting off income from tourism, the mountainous region’s main source.
“What is required is a leapfrog action”, he said. “The money is there but execution of action to fetch water from a perennial source is slow. Due to little snow and rain, water is hardly retained in the short span. An overall resilient strategy is needed.”
The Chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, Jai Ram Thakur, said in 2016 Shimla received 35 million litres of water per day, while last May, water supply was 34 million litres per day. “This month, we are receiving less than 22 million litres per day and are trying to improve the situation,” he told the Times of India.
Shimla became the official summer capital of British-ruled India in 1863, and has been featured in many films, TV shows – including the Channel 4 series Indian Summers – and numerous works of literature, such as the novel Kim, by Rudyard Kipling.
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