Tourists going to Shimla, the erstwhile summer capital of the British Raj, for savouring history will find the Raj-style structure laced with repugnant modernity with local authorities adding the ingredient of eateries to the newly restored Town Hall building on the most famous promenade Mall Road, a hub of commercial activity.
The Town Hall was refurbished to its past glory with the Asian Development Bank funding of Rs 8 crore.
The Municipal Corporation Shimla, one of the oldest civic bodies in the country, has virtually relegated the piece of history into a food court and this decision has angered old-timers.
The majestic Town Hall was built in 1908 in typical hill architecture style with smoke-emitting chimneys.
It was initially designed as a library by British India. After India’s partition, some of the offices of the municipal corporation were housed in it till its handing over to the government for restoration in September 2014.
Civic body authorities say the permission to allow fast-food chain outlets to operate is necessitated by economic reasons. But those who have patronised it for decades say it will soon lose its character.
“When there is already so much commercial activity on the Mall Road, what is the need for such activity in the Town Hall, a storehouse of the grand British legacy,” octogenarian Durga Ram Sud, who is born and brought up in Shimla, told IANS, while pointing towards a hoarding up by the food outlets outside the building announcing their opening soon.
Another old-timer Naresh Gupta remarked: “This marvellous building represents the graceful style of colonial architecture and attracts the tourists here, especially the Britons who visit to trace their roots.”
He said the government should open a library and a museum to showcase artifacts of British India, besides the state's rich cultural, artistic and archaeological heritage.
Aghast over the insensitivity towards the British heritage, B.D. Sharma, a former Press Secretary to the Chief Minister, told IANS that the late Virbhadra Singh was the only Chief Minister who took interest in restoring and preserving Shimla’s glory.
“Virbhadra Singh took special interest in restoring the Town Hall’s legacy. He even arranged funds from the Union government for its restoration. His predecessors took no interest in the town’s grand heritage. And that is the only reason that the Town Hall is now going into the private hands for petty commercial gains,” added an upset Sharma, a vocal voice against rampant construction and amendments to byelaws from time to time to create concrete jungle in once scenic Shimla.
Protesting the decision to open a restaurant in a portion of the Town Hall towards the Ridge, former Shimla mayor and CPI(M) leader Sanjay Chauhan wrote an open letter to Chief Minister Sukhvinder Sukhu to cancel its lease, which was granted by the previous BJP government in violation of norms.
He said the previous government exerted pressure on the civic body after which a resolution was passed in it to lease out the property in private hands for commercial activities.
Going back into the past, in August 2018 a majority of locals in a public hearing, organised at the behest of the Himachal Pradesh High Court to get views on putting Town Hall to judicious use, demanded setting up of a public place so that the tourists could get a glimpse of state’s rich cultural heritage.
The Tourism Department, that executed the restoration work under the Shimla beautification plan, had refused to hand over the building back to the Shimla Municipal Corporation.
Then Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur dedicated the restored building to the public on November 29, 2018. In one of its hearings on the proper utilisation of the building, the high court was categorically clear in saying Town Hall was not meant for the Municipal Corporation.
For utilising the building as a public convenience, the court asked the government to prepare a comprehensive conceptual plan regarding its utilisation.
In December 2017, the high court had observed that the iconic structure could be used either as a museum or a library rather than leaving it at the mercy of the “babus” by allowing a public office to run from there.
“Undoubtedly, it is an important and significant landmark of the town. Intrinsically, it is part of its heritage. It’s in this backdrop, we are of the considered view that a decision must be taken with regard to proper use of the building after its restoration,” the high court had remarked.
The Town Hall building is in the half-timbered Tudor style -- all-wooden frames and shingled eaves. Its exteriors and interiors were refurbished by polishing and repairing the stone work.
The windows and rooftops were totally replaced and the Gothic facade was improved, say officials involved in its restoration. Himachal Pradesh's economy is highly dependent on tourism, besides hydropower generation and horticulture.