A majority of Matheran’s population earns its livelihood catering to tourists that neighbouring cities like Mumbai and Pune bring in, but deep down, many also harbor a sense of angst, as the booming tourism industry in the hill station has brought with it the perils of being a popular tourist spot.
Matheran is seeing a spurt in illegal construction of hotels and lodges, which serve as a cheap alternative to the area’s organised hotel business. The local council has no official figures, but locals offer a perspective on just how grave the problem might be. Ex-council president and senior politician Manoj Khedekar said, “While there are 510 legal plots in Matheran, there must be nearly 500 plots which have been illegally constructed upon.”
Octogenarian Zenobia Lord, owner of Lords Central, one of the oldest hotels, said, “The railway tracks near the market used to be dotted with small cottages that gave the place a picturesque look. Now, these are replaced with ground-plus-two structures built illegally.”
The local council has proved ineffective in controlling illegal constructions, said former IAS officer and ex-chairman of Matheran’s heritage committee, Dev Mehta. “This is because even politicians have their interests in letting it grow. One hotel has come up brazenly without any permission, and despite local groups taking action against it.”
Authorities blame the hill station’s status as an eco-sensitive zone for this. “As a result, people who want to renovate their houses and add space to it are not given permission. So they are forced to build illegally,” said council president Ajay Sawant.
Environmentalists, however, rubbish the argument. “There are restrictions, but that doesn’t mean that illegal constructions can be allowed. Authorities need to realise the character of the place and accordingly allow construction,” says conservation architect Kirtida Unwalla.