Think tourism in India and the first images that will flash through your mind is -- the Taj Mahal and the Indian tiger. Tigers, and the protected areas created for their conservation, are the dominant motif of the picture postcard from favourite holiday destinations. If you've ever seen a tiger postcard, it's an even money bet that the picture is from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve -- one of the most popular tiger reserves in the country.
But don't let the pretty picture fool you -- the situation in Ranthambore is anything but pretty. Conservationists allege that tigers are disappearing from the park at an alarming rate. The crisis has been caused by a number of well-known reasons -- from organised poaching to human pressures on the park's resources. But some believe that there is more to the tiger crisis. The business of hospitality and the mismanagement of tourists could be damaging the park and its magnificent animals. But more importantly, they say that the way this business is organised could be seriously jeopardising the relationships between the animal inhabitants of the park and the humans that live outside.
They say tourism is benefiting a few but hurting many, which is why anger is intensifying against conservation. In this classic and much repeated fight between the rich and the poor, the problem is confounded by the perception that the lawmakers and the beneficiaries are often the same people. People in the town neighbouring the sanctuary will tell you that their problem is that people who direct conservation policies profit from the regulations that promote tourism and park management.
They even believe that this is ultimately hurting the very species that brings tourists to this back of beyond place. Tourism, they say, in the way it is practised in Ranthambore, is part of the scourge that is killing tigers -- slowly but inexorably.
Many conservationists disagree. They say tourism is big bucks, which can be invested in protection. Tourism is pleasure and education, which can help build the constituency to protect, conserve and cherish the wild beasts. But what happens when the owner-proponents of tourism are the same as the manager-proponents of conservation? Does this compromise their position? Does this compromise conservation? kushal pal singh yadav travels to the tiger reserve and then to Jaipur, to see how Ranthambore-style tiger tourism could well decide the Indian tiger's fate.
Tiger tourism is special because here business is based on conservation. If there are no tigers, there will be no tourists. The moot question is what does this business do for conservation?
In 2004-05, the department says that about 100,000 people visited and its receipts at the gate were Rs 1.67 crore. But this is a small proportion of the tourist earning.
The tourists pay the forest department gate fees. But they also pay the hotels charges to stay in their rooms. The volume of this business is more difficult to assess. The Tiger Task Force report, submitted in August 2005 to the prime minister, estimates, on the basis of data supplied to it by officials, that the annual turnover from the 21 top hotels is Rs 21.81 crore. If this is correct, then the park (and tigers) are poor gainers from the business of pleasure and education.
Lack of regulation has meant that many hotels have come up on agricultural or charagah (grazing) land, within a 500-metre radius of the park boundary. "The demand for new hotels has led to the sky-rocketing of land prices," says a local hotelier. Along the Ranthambore road, land prices have gone up from Rs 1.25 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh per hectare (ha) 10 years back to anywhere from Rs 30 lakh to Rs 40 lakh per ha today, depending on the proximity to the park entrance. "Due to the high prices villagers prefer to sell the land near the park," says Hemraj Meena, a guide at the tiger reserve.
Most hotels are located along the Ranthambore road, which runs from Sawai Madhopur to the park entrance. A number of hotels are located very close to the forest boundary. According to 2003 records of the field director of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, 15 hotels are located within one km of the forest boundary. Of these, 12 are located within 500 metres, three at a distance of zero metre from the forest boundary and one within the forest area (see graphic and table in PDF format: Too close to nature).Since then, more hotels have been added to the category of too-close-for-comfort. In addition, land adjacent to the park is being bought and converted into farms. Many are just buying the land so that they can build hotels in the future. In effect, this high-value real estate is undergoing a transformation -- to the detriment of its original owners and users.
Currently, there are no regulations that determine how close hotels and other commercial establishments can be to the reserve, but there is a general consensus that some distance should be maintained. "There is no locational or land-use policy for areas around the national parks and this has led to a number of hotels being located dangerously close to the forest areas," says Rajesh Gopal, director, Project Tiger. In addition, deviation from traditional land use and conversion of agricultural and grazing land for commercial use is also not regulated.
The effort to bring some regulation has always been stymied, allegedly by powerful tourism interests. The Rajasthan state government tried as early as 1971 to direct that activities around the 'game sanctuary' would be controlled. Its letter number F.7 (515) Rev./7A dated January 15, 1971, from the deputy secretary to the Rajasthan governments' revenue department states: "Government has decided that in the interest of habitants of wildlife and protection of forests no lands in the vicinity of forest will be released for cultivation by the revenue department within two miles of the game sanctuary." Not only was this directive not implemented, commercial use also became rampant. "We are aware that a number of hotels are located very near the forest area but they have all the requisite clearances," says Rajesh Yadav, district collector, Sawai Madhopur. As no clearance, other than permission to set up shop and clearance of building plan is needed, the regulations are not particularly mindful of the imperatives of conservation.
But even what little is required is rarely followed. In November 2004, Yadav ordered a survey of hotels to verify whether the conditions stipulated at the time of building clearance were being met. "We found that a number of conditions, which relate to the built-up area sanctioned, to maintaining a green belt and planting trees around the area, had not been adhered to by almost all the hotels surveyed," says Yadav.
Worse (and perhaps not surprisingly) records for the exclusive and Rs 30,000-a-night Aman-e-Khas hotel were missing. Yadav admits that large-scale change of land use can have adverse effects on the forests around. "A lot of grazing land is being lost due to change of land use," he says. This, in turn, increases pressure on the resources of poor people, who then have no option but to venture into the protected forests for their fodder.
In 2002, a serious attempt was made by the government to regulate the tourist industry. On December 26, 2002, the then secretary (forests) to the government of Rajasthan issued directions that "all construction activities in this zone (within 500 metres of the park boundary) will be banned. There will be a total freeze in extension of existing structures". "Existing land use pattern will not be changed," said the firmly worded directive.
But so powerful were the interests the government was taking on that in May 2003 -- less than six months later -- the directive had to be relaxed. The same official issued another order saying that the "ban" was relaxed because "immediate application of this order had inadvertently hit adversely some hotel projects". Now the state government maintained that "all the ongoing hotel projects which have been affected by the order dated 26th December, 2002, may be granted a special relaxation for taking up construction within 500 metres of the Ranthambore National Park". But so obviously embarrassed was the government that the letter added uncharacteristically that this relaxation had been given as a "very, very special case".
The fact is that the damage had been done. Local newspapers reported that beneficiaries of the government's about turn were top hotels like Aman-E-Khas -- the foreign luxury chain whose domestic links are unclear but open to much local speculation.
This has the following results. One, that people are buying land as close to the park as possible in the anticipation of another 'relaxation'. This correspondent saw a number of empty plots enclosed by boundary walls hardly a few metres from the park boundary. "People have been buying all the available land near the park in the hope that some day another round of clearances will take place," says a local hotelier.
Two, people have no regard for the directive, which was 'bent' under pressure. For instance, the condition, regarding the "total freeze in extension of existing conditions" was still in force. However, Down To Earth (dte) saw number of new constructions taking place within the 500-metre radius. Right next to Nahargarh hotel (360 metres from the forest boundary) a new building was being constructed.
Whether the new constructions were being carried out with permission from the forest department or the district administration could not be ascertained since the owners were not present at the hotel when the dte team visited. In fact, another new building was being constructed a few hundred metres from Nahargarh hotel, .
Three, since some property cases connected to this regulation concerned key conservationists or their relatives, the anger of local people turned against the park and its protection.
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