The Centre presented the new guidelines to regulate tourism in and around tiger reserves in the Supreme Court on September 27.
The guidelines were submitted to the Supreme Court on September 26, despite concerns raised by some of the members of the panel that the ministry set up on September 12 on the directions of the court to finalise new guidelines. The members objected to some of the provisions that favoured industry and the fact that the guidelines did not take into account rights of local communities.
Last month, the ministry withdrew its previous eco-tourism guidelines that called for phasing tourism out of core tiger habitats and imposing tax on hotels and resorts for eco-development. The new guidelines were framed after the tourism industry aggressively protested against the government's guidelines and the Supreme Court order that put an interim ban on tourism in tiger reserves.
The court has now asked the state governments and other aprties concerned to submit their comments on new guidelines within three days.
In the new guidelines, several changes have been made to pacify the agitated tourism industry. For instance, the panel has recommended that up to 20 per cent area of the core zones of the tiger reserves can be opened up for tourism. The earlier guidelines called for allowing only community-based tourism in 10 to 20 per cent of the core zones, depending on the size.
The old guidelines restricted tourism activity in the areas of tiger reserves from where forest dwellers have been relocated to make space for the big cat. The new guidelines have tweaked it to say that no tourism infrastructure will be allowed in the areas from where relocation has taken place. This artful play of words does not make much sense because infrastructure development is in any case not permitted in core tiger habitats under the Wildlife Protection Act. It was the tourism activities in these areas which left the forest dwellers that have been shifted out unhappy.
Old v New
The old guidelines restricted tourism activity in the areas of tiger reserves from where forest dwellers have been relocated to make space for the big cat. The new guidelines have tweaked it to say that no tourism infrastructure will be allowed in the areas from where relocation has taken place
The old guidelines called for allowing only community-based tourism in 10 to 20 per cent of the core zones, depending on the size. The new guidelines say that up to 20 per cent area of the core zones of the tiger reserves can be opened up for tourism
The old guidelines called for imposing a 10 per cent cess on the turnover of the hotels and resorts for community development. The new guidelines have sought to leave it to the state governments to decide the rate of cess. The guidelines say a conservation fee could be charged between Rs 500 to Rs 3,000 per month, per room, depending upon the luxury classification of the tourist facility
Moreover, while the previous guidelines
called for imposing a 10 per cent cess on the turnover of the hotels and resorts for community development, the new guidelines have sought to leave it to the state governments to decide the rate of cess. The guidelines say a conservation fee could be charged between Rs 500 to Rs 3,000 per month, per room, depending upon the luxury classification of the tourist facility. This was opposed by some of the non-official members of the panel.
“In many cases the hotels charge up to Rs 25,000 per room per night. Considering the rentals charged, the slab of the conservation fee is meagre,” says one of the panel members. Interestingly, the guideline recommend that the tourism industry should have a say on how and where the fund thus collected will be utilised. This was also opposed by a few non-official members of the panel who said it would lead to misuse of the fund by industry.
The new guidelines say that in the tiger zones where only tourist visits are permitted and there is no consumption of resources, tigers' density and recruitment does not seem to be impacted. A few of the members have questioned the scientific basis of this argument. Others have raised concerns over why non-consumptive tourism should be allowed in tiger reserves, but not consumptive uses by forest dwellers, especially when the rights of the forest dwellers are protected by the Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Rights Act.
While a point has been added in the “principles of tourism in and around tiger reserves” to ensure free participation and prior informed consent of gram sabhas for tourism projects, there are a few provisions in the guidelines that the tribal rights activists feel would lead to harassment of communities.
The guidelines say every tiger reserve should have a tiger conservation plan which should include identification of corridor connectivity and important wildlife habitats and mechanisms to secure them. A few members have expressed fears that the absence of clear guidelines for identifying corridors will lead to harassment of local communities as has been happening in the wake of notification of buffer zones.
The members have alleged that National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has manipulated the outcome of the meetings of the committee. When the committee was formed on September 12, the terms of reference of the committee as decided by MoEF, said the committee will prepare a comprehensive set of guidelines for tiger conservation and tourism which will also cover fixation of core and buffer areas.
In the latest affidavit NTCA has said that the new panel “unanimously decided” that it would limit itself “to formulate tourism guidelines only since tiger protection and notification of core and buffer zones fall under NTCA's domain.” The previous fixation of core and buffer areas in many tiger reserves has been controversial. Many tribal rights activists alleged that the mandatory process of consultation with communities and scientific identification of such areas was not followed
as mandated by law.
The NTCA has presented its old guidelines on fixation of core, buffer and other ongoing tiger conservation programmes as part of the “comprehensive guidelines on tiger conservation and tourism” to the court. “This is a serious manipulation. We never agreed that NTCA's previous guidelines on conservation programmes should be presented without being put before the panel. Those programmes have serious problems with respect to rights of the people. The NTCA is trying to legalise all that by getting approval of the court in the guise of the tourism guidelines prepared by this committee,” says a member of the panel.
A couple of members have also written a dissent note to Rajesh Gopal, member secretary of NTCA and convener of the committee, protesting against provisions of the guidelines. The dissenting members have also requested that their note be submitted to the court along with the guidelines. However, in the affidavit of the ministry submitted to the court, the dissent note has not found any place. The court will examine the guidelines on September 27.
The court will hear the matter on October 3.
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