Opening up, but tread softly

April 2003 saw two diverse regions in India take a similar decision. Both partially opened the door to tourism in hitherto protected belts. One is a high altitude state; the other - a union territory -- is an archipelago of 348 islands. Just like their disparate terrains, their ecotourism roadmaps are also poles apart. While Uttaranchal has allowed trekkers limited access to the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands' proposal envisages leasing out certain areas to hotel chains. As they embark on their respective plans, tourism is bound to play an increasing role in the economies and, equally importantly, the ecology of the two regions

 
By Nitin Sethi
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: EMKAY)april 2003 saw two diverse regions in India take a similar decision. Both partially opened the door to tourism in hitherto protected belts. One is a high altitude state; the other -- a union territory (ut) -- is an archipelago of 348 islands. Just like their disparate terrains, their ecotourism roadmaps are also poles apart. While Uttaranchal has allowed trekkers limited access to the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (ndbr), the Andaman and Nicobar (a&n) Islands' proposal envisages leasing out certain areas to hotel chains. As they embark on their respective plans, tourism is bound to play an increasing role in the economies and, equally importantly, the ecology of the two regions.

The ndbr has been shut to tourism for more than two decades now. This has fuelled considerable controversy in the area. Villages such as Lata, Reni and Tolma, which dot the periphery of the reserve, used to thrive before the creation of the Nanda Devi National Park. Local inhabitants made money by working as porters to trekkers and mountaineers, and keeping sheep in alpine pasturelands. Both these livelihood options were closed when the park was created in 1982. This was followed by the creation of the larger biosphere reserve in 1988. ndbr is actually an administrative designation for the park and some other regions.

The employment generation issue apart, mountaineers and other tourism-oriented parties have been craving for long to gain entry to the region which houses some of the most sought after peaks to climb, including the Nanda Devi after which the reserve is named.

The case of a&n Islands is different in that all talk of tourism seems to be emanating from the ut administration. The plan to lease out portions of the islands to the tourism industry was unveiled by lieutenant governor N N Jha. But the ecological consequences of the decision have not yet been fathomed either by the civil society -- which has been kept in the dark -- or the government -- which has not even carried out environmental impact assessments.
Hill state treads middle path The Uttaranchal government allowed a rare expedition into ndbr in 2001. Those who participated in the exercise recommended the opening of the region to tourism. Villagers went a step ahead and made a strong pitch for community-based tourism. But the state machinery developed cold feet when a three-way slugfest involving local communities, the expedition team and itself snowballed into a major row. The Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) colluded with the state authorities and put the plan into cold storage on the pretext that another "official" expedition was necessary to assess the condition of the reserve.

The new notification issued by the Uttaranchal government finally tries to bridge the gap between the conservationists' stand on wildlife protection, the villagers' demands linked to their livelihood and the tourist sector's viewpoint vis--vis admittance rights. The reserve shall be thrown open to tourists as soon as the modalities have been worked out.

The conservator of forests for ndbr, Jyotsana Tsiling, rules out the possibility of this happening during the ongoing summer season. She, however, points out: "Under the new order, 500 people would be allowed to visit the reserve annually. The limit on the capacity has been fixed to simultaneously monitor the effects of this move on the region."

Rajeev Bhartari, conservator, ecotourism, state forest department, divulges more details: "We are not permitting mountaineering in ndbr as of now. Only trekking will be allowed along a nine-kilometre (km) stretch starting from the Lata Kharak part of the park. While a four-km trekking strip falls within its core area, the rest of the tract is in the buffer zone." The park comprises a core zone, into which human access is strictly prohibited, and a buffer area on which villages like Lata and Tolma subsist.

Crucially, over the past several months the state forest department has been laying the groundwork for evolving a strategy to facilitate community-based tourism. In a meeting held in Rishikesh in 2002, the divisional forest officer of the park, A K Banerjee, had outlined the plan: "We will allow only people from chosen villages such as Lata and Tolma to function as guides. We intend starting a revenue-sharing mechanism too. Discussions are on with the local people to finalise routes that would attract tourists. The knowledge of the people residing in the region needs to be tapped for this."

Tsiling cites an instance of the participatory approach: "Even last year we had earned about Rs 33,000 from some tourism in the area. We distributed the money among the eco-development committees of these villages." Under a World Bank-funded project, the moef has set up such panels across the country for villages affected by the creation of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. "Whatever the nitty-gritty of the plan, the money will be disbursed to villagers through these committees," adds Tsiling.

"This is a unique experiment for the state. We have to tread carefully and fine-tune our management to suit the needs and requirements of various stakeholders," says Bhartari striking a note of caution. "The project should become a model for all to emulate," he emphasises. Indeed, the government will have to strike a balance. Dhan Singh Rana, an ex-head of the Lata panchayat, declares, "We don't want to be porters; we would rather run the trade ourselves and do away with the conduits." Rana has joined hands with the people of Lata and Dehradun-based non-governmental organisation Janaadhar to formulate a novel tourism scheme.

Tour operators, who form another key segment, will also be looking to get greater access. Mandip Singh Soin, director of Ibex Expeditions, a high-profile Delhi-based travel agency, says: "We are keen to see some parts of the region being opened for mountaineering, maybe just four expeditions a year or so."

Observers feel that the fate of Uttaranchal's new plan for managing ndbr will depend on two factors: the level of transparency shown by the authorities in firming up its operations, and the extent to which stakeholders are involved in the process.

"This has to be a dialogue between the forest department, tourism industry, conservationists and, above all, the people of the region," avers a senior state official.

A&N takes the plunge
In Andaman and Nicobar Islands, eight sites have been listed for being developed as tourist resorts. Their plot sizes vary from two hectares (ha) to 70 ha (see box: Up for grabs). The fact that two of these tracts are located on forestland is a major cause for concern. In an alarming development, the ut has sought the moef's clearance for diversion of the same for non-forest activities. It has also decided to lease out an existing facility, Turtle Resort in North Andaman Island, which is currently run by the directorate of tourism. Further, all leases will be drawn up for a long period of 30 years.

The local authorities are rushing through these haphazard measures. This despite a team of experts, which toured various parts of the ut, being sceptical about opening up the area to the straitjacketed variety of tourism. Soin, who headed the expedition, is candid: "The a&n Islands' case is special. My suggestion may run contrary to the views of the industry I represent, but I don't think the ut should be opened to tourism. The region is already beset with environmental problems -- improper waste disposal and indiscriminate use of diesel being just a few of them." It may be noted that diesel is the only fuel being used in the ut. Consequently, it is shipped to the archipelago in huge quantities.

On its part, the Andaman authorities are inserting some safety clauses in the tenders. Vinod Kumar, deputy director of tourism in the ut, reveals: "We are stipulating that construction be done making optimal use of local material such as timber and bamboo. In addition to this, we want renewable energy sources explored and structural designs consonant with local aesthetics prepared." He adds: "The Andaman Works Department will be in charge of ensuring that the construction is in accordance with rules." But where are the standards and regulations to enforce, asks an industry insider. According to an expert, the very fact that the debate on the character and impact of tourism has degenerated into a building construction issue shows the myopia that afflicts the ut's officials.

Even as the Union ministry of tourism refused to comment on the Andamans' proposal, Jha has merrily announced that this "high-end, low-volume" tourism plan is what the ut requires. Soin puts some valid posers, "Big hotel chains are bound to attract high-end tourists. But will the ut be able to bear the burden of generating the resources such kind of tourism requires? Why not think of a moderate plan? A community-based tourism model, perhaps?" Any takers?

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