Dense stands of walnut and oak forest, rolling alpine valleys and dramatic glaciers — The Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) along with its neighboring wildlife sanctuaries and eco-zone, sprawls across 1171 sq. km. of the western Himalayas. One of India’s last pristine wildernesses, 754 sq. km. of GHNP awaits recognition as a UNESCO approved World Heritage Site. Yet, sudden opposition from two NGOs on the grounds of local peoples’ rights could stop the accreditation. Conservationists and forest officials, however, assert that all rights were settled and compensation distributed more than a decade a go.
Located in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, GHNP was originally notified in 1984 but wasn’t granted National Park status till 1999. In the interim period and keeping with the directives of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, the government settled the existing claims of livelihood in the proposed National Park area. A settlement officer appointed by the state heard the claims of the people, mostly regarding the collection of medicinal herbs and grazing of cattle, and awarded a total sum of Rs 1,79,76,433 to those who had rights in the delineated area. No rehabilitation was required as there was no habitation within the boundaries of the proposed Park. Three sides of GHNP are enclosed by high mountains and only to the west of the park lie villages.
Following the notification of GHNP, the area adjacent to the Park, and comprising 160 villages that were historically dependant on the resources of the land, was constituted as an eco-zone. Other than the compensation received during the creation of GHNP, villagers in the eco-zone have benefited from state programmes and NGO involvement. The conservation of the Park has also led to additional economic benefits via eco-tourism. Keeping in mind the cultural rights of the locals, residents of the villages are allowed to enter the Park during Festivals in order to worship their local deities.
Sanjeeva Pandey, a member of the IFS, the current Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and the erstwhile Director of GHNP was so captivated by the sheer natural beauty of the Park that he created an informal organisation, “The Friends of GHNP”, for its continued protection and betterment. Eager to promote GHNP and gain recognition for this landscape, the group initiated the process for its inclusion as a World Heritage Site. A 240-page-long application was written and submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) that in turn submitted it to UNESCO, Paris. UNESCO entrusted the evaluation process to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that carried out an internal desk review and then in October of 2012, a site visit.
The IUCN team led by Dr Graeme Worboys spent two weeks evaluating the Park and interacting with local communities and NGOs working in the area. According to Forest officials, members from the NGOs Sahara and Himalayan Niti expressed no concerns regarding the Park’s declaration as a World Heritage Site during the time of the site visit. However, in the subsequent months, members from these NGOs sent emails to the IUCN and UNESCO offices conveying misgivings. Speaking to Tehelka on the phone, Rajendra Chauhan from NGO Sahara claims that he isn’t opposed to the tag of World Heritage Site per say, but wants any management plan to be created with the input of local villagers. Further, he wants checks to be put in place in order to curb the entry of outside tourism operators within the Park to ensure there is a more equitable distribution of income and economic benefits flow to the locals.
Chauhan and Pandey have worked closely together in the past, establishing Women’s Savings and Credit Groups and kicking off local businesses in the eco-zone, but are divided on this particular matter. In a rebuttal to a news article on this issue published in PTI, Pandey wrote, “The NGOs who are representing to IUCN and UNESCO are doing so perhaps to gain some publicity as the issue of settlement of local peoples’ rights and compensation thereof has been resolved long back. The concerned NGOs had met Dr Worboys during his evaluation visit and did not object at all to the WHS nomination of the Park. So, the present representation is an afterthought and does not hold any merit.”
Owing to the treacherous terrain and a well-executed management strategy, GHNP remains pristine and untouched. Annually fewer than one thousand individuals, the majority of whom are serious trekkers and researchers, enter the Park. Most tourism in this region is confined to the eco-zone. Additionally, over 85% of the buffer zone is under forest cover and this essentially takes care of the needs of the local community. Pandey elaborates on the benefits of having GHNP declared a World Heritage Site, he says, “Not only will this be great international recognition for a primarily untouched Himalayan landscape, but it will be another layer of protection for the Park! GHNP is something to be proud of.”
The GHNP is the keystone of a larger contiguous landscape that includes the Pin Valley National Park, the Khirganga National Park, the Rupi Bhabha Wildlife Sanctuary and the Kanawar Wildlife Sanctuary. As of 2010, the Sainj and Tirthan Wildlife Sanctuaries have been added to GHNP but will not be incorporated till the settlement of rights as stipulated by the WLPA occurs. The presence of both Indomalayan temperate forests and Paleoarctic montane grasslands make GHNP and its surrounding protected areas the most significant conservation unit in the Western Himalayas. The vast glaciers of the GHNP are the source of four major rivers (Tirthan, Sainj, Jaw Nal and Parvati) that quench the thirst of millions of people living in the plains of India. Within its boundaries it also shelters breeding populations of snow leopards, tahr, goral, serow, black bears, western tragopan and an entire platoon of lesser known flora and fauna.
GHNP is a treasure like none other and if accepted as a World Heritage Site, will join the ranks of the Western Ghats, Kaziranga, Nandadevi, Sundarbans, Manas and Keoladeo National Park. Conservationists contend that the World Heritage Site status will provide a boost to ecotourism for the villages in the eco-zone and as stakeholders they stand to gain. Currently, the status of GHNP remains unclear, what remains certain though, is that the magnificence of this landscape is unparalleled and must be protected and promoted at all costs.