The big, blurry picture

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The new eco-tourism guidelines specify no penalty for violators, offer no incentive for good practices and shut doors on all tourists

Jay Mazoomdaar Independent Journalist

Tiger rush Safari vehicles line up inside Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh
Tiger rush Safari vehicles line up inside Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh
Photo: Sachin Rai

THE ADVANTAGE of any blanket policy is that the question whether it will fit does not arise. It is also expected to keep a lot under wraps. The eco-tourism guidelines submitted by the Centre before the Supreme Court are on target on both counts. Consider these:
• The guidelines seek to promote homestay facilities run by local communities by exempting them from a conservation cess — a minimum of 10 percent of the turnover, tax exempted — recommended for all hotels within a 5-km radius of protected forests. But community homestays are anyway cheaper than regular hotels. The only way they can attract more tourists is by offering contemporary facilities and better services.

Velas, a tiny Maharashtra village, attracts a good number of tourists during the turtle nesting festival each year. Of the 11 homestays of Velas, the only one with “private rooms” and water closets does the best business. Improving facilities requires capital investments and villagers need training to offer semi-professional service.

The guidelines do say that the money from the proposed conservation cess and gate fees will fund conflict management, conservation and local livelihood development. But there is nothing specific to help these first-generation homestay entrepreneurs — namely funding community-credit schemes or giving soft skills training to villagers.

• A blanket cess neither differentiates between ethical and damaging businesses nor offers any incentive to good practices. Why should a hotel that trains locals as cooks or guides, pay the same cess as one that hires them as guards or gardeners for a pittance? Why should a property that keeps 80 percent of its land open to wildlife pay the same tax as one that has 80 percent built-up area?

In effect, the message is that as long as a hotel pays the cess — a kind of pre-penalty — it can go on conducting business as usual. Most hotels will anyway pass on the load to clients. A 10 percent hike in tariff is unlikely to reduce the numbers of tourists and ease the pressure on forests. If at all, it will dispel the not-so-well-off tourist who is not necessarily the rowdier or more demanding of the lot.

The message is that as long as a hotel pays the cess, it can go on conducting business as usual

• The guidelines do talk about restricting land use and construction, area of coverage, waste recycling and disposal, rainwater harvesting, solar power, noise pollution, etc. District revenue and forest authorities are supposed to ensure that “severe penalties” are imposed for noncompliance. At the same time, “violators of these norms will be appropriately dealt with by the Local Advisory Committee, to be constituted by respective states for each protected area with representatives from local panchayat, communities, NGOs, etc”. This ambiguity apart, there is not a word on what these “severe penalties” are.

• Barring tourists from forest areas reclaimed by moving out villages, the guidelines stipulate a five-year deadline for shifting all tourism activities to buffer areas. Meanwhile, a maximum of 20 percent area of core forests larger than 500 sq km will be open to eco-tourism if 30 percent of the surrounding buffer is restored as a wildlife habitat during those five years. For core areas smaller than 500 sq km, 10 percent area will be accessible for tourism if 20 percent of the buffer is restored. These are ad hoc specifications, much like the quasi-scientific equations for calculating a forest’s tourist-carrying capacity.

The proposed ban on setting up new tourist facilities on forestland is a must. But existing rest houses, after dismantling lavish amenities, if any, should be made available for tourists who are ready to sacrifice most creature comforts for a true jungle experience. They deserve access to any forest as long as they do not complain about hard beds, basic toilets, plain meals and no electricity.

At the same time, eventually barring even day-safari tourists from core forests, otherwise made impregnable by law and left solely to the Forest Department’s charge, will shut the only window to accountability. The tiger may or may not resent being watched. But the forest staff?

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
[email protected]

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