Let us build a lodge – whatever it takes

By Dr. Suhas Kumar

Those who wish a free-ride into Indian protected areas and misuse them should know that there is a basic difference between India’s conservation goals and that of the ‘other countries’ like Africa and United states.
In Africa, the Parks were set up basically to earn money from tourism and hunting. In south Africa, the National Parks Act was proclaimed in May 1926 and with it the Kruger National Park was founded by merging the Sabie and Shingwedzi Game Reserves.

In the USA the first park –the Yellowstone was established much earlier in 1872. In USA creation of the parks had an entirely different motivation and purpose; the purpose was to set aside huge areas of unique natural beauty and splendour for recreation, enjoyment and benefit of the public at large. These parks came into existence at a time when the concepts of sustainable development (1972) and biodiversity conservation (1992) were not even conceived, obviously, conservation of wildlife was not the motivation at all. These parks were totally people centric. The madness to please public in the Yellowstone national park by showing them the huge herds of Elk, predators like wolves and coyote were systematically shot, trapped and poisoned. Weavers were killed in hundreds so that their dams wouldn’t let loose a flood in the tourism areas (National Geographic Magzine,page 63, May 2016).

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On the other hand, in India, the parks and sanctuaries began springing up everywhere only after the notification of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The Act came into existence in response to the realization that Indian wildlands and wildlife are under severe threat and many species would vanish unless drastic measures are taken to safeguard our natural heritage. Unlike USA and Africa, the government of India visualized conservation of wild lands and wild animals as a duty of the government and the citizens and allocated funds for this purpose without expecting financial returns from these areas. While in Africa and the USA parks are largely funded by the money they generate from tourism-related activities, the government of India is spending public money on conservation as a strategy to ensure the ecological well-being of the country. The Constitution of India recognizes the right of other life-forms to live and flourish and, therefore, enjoins the citizens and the government to ensure protection and well-being of the flora and the fauna. The National Wildlife Action Plan in 1983 is the only comprehensive policy document on the wildlife conservation strategy for the country. The National Wildlife Action Plan was prepared by the Central government in 1983 and later revised in 2002. It assigns apt guidelines for tourism in protected areas and emphasizes that the principles of ecotourism must be practiced. It states as follow:

  1. “Regulated, low-impact tourism has the potential to be a vital conservation tool as it helps win public support for wildlife conservation. However, in recent years the mushrooming of tourist visitation and tourist facilities have led to overuse, disturbance and serious management problems for PA managers.
  2. In case of any conflict between tourism and conservation interests of a PA, the paradigm for decision must be that tourism exists for the parks and not parks for tourism, and that
  3. Tourism demands must be subservient to and in consonance with the conservation interests of PA and all wildlife.
  4. While revenues earned from tourism can help the management of the PA, maximisation of income must never become the main goal of tourism, which should remain essentially to impart education and respect for nature.
  5. The objective of wildlife tourism should be to inculcate amongst the visitors empathy for nature, both animate and inanimate and to provide a communion with nature, rather than to merely ensure sightings of a maximum number of animal populations and species. Students of all levels must be encouraged to visit PAs and to participate in conservation action therein, and concessions and park interpretations must facilitate these educative processes.
  6. Ecotourism must primarily involve and benefit local communities and the first benefits of tourism activities should flow to the local people. This should be in the form of employment opportunities and support for panchayat programmes such as watershed restoration, afforestation, health schemes, etc.
  7. Strict energy and water conservation and waste disposal guidelines need to be laid down and implemented for existing and new tourist facilities. Any new tourist residential facilities and eateries must be established outside PAs and all efforts should be made to relocate the existing ones inside PAs to suitable spots outside of them, to the extent possible.
  8. Regular monitoring of direct and negative impacts of tourism is needed. The parameters for such an evaluation should include ecological effects on the habitat, animal behaviour as well as secondary effects caused by changes in lifestyles and cultures of local populations. Representatives from local communities, local NGOs and field personnel should be a part of eco-tourism advisory boards that monitor and regulate tourism activities in the area. These boards should help develop tourism and conservation plans or strategies.”

The NWAP (2002-2016) favours Ecotourism development with the basic aim of educating visitors and eliciting their support for conservation; it also emphasizes that the benefits of ecotourism should reach the local communities. The law governing tourism can be found in Section 28 of the Wildlife (P) Act, which permits entry into PAs for the purpose of tourism. Section 33 (a) empowers CWLW to carry out any construction work which is necessary for the PA except commercial tourist hotels, lodges, safari, zoos. These too may be constructed after obtaining prior approval of the National Board. But the recent directions of the Supreme court makes it mandatory that any intervention for management of PAs must flow from the approved management plan – and those activities that are prima facie detrimental to wildlife cannot be permitted even if they are included in the management plan and approved by competent authority (CWLW of the state).

Any tourism venture entails development of accommodation, roads- culverts, bridges, electric and water supply, eateries, information and interpretation centres, hides, watch-towers and so on. Such development that requires breaking up of forest land attracts the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. This legal requirement is seen as a serious malfunction in the way of ecotourism development by many – especially by those who wish to attract the private sector to establish ecotourism operations on forest lands. This perceived malfunction results from undefined priorities; if the goal is to pursue “ecotourism” then the Environmental Impact assessment or Social Impact assessment should be a part of the project hence nobody should grudge EIA.
Some experts quote examples from Africa and lament why India, too, couldn’t emulate the African model, but they forget to understand that in Kruger and other National parks of Africa, the concessions to build lodges within reserves is governed by rigorous regulations including Environmental Impact assessment (EIA) and the license is only for a limited duration. If any concessioner is found to have violated the conditions, he/she is made to leave and return the area in its original state. Are Indian hoteliers ready for such regulations? In India, there are no concessioners but hotel owners whose land tenure is secured for eternity whether they follow the laws and the regulations or not.

There is also an effort on to convince the central government to consider Ecotourism as a Forestry activity so that the hassles of getting EIA done are over. Good for everyone but only if the ecotourism is a small-scale venture that doesn’t entail building of luxury lodges, helipad, tarred roads and all the other adjuncts like casino, swimming pool, golf course and so on – in the later case the use of forest land would be for creating less impacting small lodges and unobtrusive trekking routes, nature trails, hides, watch towers, interpretation centres, toilets, eateries, camping sites. One can argue forcefully to include ecotourism as a forestry activity only if its development is planned according to the principles of this useful concept. Big development ventures may become a part of Ecotourism and may come up on forest land but only after obtaining mandatory clearance under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA). In fact, such mega projects must be subjected to both EIA and SIA and forced to ensure their contribution to the protection of the environment, local culture and local economy.
Our tiger reserves and other categories of protected areas are very small in size compared to the protected areas of Africa and Americas that are large enough or contiguous with other protected areas so that ecological boundaries of long-ranging species largely fall within a protected area or a protected landscape – Kruger national park is spread over 19000 sq kms and receives around 14 lakhs visitors annually (i.e. 74 visitors/sq.km), while Kanha tiger reserve’s core is only 900 sq km and receives 1.3 lakhs visitors per annum(around 144 visitors/sq,km).

As the wildlife managers have no control over land-use on non-forest revenue and private lands outside the notified national park, the lodges were and still are being established in an unplanned fashion and there is evidence to prove that the laws were subverted by a nexus between the officials and hoteliers to facilitate sale of lands of the poor tribal people to non-tribals illegally and at arbitrary prices. Only a few sellers of the land could benefit from such sale, some invested the money in purchasing taxis but they couldn’t earn enough to buy a new one; several of those land sellers earn their livelihood as daily wage workers. Some experts argue that as so many agencies are responsible for disruption of corridors blaming hotel owners alone is unjustified. But they fail to see that critical portions of the buffer zone that have been used by the tigers to reach the corridor connecting it with other habitats are now almost choked by hotels that have rapidly mushroomed over last 10 years around Kanha tiger reserve.

Would it not be in the interest of every one to keep the links to the corridors intact so that the tiger continue to flourish and the tour runners have their business intact as once the tiger vanishes there would be no tourist to cater to. Therefore, there is a need is to identify areas in the buffer that is not critical to the wildlife and don’t break the connectivity; hotels and lodges must only be built in these areas.

The problem is – in this country, we love short-cuts, ad-hoc arrangements and Jugaad technology; we are not ready to follow the long and legally correct process to achieve our goals. We, generally, are in a habit of drawing conclusions, bypassing the long route, without even attempting to streamline the issues that plague wildlife conservation and tourism in India

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