Why Uttarakhand's Ecotourism Development is Being Mismanaged

Under the neo-liberal framework, with tourism as an industry there is a fear of the institution falling into the hands of the same vested interests and in Uttarakhand, it brings more threats to both the conservation and benefits of local communities from nature-based tourism. 

The state of Uttarakhand occupies an important place in dialogues on conservation issues related to natural resources and their use, environmentalism of the poor, scientific management of forests, exploitation and depletion of forests, restrictive forest regulations and violation of local customary forest rights. Further, for a long time Uttarakhand has been facing unemployment, out-migration and threats from unsustainable tourism practices. Since the creation of Uttarakhand, tourism has been recognised as an important component for development of the state. Nature-based tourism is one popular form of tourism in the state. Ecotourism is considered to be the most appropriate model for it (GoI 2008). The Ecotourism Development Corporation Uttarakhand (ETDC), established in March 2017, almost after 17 years of formation of the Uttarakhand state, is an important step in this direction. This is being projected by the government as a step towards promoting ecotourism. However, an analysis of the work assigned to and undertaken by this corporation, points to a different picture, far from the ideals of ecotourism vis-a-vis conservation.[1] 

The Forest Movements of Uttarakhand, Separate State Movement and Ecotourism  

According to Rangan (2001) the environmental discourse on conservation and development in Uttarakhand must be understood in the framework of regional development. Drawing an analogy between (the need for) ecotourism and the environmental and regional development history and issues brings forward some interesting facts essential to the conservation and developmental problem in the state. Uttarakhand has had a history of forest movements since the colonial periods. These movements, at various time periods, were mainly due to the repressive state policies on the use of natural resources. Local communities rose against the state apparatus for their rights to forests and for seeking concessions from the forest policies.[2]  

The most popular among them was the Chipko movement (in the 1970s) (Guha 1989). Unfortunately, the success of these movements got interpreted in an unintended manner—as some form of “deep ecology” or “back to nature” movement—due to the growing conservation discourse dominating environmental concerns of the developed countries. The demand to change restrictive regulations and seek concessions from forest regulations brought new laws that led to complete ban on felling of trees 1,000 meters above sea level (Rangan 2001; Lele and Menon 2014). A popular demand of these forest movements was vano se rozgar (employment from the forests). However, the outcomes led to more resentment and alienation of the people from the forests (Bandyopadhyay 1999). On the contrary, a new institution of Uttar Pradesh Forest Corporation was created in the aftermath of these movements (Rangan 1997).  For the first time, we see a discontinuity from the colonial forest policy in the National Forest Policy 1988, that provision for participation of local communities was incorporated for successful conservation. Thus, the approach shifts from fines and fences, that is exclusionary approach, to participatory approach in conservation (Bandopadhyay 2010). 

Mawdsley (1998) identifies two main reasons for the demand for the separate state of Uttarakhand[3]:   internal colonialism, that is, exploitation of the natural resources of the hill region for revenue generation utilised by the rest of Uttar Pradesh; and unemployment and lack of adequate representation of hill people in government and planning. A separate hill state was thought to be conducive to address the problems and issues faced by the local communities by opening more avenues of employment and increasing their participation in the governance. Various academic works have established that the developmental question in Uttarakhand had links with the exclusionary forest policies and forest/ environmental movements. Broadly both had demands for greater access to local resources and infrastructure for promoting economic development of the region (Rangan 1996, 221: 2001). 

Ecotourism can be said to aptly fit here as an alternate employment strategy. Uttarakhand has a niche in nature-based tourism. The concept of ecotourism has been defined variously. The most well explored and widely used criteria are given by Honey (2008). 

Honey defines ecotourism as:

Ecotourism is travel to fragile, pristine and usually protected areas that strives to be low impact and (often) small scale. It helps to educate the traveller, provides funds for conservation, directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of the local communities and fosters respect for local cultures and human rights.

Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy around the world. Ecotourism has been used as a market-based approach to conservation in many parts of the world (Vaccaro et al 2013). Thus institutionalising ecotourism through ETDC brings forward scope of local regional development and meeting the conservation needs of the state if carried out in accordance with certain principles and ethical bases in tourism practices (Fletcher 2014,). According to Fletcher (2014) mere usage of the term ecotourism does not guarantee sustainability and rising of the private sector in tourism in the recent years threatens the very principles of ecotourism. 

Uttarakhand and Ecotourism Discourse

In Uttarakhand, the ecotourism discourse has been popular since the 1990s. The work had been undertaken by the forest epartment, the Forest Development Corporation, and the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam and the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam at various places. Due to the ecotourism’s nature of involving the forests and wildlife Forest Department has always been an important player in this. A separate wing of forest department exists for planning and conducting ecotourism in the state. However, if looked deeply, their works reflect an incomplete understanding of the term ecotourism and promoting nature tourism with hardly benefits going to the community (Equations 2009). In the recent years through the discourse like avi tourism the community is being involved by the forest department[4]. On the one hand, a question emerges If already existing institutions took sufficient care of ecotourism, why to develop new institutions. On the other hand, we observe that in the recent times tourism has been dominated by mass tourism or high-end capital intensive industry. So there has been a perennial question of low or little local benefits in tourism to local populations whose traditional sociocultural and livelihood rights have been affected by environmental regulations.

The ETDC and the Work

The ETDC is formed under the Companies Act 2013. A letter was issued on 10 June 2016 by the state government for the formation of ETDC. According to the letter the stated reason for the creation of ETDC was to give encouragement to the promotion of ecotourism in of Uttarakhand which has rich biodiversity, wildlife and scenic beauty. Further, according to the same document ecotourism is essential to stop outmigration and strengthen the regional economy. The ETDC was to have a board of directors comprising of government officials, not less than three and not greater than seven. Also the state government's share (as corporation is a company)  in the ETDC is mandatory to be at least 51%. 

It has been more than a year that the ETDC has come into existence. Looking at the working of the ETDC it can be said that all the key management personnel belong to the government. There is no change in the orientation of officials. There is also no clear understanding of the concept of ecotourism which is seen only as nature-based tourism. No definition was found to be adopted in the documents. It is interesting to note that Uttarakhand time and again has claimed of working on ecotourism policy since the creation of the state but has still not passed the ecotourism policy; even a draft policy is not yet finalised. Earlier, this work was carried out by the ecotourism wing of the state forest department. The ETDC has also not contributed to formulation of a clear policy so far[5]. The first and foremost work undertaken by the ETDC pertained to the development of the Kotdwar ecotourism circuit. No work was found to be undertaken by it pertaining to community involvement. According to the documents for developing ecotourism circuit it identifies seven forest rest houses. The involvement of forest rest house in ecotourism is another issue which has been objected by the Supreme Court in a judgment. On 5 July 2018 the Supreme Court passed the order for the writ petition 202 /1995.[6]. According to the judgment the forest rest houses were found to be misused for a variety of reasons. So in any condition they are not to be used for activities like tourism or any such form like ecotourism among other rules and regulations in their usage. Rather than focusing on the rest houses, the corporation could have focused on community-based model of ecotourism stressing on homestays since the beginning.  This also reflects that community was not Other than this, the work assigned to it pertains to the construction/upgradation of the Kandi Road (link road) between Kotdwar and Ramnagar[7].  The ETDC is a nodal agency to carry out this work. The planned Kandi road proposal has created a big controversy from both conservation and ecotourism point of view. The Kandi road passes through the Corbett National Park. It links Ramnagar and Kotdwar. The road is said to be around 200 years old. A part of this road, around 18 kilometres (km), falls in the Jhirna–Kalagarh stretch as a kuchcha road  or fair weather road and around 50 km pass through the Corbett Tiger Reserve. It is said that this road will help to reduce the road distance between the Kumaon and Garhwal region by saving two hours of journey. Further opening of this road is said to save taxes paid in road transportation as a part of the road presently used passes through Uttar Pradesh. Thus the Kandi road is said to save time, money and taxes.  The signed Memorandum of Understanding (in March 2018) between the ETDC and the National Building Construction Corporation is to propose, plan and develop around 90 km stretch of the land passing through Corbett Tiger Reserve and other protected and reserved forest area. The budget allocated for this road is Rs 2,000 corers. 

The idea of construction of this road emerged first in 1980s. Then the construction and upgradation work undertaken by the Public Works Department was stalled due to the Forest, Conservation, Act, 1980. Again in 1996 the forest department had proposed that the road will help in better management of the Corbett Tiger Reserve. However, the fact-finding committees constituted by the then Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India did not give it a clearance. The road is said to disturb the movement of wildlife by disturbing the ecological corridors. Also, it is said to promote and bring issues like hunting and poaching. The previous state governments had followed the orders of the ministry.  However, after the new government was formed in the state in 2017, construction of the road has been on the priority list of the government.  According to the present state forest and wildlife minister, if the road is made it will be the first green road in the country and will lead to passing of similar roads in different parts of the country in forest areas, stalled due to environmental clearances[8].  

The construction has also been opposed by non-government Organisations working in the area, particularly the Corbett Foundation and the Wildlife Protection Society of India on ecological grounds. Another interesting dimension of this road construction is the opposition it is receiving from the local populations. The locals have organized themselves as the Kotdwar Ramnagar Motor Marg Sangharsh Samiti or Kotdwar Ramnagar Motor Road Resistance Group, to present their resentment from the road construction. According to this group the road construction has been proposed basically to benefit a few big tourism projects in the area and so some big tourism players.   

The ETDC till date has not involved local people actively in ecotourism. Further, the agenda for works to be conducted so far does not highlight the principles of ecotourism. It is interesting to note that the documents pertaining to ETDC do not define ecotourism or explain how the institution will be different or work to be different from conventional or mass ecotourism sector. The development needs of the state and pressure from private players and contractors are at the centre stage of the ecotourism working policy of the state and this has stopped the true conceptualisation of the concept of ecotourism. 

Thus, the works undertaken by the ETDC indicate a lack of seriousness on the part of the state government for promoting ecotourism. Ecotourism has become more of a rhetoric than practice. It appears that in the name of ecotourism the works promoted are more in line with the developmental needs, not related with conservation. If ETDC has to successfully establish it as an institution to promote conservation based development through ecotourism in the state it needs to look at the sustainability issues, vis local involvement, economic growth and ecological concerns (Das 2011). The forest and wildlife-based institutions have a history of forwarding the colonial legacy and presently the neo-liberal interests in the natural resources. Under the neo-liberal framework, with tourism as an industry there is a fear of the institution falling into the hands of the same vested interests (Equations 2009). Such scenario brings more threats to both the conservation and benefits of local communities from nature-based tourism. 

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