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Ecotourism, Sustainable Development and the Indian State

Ecotourism, defined as responsible travel to natural areas, that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people, has caught the attention of diverse interests, both as an economically profitable leisure activity, and as a means of conservation and development. In light of the recent debates surrounding the formulation of ecotourism guidelines for tiger reserves, this article undertakes a critical analysis of some of the ecotourism policies and programmes of the Indian government so far. It evaluates the ecotourism discourse specifically within the paradigm of sustainable development, which forms its legitimising base. The fragmented nature of ecotourism policies and practices and the resultant trade-offs unearthed, are then traced back to the contradictions and vagueness inherent in the very conceptualisation of ecotourism as a tool of sustainable development. This shows that revisions in guidelines, without a critical evaluation of the underlying conceptual basis, will not sufficiently address all the lacunae entailed.


Ecotourism, Sustainable Development and the Indian State

Suchismita Das

Ecotourism, defined as responsible travel to natural areas, that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people, has caught the attention of diverse interests, both as an economically profitable leisure activity, and as a means of conservation and development. In light of the recent debates surrounding the formulation of ecotourism guidelines for tiger reserves, this article undertakes a critical analysis of some of the ecotourism policies and programmes of the Indian government so far. It evaluates the ecotourism discourse specifically within the paradigm of sustainable development, which forms its legitimising base. The fragmented nature of ecotourism policies and practices and the resultant trade-offs unearthed, are then traced back to the contradictions and vagueness inherent in the very conceptualisation of ecotourism as a tool of sustainable development. This shows that revisions in guidelines, without a critical evaluation of the underlying conceptual basis, will not sufficiently address all the lacunae entailed.

This article is a revised version of an MPhil dissertation submitted to the department of sociology, Delhi University. I am grateful to Sudha Vasan for her guidance, comments and encouragement.


o perceive the growing importance of tourism in our latecapitalist society, we only need to look at the increasing newspaper column-width, growing number of television shows, advertisements and, sometimes, entire channels and internet sites, dedicated to it. Within this burgeoning field, ecotourism is a sub-category that is gaining much importance. It is defined by the World Conservation Union as “environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low visitor negative impact and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations”. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.

Boosted by its ability to present this ostensible win-win s cenario for all, it has caught the attention of diverse sectors and interests, who promote it not only as an economically profitable leisure activity, but also as a means of conservation and development. Thus, while tourists enjoy an exotic, off-the-beaten track holiday, communities gain much-needed economic incentives, aiding in conservation of natural attractions that would otherwise be extractively used for livelihoods. Meanwhile, the state d elivers development and conservation with smaller budget allocations as ecotourism aids local income generation. The market in making profit also takes some burden off the states, and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) live up to their mandate of community empowerment or conservation.

This phenomenon has come into sharper focus with the recent debates surrounding the formulation of ecotourism guidelines for tiger reserves. Taking a step back, this article undertakes a critical analysis of the Indian government’s ecotourism policies and programmes so far. It evaluates the discourse of ecotourism, specifically with respect to the paradigm of sustainable development, which forms the legitimising base of this development and conservation tool. More expansively, the specific questions posed are, why is the discourse of sustainable development of such value in ecotourism promotion? What are the specific sustainability goals that are sought to be fulfilled through ecotourism? What are the contradictions and vagueness that plague these edicts? And how does this allow for these stated goals of ecotourism to be compromised in the government policies and programmes? Such an a pproach sees the current controversies surrounding the framing of guidelines as indicative of the larger contradictions that plague the very framing of the tool of ecotourism.

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The rationale for any government’s interest in ecotourism promotion works at two levels. In terms of economics, tourism is the largest and fastest growing service sector in the world, with international tourism arrivals expanding at 6.5% annually and the corresponding income generated growing at 11.2% between 1950 and 2005, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). Figures show that 2009 saw approximately 88 crore international tourist arrivals. Within this, ecotourism is seen as the fastest growing market, with an annual growth rate of 5% worldwide, representing 11.4% of all consumer spending in tourism.1 With new trends and labels such as “responsible travel”, “responsible consumption” and “post-materialist consumer” bringing the changing discourses of development and environment into consumer consciousness, ecotourism is being seen as an important commercial niche, catering to tourists’ need for variety, innovation and desire to conform to standards of e nvironmentally responsible behaviour. Developing countries are, therefore, vying for a share of this pie in order to increase, through ecotourism, their gross domestic product (GDP), foreignexchange earning and employment-generation, while bringing development to remote areas.

But that is one side of the coin. The other reason why nations are interested in ecotourism is because it ties up with the international discourse on environmental protection and sustainable development. As the mantra of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, sustainable development has become the defining development discourse over the last few decades.

The ability to achieve sustainability at the economic, social and ecological levels is premised on environmental degradation being linked to the lack of development for the poor, whose activities then have global repercussions. Thus, in mainstream discussions, the environmental crisis is a poverty and population problem, with a neo-Malthusian slant. Another important premise is that the conflict between growth and the environment can be avoided if it is realised that environmentally sound m ethods are profitable in the long run, that is, more efficient use of resources is also more productive, resulting in a clarion call for production of “more with less”.

With goals such as changing the quality of growth, meeting e ssential needs like jobs, food, energy and sanitation, reorienting technology, ensuring sustainable population levels, merging environment and economics in decision-making, making development more participatory, etc – the 1987 Brundtland report, Our Common Future – led to the “foregrounding of sustainable development as discourse, objective, process and fad” (Simon 1997: 188).

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in 1992 transformed the concept into more concrete international commitments and agendas, resulting in unprecedented intergovernmental and NGO commitments to greenhouse gas emission reductions, biodiversity conservation and implementation of Agenda 21 (Castro 2004). The Rio +5 summit in 1997 and the Rio +10 in 2002 summit furthered the pervasiveness of this discourse, leading it to becoming a metafix uniting all interests from the profit-making industrialist to the

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subsistence farmer, social equity seeking-development worker, wildlife conservationist and thus the vote-counting politician (Lélé 1991).

Developing countries as signatories to various such accords are thus interested in ecotourism as it serves as a development tool conforming to these discourses. This compliance leads to brownie-points and subsequent international aid and approval from the international development community, be it the UN, World Bank or International NGOs. Thus, Belize, Costa Rica, Kenya, etc, capitalise on their attention to sustainability in tourism and find themselves to be major beneficiaries of such aid (Mowforth and Munt 2003; Duffy 2000). In India too, ecotourism projects are co-sponsored by the World Bank in Karnataka, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and the United States Agency for Internationtional Development (USAID) and the NGO The Mountain Institute in Sikkim, to name a few.

Discourse on Sustainable Development in Ecotourism

The increasing importance of the concept of sustainable development has led tourism researchers to posit the latest phase of tourism as rooted in the paradigm of sustainability (Macbeth 2005). It is one of the strongest legitimising concepts of ecotourism, in as much as ecotourism claims to be the tool through which all the promised goals of sustainable development are realisable.

The sustainable development tourism linkage began in 1994, with the UN incorporating “sustainable nature-based tourism”, under the UNCED’s Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), with reference to Small Island Developing States. The Rio +5 session formally incorporated sustainable tourism as an environment and development issue. The seventh session of CSD a ddressed its conceptual, environmental, procedural, socio-cultural, economic and institutional dimensions. In 1996, the U NWTO, World Travel and Tourism Council and the Earth Council published an Agenda 21 for “The Travel and Tourism Industry: T owards Environmentally Sustainable Development”, to incorporate the UNCED discussions into tourism through a governmentindustry-NGO partnership. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting of 1999 incorporated “Sustainable Use Including Tourism” as a theme. A workshop held in 2001 resulted in “International Guidelines on Sustainable Tourism in Vulnerable Ecosystems” and later, a “Users Manual on the CBD Guidelines on Biodiversity and Tourism Development” (Bhatt and Liyakhat 2008: 14-25). Almost all ecotourism projects draw legitimacy as being sustainable according to these prescriptions, and this l inkage between ecotourism and sustainable development is seen in projects in various parts of the world, promoted by various wings of the UN, national and international NGOs like Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), national governments and communities.

In investigating ecotourism policies of the Indian government, with specific focus on sustainable development, “Ecotourism in India – Policy and Guidelines, 1998” (1998, hereinafter, National Ecotourism Policy) and “The Working Group Report on Tourism for the 11th Five-Year Plan (2007-2012)” (2006), are the two important central government documents considered in this article.


Both have sustainability as their starting point, though the discourse of sustainability is not strictly restricted to ecotourism in the latter’s recommendations. The article also discusses policies and projects of Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnataka, etc, who are in turn guided by the 1998 policy.

The National Ecotourism Policy (1998: 1) begins by stating that its guidelines and policies are in pursuance of the government’s policy “to achieve sustainability in tourism development and to ensure regulated growth of Ecotourism with its positive impacts of environmental protection and community development”. The Working Group report (2006:4) also notes that “tourism has b ecome an instrument for sustainable human development” and calls for “creating a unique brand for Indian tourism which is v ibrant and based on sustainable development”, thus attesting to sustainable development becoming the new article of faith in d evelopment discourse and practice.

Sustainable development attempts to negotiate between three tropes – of economic growth, ecological sustainability and empowerment or participation – which, according to the Johannesburg Summit, are its three interdependent, mutually reinforcing pillars (Clive 2007). The complementary translation into sustainable tourism is that it has to be economically viable and efficient, with benefits and costs shared equitably. Tourism development has to be compatible with maintenance of ecological processes, biodiversity and biological resources. Lastly, tourism has to a ccount for social and cultural sustainability by increasing p eople’s control over their lives and strengthening community identity and cohesion (Macbeth 2005). Thus, the aura of addressing

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such a wide range of interests leads to the claim that ensuring sustainability in ecotourism is in the long-term self-interest of all involved parties.

This alignment of ecotourism to sustainable development serves in popularising its acceptance among wide-ranging interest groups. However, the contradictions and lack of conceptual clarity, which critics see as afflicting the idea of sustainable d evelopment, plague its import into ecotourism as well. What o ccurs is a resultant elasticity – of what sustainable development actually means on the ground – leading divergent and contradictory practices to draw legi timacy from the same said concept. This allows ecotourism practices and policies of the central and state governments, in different scenarios, to privilege different goals contained in the discourse, while compromising some others. This vagueness of the l egitimising concept of sustainable development allows ecotourism to draw up a picture of consensus, avoiding conflicts and any questioning of its basic premises and efficacy, contributing to its hegemonic status. However, it r esults in becoming counter-productive, a llowing particular, e specially neo-liberal interests, to hold sway, obscuring genuine identification of problems and hence, limiting the ability of eco tourism to meet its stated goals.

The compromising of specific interests is articulated in a language of trade-offs between competing growth-oriented, conservational and community developmental goals, which is accepted as inevitable, since resolution of conflicting interests over time and space, in such a multi-sectoral field is considered problematic (Cater 1995, Silva 2003). This article seeks to unravel the emergent contradictions of the application of the discourse of sustainable development to ecotourism, in the Indian scenario, breaking up the endeavour in terms of the three tropes of sustainability, that is, economic growth, ecological sustainability and community participation.

Economic Growth

The appeal of sustainable development lies in its ability to accommodate notions of ecological sustainability and community welfare for present and future generations, without disadvantaging the prospect of economic growth. This is considered central for the global political economy, as both classical and neo-classical economic theory consider continual economic growth as essential to avoid a collapse of profits and wages and thus of the economy (Clive 2007). While there might be an inevitable growthorientation in the discourse promoted by neo-liberal institutions, for sustainable development to be a meeting ground for opposing concerns, it has to be posited as a win-win situation, such that growth is accepted as a legitimate goal by developing countries2 and some limits to growth is seen as legitimate by the developed ones.

To achieve the former, poverty is causally linked to environmental degradation and its removal through development is deemed necessary for environmental sustainability. A U-shaped curve is proposed, where, as income increases, environmental degradation rises up to a point, after which environmental quality improves, reflected in greater gross national product (GNP) spending by developed countries on mitigating environmental damage (Guha and Martinez-Alier 1998: 47; Pearce and Warford 1993). This rationale results in a policy posture of advocacy of voluntarism for developed pockets and growth for developing a reas (while paradoxically trying to curtail their “non-green tendencies” in exploiting natural resources for the same).

This advocacy finds a perfect fit with the logic of ecotourism. Here income promised to developing communities living in close proximity with nature is seen as an incentive for them to use n atural resources less extractively, presuming that they have been doing so for their subsistence needs. Ecotourism, which places value on nature, in accordance with its pristinity, is thus offered as a market-based panacea, relying on the voluntarism of rich tourists, making ecological sustainability and increased economic income and growth complementary.

The paradox lies in the fact that while people seeking to increase their share of material rewards in developing areas might seek to do so by extending greater control over their environment, imposed ideas of conservation circumscribe such avenues of achieving growth for developing pockets (Redclift 1987). Ecotourism, in the Indian context, especially under forest department auspices in protected areas, seldom involves the community in decision-making, reflecting this shortcoming of the s ustainability discourse.

Another implicit assumption of this proposed course of action is that greater efficiency in resource use leads to environmental sustainability. It fails to account for the scale of resource exploitation, whereby efficiency gains may have no effect on absolute l evels of impact, as lower prices stimulate an increase in demand (Clive 2007; Castro 2004). This applies to ecotourism as well, since there is no way of predicting how the increased income from tourism will be used by developing communities, whose consumption might increase with increased disposable income.

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Thus, the sustainability discourse is criticised as a non- political solution to environmental problems, focusing on selected a reas of common property resource management, pricing, i ncreasing managerial capabilities and subsidy policy, to the n eglect of deeper s ocio-political changes such as land reforms and cultural values like over-consumption in the north. This circumvents a cknowledgement of a need to politically reconstitute the mode of modern production to meet ecological constraints (Guha and Martinez-Alier 1998; Lélé 1991). Thus, the imperative of growth accommodates concerns for environmental limits rather than the latter circumscribing the scope of economic growth. Such a focus on growth, whereby development is understood as any process, and thus, sustainability is taken literally to mean any sustainable process, resulting in an a dvocacy of sustainable growth, is at best trivial and, more importantly, contradictory (Lélé 1991). This i nterpretation is reflected in claims that “tourism is an instrument for economic development and employment generation... It has the capacity to capitalise on the country’s s uccess in the ser vices sector and provide sustainable models of growth”, and calls to “exploit intelligently in a sustainable m anner” the tourism r esources in the country such that they can “prove to be the p roverbial e ngine of growth for the economy”. There is, thus, an ubiquitous use of the term that extends from calling for the d evelopment of tourism infrastructure to be u ndertaken in a “systematic manner which is sustainable” to “ developing strategies for sustained and effective marketing plans and programmes” (Working Group Report on Tourism 2006: 5-28, e mphasis mine).

This growth-orientation allows for various trade-offs to arise within ecotourism policies and programmes. One such manifestation of a conflict of interests is in the area of coastal tourism. The national ecotourism policy of 1998 mentions mangroves as vulnerable ecological sites, which, as resource-bases for eco tourism, should be developed sustainably, keeping in mind their carrying capacity and need for conservation. Yet, for tourism in general, “beach and coastal tourism forms the mainstay of international tourism, providing the volumes required to create a suitable industry” (Working Group Report 2006: 9). Thus, identi fying more coastal sites for development of beach tourism is o ffered as a way to make India a full-year destination, diminishing its seasonality. It calls for a vigorous promotion of nature and a dventure tourism to tide over the “lean months” of regular tourism (ibid: 47). It becomes fairly clear, then, that the promotion of ecotourism derives from a desire for more tourist inflow and growth, as opposed to the way it is usually projected in inter national discourse – as a rethinking of mass tourism in view of its increasingly noticeable pitfalls.

Another illustration is that of Tamil Nadu, where the project entitled “Development of an Integrated Tourism Circuit of Eco-Tourism at Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary, Muthupet Mangroves in Thiruvarur District and Pichavaram”, hardly incorporates any ecotourism principles. Thus, the Rs 3.68 crore allocated for the project is to be used for various purposes such as an interpretation centre, construction of a compound wall for the forest lodge, rented accommodation, publicity boards, a children’s park, an approach road to the sanctuary, a parking lot, renovation of a rest-house and creation of infrastructural facilities (Information and Tourism Department, Government of Tamil Nadu 2005). No mention is made of community participation, safeguarding of the


sanctuary’s environmental resources, visitor management plan, etc. Here, the focus seems to be on, as allowed in the national policy document, “sustained growth of tourism”.

The argument here is that the goals of ecotourism have been compromised not because the discourse of sustainable development is being side-stepped in some way, but that it is the vagueness of the discourse and the built-in safety-valves which allow for accommodation of such a diversity of practices within this large umbrella term. Thus, these policies in some ways profess to be complementary to the national ecotourism policy, which in turn claims to be tuned into international ecotourism agendas. Yet, while focusing on the utilisation of the resource-base for i ncreasing employment through economic growth, the quality of growth is often traded off.

The resultant characteristic of ecotourism policies is the lack of a unified discourse arising out of a deliberative process. Thus, while on the one hand we have cases such as Tamil Nadu, on the other end of the spectrum is Uttaranchal, which addressed v arious criteria such as low visitor-impact, carrying-capacity, community benefits, etc.

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 1991, under the Environment Protection Act, also attests to the loopholes of the incumbent vagueness. This has restricted the setting up of industries, operations or processes in coastal stretches of seas, estuaries, bays, creeks, rivers and backwaters influenced by tidal a ction up to 500 metres from the high tide line and land between the high tide and the low tide line. Various provisions were made to safeguard traditional fishing and coastal communities’ rights over certain areas against demands of increasing tourism and d evelopment. The notification also directed coastal states and u nion territories to prepare Coastal Zone Management plans a ccordingly. Many ecotourism hotspots like national parks, sanctuaries, mangrove forests and coral reefs were affected by this n otification. However, since its inception, this act has been much compromised. Soon, the B B Vohra Committee was set up to rethink some regulations considered too stringent for tourism. In 1994, an amendment reduced the No Development Zone (NDZ) from 200 metres to 50 metres, with the central government reserving discretionary powers to permit constructions on the landward side within 200 metres of the high tide zone. Though this order was later quashed by the Supreme Court, it reveals the tendency of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) to dilute its own laws. The law has since been adapted in various ways to give greater access to tourism development through an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (Bhatt and Liyakhat 2008: 44-47).

Often, growth-orientation in ecotourism de facto privileges private capitalists over locals and the environment. Facilitated by the highlighting of mangrove forests as ecotourism resources and relaxed CRZ norms, the West Bengal government signed an MOU with the Sahara group to develop ecotourism in the Sunderbans Bio-sphere Reserve. This project, covering over 36,000 sq km of water area, included various “eco-villages”, eco-parks, interpretation centres, ethnic craft promotion centres, etc to justify the eco-tag. But in scale, environmental impact and local participation (helipads, luxury accommodations of thousand-plus capacity, floating bars and restaurants, eviction and fishing prohibition for locals), it did not fulfil any cardinal principle of ecotourism and sustainable development, and posed a direct threat to the marine ecology of this world heritage site. Much public pressure and protests by NGOs and locals finally led to the cancellation of the project (Bhatt and Liyakhat 2008: 79-83).

These illustrations highlight how the contradiction of the o bjective of economic growth in sustainable development manifests itself in the policy and practice of ecotourism in India, often compromising its stated principles. While the focus is on India, similar situations are manifest in other developing countries as well. Thus, ecotourism as a site and tool of development reflects the larger trends in development praxis of vagueness of certain concepts, which allow for contradictory practices seeking validation from the same bundle of concepts. Hence, this article argues that critiques of ecotourism policies and programmes should enlarge their orbit to include a critique of the legitimising concepts in the first place.

Ecological Sustainability

Ecological sustainability has become a ubiquitous term among activists, analysts, policymakers, etc, as awareness of various a spects of environmental threat has increased (Lélé 2006). The World Commission on Environment and Development frames the problem as “use by present generation so as not to compromise the resource availability of future generations”.

However, the vagueness of prescriptions which this article f ocuses on is reflected in the fact that even though the gravity of environmental problems is accepted universally, there is no consensus over its exact nature, future trajectory and hence, the e xtent and nature of intervention required. This lack of consensus in the corridors of s cience led the prescriptions to change from “sustained yield”, that is, extracting from a resource stock at a rate below its natural growth rate, to ensuring low variation, to “sustainability as resilience”, f ocusing on the ability of a system to recover from shocks of external fluctuating conditions like rainfall or drought. There is also a debate on whether reducing variability in the short-term may actually contradict efforts to i ncrease resilience in the long run. Lately, there has been a shift in prescriptions, from resilience to adaptability, to a ccount for systematic shifts in external conditions, which were e arlier treated as fluctuations (Lélé 2006: 3).

Such ambiguity shows up in the ecotourism policy (1998: 2) as a call for it to have “no serious impact on the environment”. F urther, though generally in ecotourism, ecological sustainability is operationalised in terms of need for Environmental Impact A ssessment (EIA), carrying-capacity and visitor-management planning, there are no unified and strictly adhered to cardinal rules. Thus, the MoEF, after an original notification of 1994 i ncluding tourism as a Category-I project with mandatory EIA, r equiring central government clearance in locations of 1,000 m etres and above in elevation or 200-500 metres within the high water line, in the later amendment neglected the issue and mentioned it only in passing (Bhatt and Liyakhat 2008). Thus, while in Uttarakhand policy, one may find that carrying capacity is taken as one person each 40 sq m of visitable space at a given time, similar projects in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had no provisions for such calculations, showing that there is no general consensus on how to and when to apply such limits.

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Another problem with the discourse of ecological sustainability is its economistic slant. Especially for the World Bank, putting a price on natural resources reflecting their full value – of harvesting, extraction and environmental costs and loss of future benefit of resources – is critical to ensuring preservation. However, as McAfee (1999: 133) argues, “contrary to the premise of the global economic paradigm there can be no universal metric to compare and exchange real values of nature among different groups of people from different cultures, with vastly different d egrees of political and economic power”. In the event of the g lobal power hierarchy, translating into unequal knowledge and bargaining powers, the process of developing appropriate balances or trade-offs between different people’s differing economic and other values is essentially political rather than economic (Clive 2007: 106).

This political aspect comes to the fore in the National Ecotourism Policy (1998: 7, emphasis mine), which stated that whenever destruction or serious alteration of fragile ecosystems and areas of high primary productivity is contemplated, benefits and costs should be carefully assessed before planning tourism development activities. It is evident again here how the language of trade-offs, along with lack of indisputable guidelines for conservation, allows governments to take opposing stands in terms of the place of conservation in ecotourism. This edict assumes a calculability of resource use of various social groups and thus their compensability, without specifying mechanisms for the same. Generally, in establishing ecotourism, local resource use usually needs to be foregone, often disadvantaging such resource d ependent communities, while the gains accrue to metropolitan tourists in terms of access, reflecting how costs coincide with lack of negotiating powers in the global arena.

To understand the leeway that the goal of environmental sustainability enjoys, because of the above-mentioned contradictions inherent in its framing, we need only to compare the policies of Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh – both seeking private participation in furthering ecotourism development.

Thus, the “Eco and Adventure Tourism Policy, Government of Madhya Pradesh, 2001-02”, calling for private sector partnership, identifies sites for “optimum utilisation” that are ostensibly ecologically sensitive, on which the entrepreneurs can carry out ecotourism projects. In order to make participation “hassle-free”, the government permits entrepreneurs to conduct eco and adventure tourism activities, in the selected areas, after submission of a d etailed project report to the Department of Tourism. The report requires plans of activities to be conducted, construction works to be undertaken, solid and liquid waste-disposal, and for c onservation and management of the allotted land.

However, while the extent of use of locally produced items and foodstuffs, of non-conventional energy, job opportunities for l ocals, and measures for ensuring ecological balance and carrying capacity is considered, applications are evaluated on “first come, first served basis”. All above considerations are weighed only in deciding between competing bids for the same site. Also, while conservation is mentioned in passing, it is not a factor for cancelling leases, which is done only if an entrepreneur fails to construct tourist facilities, as per the project report, within two years (Ministry of Tourism 2001-02: 4-5). Further, the lease

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d uration is 30 years, with no provision for periodic EIAs. Other incentives include exemption from transport taxes for a period of five years for tourist vehicles and liquor-licence concessions for shops in the identified locations. These provisions reveal how easily conservation goals can be traded off.

The revised plan of Himachal Pradesh (2005: 2), on the other hand, puts in a number of conservation clauses even in tendering land for private ecotourism development, whereby economic benefits from ecotourism are “to be ploughed back into the environmental system for its proper upkeep and maintenance”. It calls for periodic EIAs identifying environmental, economic and sociocultural impact, and renewal of leases after three years are subject to meeting the conditions laid down, with failure leading to forfeiting of the security deposit. It seeks private partnership with those with ecotourism sensitivity and prior experience, categorically stating that commercial consideration is not the central tenet. Also, unlike Karnataka, it prohibits private enterprise inside protected areas. Both Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand disallow permanent constructions in ecologically sensitive areas. This clause, along with the emphasis on increasing forest cover and avoiding its depletion, perhaps derive from the understanding of ecological sustainability as harvesting increments in natural resources without harming core resources. Further, Himachal Pradesh has a special section on safety measures, which includes limiting the number of tourists, as well as defining off-limit areas and activities.

Thus, while sustainable development broadly integrates conservation and development, the language of trade-offs allows different governments to interpret its working differently, harking back to the problem of lack of elaboration of what are the means and what are the ends of any development discourse. In ecotourism, the problem manifests itself in a lack of clarity of whether environmental resources are to be protected as ends in themselves or are means to growth and community involvement. Chhattisgarh thus seems to assume the latter, positing ecotourism (in the biodiversity zone of Bastar) as a way of “realising the true potential of natural resources…to ensure economic benefits to more than three-fourth of the population and help create large markets within the state to propel growth in the secondary and the tertiary sectors” (Government of Chhattisgarh 2009: V-1). However, such a conceptualisation cannot be written off as an anomaly, as it draws on the premise of the national policy (1998: 3) that “the geographical diversity of India is a wealth of eco systems which are well protected and preserved… have b ecome the major resource for ecotourism in India.”

Thus, the fragmented or opposing discourses and practices of the state governments boils down primarily to the lack of clarity of the place and importance of ecological sustainability in sustainable development. While some give more centrality to conservation, growth-oriented policies towards ecotourism see conservation only as instrumental in ensuring longevity of a resource base as a source of increased income.

Community Participation

Shifts within development theory and practice have led to the centering of participatory approaches as panacea for meeting both development and conservation goals, thus making it an


i mportant aspect of the sustainable development discourse. This is because including marginalised people, previously excluded by top-down planning processes, in the formulation of policies and practices that affect their lives, is considered to be more likely to be relevant and, therefore, sustainable (Cooke and Kothari 2001: 139-140). Thus, the Rio summit and subsequent statements of i ntent, including Agenda 21, advocate sustainable development based on local-level solutions derived from community initiatives, through a combination of government decentralisation and devolution of responsibility for common natural resources to l ocal communities (Leach, Mearns and Scoones 1999: 225).

However, like the other goals of sustainable development, the idea of participation also contains various contradictions. Lélé (1991) distinguishes between participation in decision-making, implementation, benefit distribution and evaluation. Sustainable development fails to make such distinctions and uses equity, participation and decentralisation interchangeably. This leads to a vagueness in prescriptions that allows for different practices in ecotourism to claim to incorporate community welfare, without having to adhere to specific norms.

Thus, we have ecotourism in protected areas, which might provide some nominal monetary charges to the community, without decentralising decision-making and yet claim to work towards community participation. This lack of incorporation in decisionmaking can be traced right back to the inception, as the National Ecotourism Policy (1998: 1) states that before its formal acceptance, it was discussed in a workshop and recommendations of the attendees, including state governments, industry associations and environmental experts were incorporated, failing to mention who represented community interests.

On the other hand, the Working Group report (2006: 47) f ocuses on “a need to make ecotourism a grass root, communitybased movement through awareness, education and training of the local community”. It seeks their inclusion in the planning process and recommends self-help groups for the same. In calling for “providing socio-economic benefits including stable employment, income-earning opportunities and social services that are fairly distributed to all host community stakeholders, thereby contributing to poverty alleviation” (ibid: 31), it seems to take cognisance of various types of participation – in decision-making, implementation and benefit distribution.

A manifestation of this direction of thinking is Himachal Pradesh’s Policy (2005: 5) that calls community-based ecotourism the cornerstone of its approach. It gives business support, incentives and s pecial preference in leasing land to community organisations like yuvak sanghs, mahila mandals, panchayati raj institutions, forest development and water management committees. Even in p rivate-run ecotourism, income sharing for local community (at least 10%) and their representation in site development is guaranteed. Similarly Uttarakhand, in a “Master Plan for Development of Eco-Tourism in Valley of Flowers: Hemkunt Belt” (GoI 2005: 76-81), outlines the community’s role at every stage, both inside and adjacent to the national park. To involve the community in decisionmaking, eco-development committees (EDCs) in the region are made responsible for cleanliness, waste disposal, staffing check-posts and providing guide facilities. For performing these functions, EDCs are allowed to collect an eco-development fee from mule operators, hotels/lodges/restaurants, and tourism related stalls on government and private land. In this benefit-sharing participatory model, the fee is decided by the EDC and local community and divided between the EDC and zilla panchayat.

End or Means to an End?

Like in ecological sustainability, the question arises as to whether participation is an end in itself or means to fulfilling other goals of sustainable development. In as much as it is a means to achieve growth, or conservation goals in ecotourism, it pre-decides the course of action communities are to take in dealing with this phenomenon. As experiences elsewhere have shown, increased democracy does not necessarily ensure that communities conserve. In such instances, the discourse itself provides the space where participation in ecotourism can be traded off in favour of protection of biodiversity and wildlife. This i nstrumentality is enshrined in the N ational Eco tourism Policy (1998: 2) itself, which, in adapting the UNWTO definition, seeks “the positive involvement of the local community in maintaining the ecological balance”.

Inasmuch as growth too is similarly privileged over participation, the method of doing so is again not direct omission, but the stealth of vagueness, whereby the edict is that “conflict between use of resource for tourism v/s its use for local livelihood should be minimised” (ibid: 6). The trade-off is implicit in the means and ends of such conflict resolution not being formalised.

This in turn provides the space in which states like Karnataka, can privilege capitalist interests, as seen in the conflict over eco tourism in Nagarhole National Park, located in Kodagu and M ysore districts. Prior to 1994, the Karnataka Forest Industries Development Corporation (KFIDC) set up the Murkal Jungle Resort inside the park, close to the core zone (which, being highly degraded, needed complete protection). Unable to run it, the KFIDC handed it over to the Taj group on a lease of Rs 1.25 lakh per month, which planned a Rs 40 crore project, including a resort, bungalows, conference halls and bars, positioning it as India’s first eco-friendly resort. With the government providing 20% subsidy, measures to justify the “eco” tag, included no use of forest resources for construction, the “reduce, reuse and recycle” principle in use of water, energy and waste, planting of native species, n ature tours, organically grown vegetable shops and incentives to adivasis to use traditional bee-keeping methods. However, the resultant disenfranchisement of adivasis and degradation met with organised opposition by various adivasi organisations and NGOs. Along with other protests, a petition was filed, first in the high court and then the Supreme Court, against KFIDC and the Taj Group. It contested that in allowing a non-forest use of forest land and granting of lease of a protected land to a private company not controlled, owned or managed by the government, the 1986 Environment (Protection) Act, and the 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act, were violated. Further, as per Article 21, violation of adivasi rights to preserve their culture and source of livelihood was also cited. Finally, the project was stalled by a S upreme Court d irective quashing the lease and redirecting the property to the state government (Bhatt and Liyakhat 2008: 70-79).

These above illustrations highlight that like the other two goals of sustainable development, community participation too

september 10, 2011 vol xlvi no 37

faces the same set of ambiguities and vagueness, leading to its (Walley 2003). Duffy (2000) brings corruption into the picture in subversion in various circumstances. terms of the subversion of the states’ capacity to implement com

munity and conservation-oriented ecotourism, due to the opera-Conclusions tion of a shadow-state through the collusion of certain national While the hegemony of ecotourism, as a market-based solution to comprador classes and international capital. issues of development and conservation, relies strongly on its Without denying these factors, this article, however, traces the p ositioning as a tool for sustainable development, this article ability of the governments, (as the discourse framers in this conhighlights how its conceptualisation is plagued by a set of contra-text) to juggle between competing interests, to the ambiguous dictions with respect to the three central goals of sustainable n ature of the legitimising concepts itself. This allows for various d evelopment, that is, economic growth, ecological sustainability fragmented practices and policies that reflect a market-liberal and community participation. Exploration of Indian ecotourism slant to operate, without leading to a questioning of the basic polices and practices show that often, the goals of ecological sus-premises on which ecotourism builds. Thus, the success of markettainability and community participation are traded off in favour liberal policies and practices hinges not only on overt exercise of of promoting growth, private sector participation and inclusion power, but on the ability of any discourse-coalition to present an of the market in development. engaging set of propositions to intended beneficiaries.

Various explanations for ecotourism’s deviance from its basic It is in this framework that this article takes a critical look at goals have been posited internationally. An insinuation of neo-the ecotourism policies so far, against the backdrop of the curliberalism turning into neo-imperialism blames international rent debates surrounding the need for ecotourism guidelines for capital for subverting and infiltrating the UN and other agencies tiger reserves, and calls for the extension of the guidelines beyond that influence environmental administration nationally or t iger reserves as well. Such a focus, on the critical appraisal of l ocally, to undermine genuine development goals (Mowforth and consensus building concepts, leading to a better understanding Munt 2003). A tangential idea points to the need of governments of the adaptability of the ecotourism discourse, and its ability to to recover infrastructure investments (essential for tourism to co-opt opposition is seen as a step forward in calling for greater take off in any region) by resorting to increased scale of develop-precision in the means and ends of development. ment, in the process compromising the principles of ecotourism. Since the fragmented nature of ecotourism policies and prac-Another explanation sees government officials of developing tises so far and the resultant trade-offs can be attributed to the countries as subscribing to modernist ideas of development and vagueness of the legitimising concepts of ecotourism, revisions in hence using large-scale ecotourism as a way of asserting the guidelines without a critical evaluation of the discourse itself will country’s position within the global development hierarchy not sufficiently address all the lacunae entailed.


1 The ecotourism statistic is from the Chhattisgarh Vision for 2010 document. It does not state the source. However, since the point is how states perceive the growing market for ecotourism, the statistic highlights this perception.

2 It is not growth per se that developed countries need to be pursued into following, but the neoliberal free-trade oriented route to achieve it, that may be opposed by them.


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