Some years ago Himachal Tourism had a catchy slogan – ‘A state for all seasons and all reasons.’ Over time, it appears that this also became the developmental paradigm for the state’s planners.
Investments of all kinds were welcome – cement plants, hydel projects, arc furnaces, steel plants, pharma companies, housing developments, SEZs, private airports. These enterprises were superimposed on the state’s existing core economic activities of horticulture and tourism ( agriculture has mainly been of the sustenance variety).
Investments were necessary to provide employment to the multitude of job seekers which the state’s successful education system churned out every year. The process was started in the late seventies and early eighties when a number of industrial areas were laid out along the state’s borders, but actually picked up pace in the mid- nineties on the back of assured and cheap power and stable law and order, at a time when the rest of the country was grappling with both these problems.
About this time Himachal also discovered its massive hydel potential. The accelerator, however, was really jammed through the floor post 2000 with the introduction of a special industrial package for the state by the Centre . This package itself has drawn in investments of more than Rs. 17000 crore in the last five years alone.
Busy counting the investment dollars and attending PHD Chamber and CII confabulations, the state’s policy makers completely lost sight of their main asset and sustainable resource- the environment, bestowed on the state by a million years of nature’s labours.
Somewhere along the way, this beautiful environment was mortgaged to the demands and pressures of commerce and the GDP, and the indiscriminate welcome accorded to any and all kinds of industry have now taken their toll. The effects have been pretty well documented by reputed NGOs, various donor agencies, various Committees appointed by the High Court acting on PILs, some of the projects themselves as well as government’s own departments.
The rivers and streams carry increasing loads of pollutants and silt, entire rivers ( such as the Ravi in Chamba and the Sutlej) have either disappeared or are fast disappearing into underground Head Race Tunnels of hydel projects.
Fish like the trout and mahseer have all but vanished from all but the remotest streams, more than 100 square kilometers of prime forests have been diverted for various projects, the state’s dense forests have been consistently declining year on year as per reports of the Forest Survey of India., flash floods and landslides have become endemic in the project areas, many rare species of wild life like the western tragopan pheasant and the musk deer have become highly endangered. Industry, especially hydel projects and cement plants are pushing deeper and deeper into the innards of this beautiful state like some unstoppable cancer, draining it of its very essence.
The effects of all this on the traditional sectors of the state’s economy- tourism and horticulture- are now beginning to ring alarm bells. Try as it might the state cannot rise above its image as a low budget tourism destination- primarily because its natural locales are being despoiled, its policies have concentrated on attracting the hard manufacturing sector rather than the softer hospitality services, and because it mistakenly wants the quick gains ( jobs, tax revenues) today which manufacturing can deliver quickly , rather than wait the few years which any quality investment in tourism demands.
The net result is that, although tourist arrivals in Himachal show a constant increase, tourist spending is low, foreign tourists are less than three percent of the total ( which would be even lower if one were to discount the Dalai Lama factor).
It is nothing less than tragic that for a state which has the most stupendous Himalayan attractions, its tourism has not been able to rise above the chhola bhatura variety. Tourism’s contribution to the state’s GDP is only 8%- a pathetic figure for a state which proclaims itself as the favourite destination in the country, for which it has even won some dubious awards!
Tourism remains limited to the urbanized areas of Shimla, Manali and Dharamshala where it is wreaking havoc in the absence of any upgraded infrastructure or serious urban planning. These towns have become a smorgasbord of traffic snarls, choked drains, pot-holed roads, water scarcity, uncleared garbage and plastic strewn slopes.
Their green cover is rapidly disappearing under concrete and muck. A vicious cycle is being played out here: to begin with, Himachal has always been a low budget tourism destination, attracting 1.20 crore low-paying tourists in 2010. The average tourist stays less than two days, and the per capita spend is barely Rupees 2000/.
However, the strain he imposes on the infrastructure( traffic, water, sewerage, garbage) is in no way less than what a tourist spending Rupees 20000.00 would impose. Himachal is just not getting the bang for its buck. Conversely, the deterioration of its destinations leads to the quality conscious( and high-end) tourist staying away, vacating space for even larger numbers of low budget visitors, who further exacerbate and over-load the civic infrastructure of these towns, resulting in further deterioration and even more quality tourists staying away.
( It is not surprising that, in a survey of major Indian cities carried by the April 16, 2009 issue of DOWN TO EARTH, Shimla has been ranked as the worst city in India among 30 in the ‘walkability index’ i.e. conduciveness to walking).
Content with the hill stations the British gave us on a platter, successive state governments have made no planned efforts to expand the base of tourism to the interiors- the verdant river valleys, the pristine forests, the stupendous mountains. Whatever extension has taken place has been sporadic, unplanned, and usually initiated by the private sector with no contribution by the government.
And even the private sector cannot push beyond a point in the absence of connectivity (good roads, heli- services, ropeways), planned development of activity hubs and an enabling policy environment- all of which has to be done by the government.
Governments of all hues have entered into unnecessary confrontation with major private sector players and stalled execution of premium projects which had the potential to leap-frog the state into the top rung of holiday destinations- if it was the Congress which ensured that the Oberois would never look at Himachal again (because of the Wildflower Hall imbroglio), it is the BJP which has torpedoed the largest FDI tourism project in the country- the Ski-village project in the Manali valley, simply because it was sanctioned by the predecessor Congress government!
These negative signals to industry can only perpetuate the trend which shows that not a single major hospitality chain has set up shop in this state in the last 30 years! There are some indications that the state government is beginning to realize its past myopia and wants to focus on its nature- based assets to drive tourism but, unfortunately, by the time full realization dawns it may be too late.
This is because, in the last 20 years, the devastation of its forests, environment and wild-life for the sake of cement plants and hydel projects have denuded large swathes of the state of its natural beauty and resilience, removing the basis itself for any nature tourism.
It is ironic- and tragic, because the government appears to have missed it- that this destruction of nature has taken place precisely in the most beautiful valleys which have the maximum tourism potential: Beas (Manali, Kullu), Parbati (Manikaran, Kasol), Tirthan (Banjar, Shoja), Rav (Chamba, Bharmour), Baspa (Sangla, Chitkul), Uhl and Lambadug (Barot, Chota Bangal), to name just a few. More than 700,000 trees that took 100 hundred years to mature have been felled since 1980 to provide power to malls in Gurgaon.
The degradation that has taken place is on a colossal scale: Quoting from a 2007 report on land degradation by the National Remote Sensing Authority, Hyderabad (also called the Wasteland Atlas of India), the April 16th 2009 issue of DOWN TO EARTH states that Himachal is one of the three states in India that “have the highest percentages of (soil) degradation.”
And, most frightening of all, this is the state of affairs when the state has exploited barely 50% of its hydel potential! The damaging effects of the planners’ short-sightedness is now beginning to be felt: crumbling roads, vanishing green cover, dust and smoke pollution, disappearing wild-life, rising temperatures, mindless urbanization.
This cannot but drive away the discerning tourist in the long run. Himachal should not get complacent with the absolute number of tourist arrivals, which are deceptively impressive. It should look at their per capita spending, their length of stay, their repeat visits- all of which are very low.
It should remember that, in large measure, it is getting Kashmir’s tourist income by default, and that the day serious peace returns to Kashmir a huge chunk of its present clientle will vanish overnight. Even today, a peaceful interlude in Kashmir sees a fall in tourist arrivals in Himachal, especially Manali. And it should also realize that it is gradually being over-taken by Uttarakhand which appears to be better focused on nature and adventure tourism.
True, the state’s revenues have gone up by a couple of thousand crores, but this is a very short term gain because it comes at the cost of its environmental, forest and tourism potential.
These three sectors can , if properly managed, contribute much more to the state’s GDP by way of silvicultural felling, payment for environmental services, high-end tourism. Tourism, with all its upstream and downstream linkages, can provide many times the employment which heavy industry can, and employment is the one thing which the youth of the state desperately need, with more than 10% of its population registered with the Employment Exchanges.
Himachal is at the cross-roads today- it can either take the short road to polluting industrialization and mindless urbanization for quick gains, or it can take the longer route to a sustainable, environment-friendly development based on its stupendous natural and forest resources. But it cannot linger long at the cross-roads-with each passing day it loses a few more thousand trees, a few more meters of some precious river, perhaps a species of flora or fauna we are not even aware of. It must decide quickly, and decide wisely.
Photos by: Amit Kanwar