Missing The Woods For The Trees

I am one of those who supports the “overreach” of the higher judiciary. When the executive under performs consistently, someone has to overreach, and since the citizens have been hammered into submission and most of the media co-opted, that leaves only the courts. But I do wish they would not abrogate all wisdom to themselves and would consult some experts once in a while. My specific allusion is to the Supreme Court’s order last week banning the use of ALL forest rest houses for eco-tourism activities. This regressive judgement betrays a complete lack of understanding of realities on the ground. The original issue before the court was the pressure of visitors in Corbett – more than 200,000 every year. There were other ways to address this problem – restriction on numbers, closing off certain areas in a rotation cycle, keeping the core zones inviolate, prohibiting the entry of vehicles. The solution required a scalpel, not a sledge hammer, which is what has been wielded here.To the best of my knowledge this order was passed on the recommendations of the Central Empowered Committee and the MOEF. The former is composed mainly of forest officers and bureaucrats who in any case are keen to hang on to their turf, even as they have little idea of what to do with it except to mark their territory in the time honoured canine manner. The less said about the Ministry the better: it will not share the FRHs with others even while it transfers thousands of hectares of forests for industries and allows tens of thousands of trees to be felled. It would perhaps have helped if the Court had also listened to the practitioners and experts in the field of eco-tourism, such as the Eco-Tourism Society of India. Locking up forests and denying access to tourists (which is what prohibiting tourists from staying in FRHs will do) is not the way to conserve forests or wildlife habitats, as experience across the world has shown. Eco-tourism is the most sustainable model of tourism for the future as it has minimum deleterious impacts on natural resources, and to divorce it from nature or forests is the surest way to kill it. Let’s try and break down some of its prime objectives.

A Forest Rest House in Himachal Pradesh

Eco-tourism is a low budget activity and its purpose is four-fold. One, spread tourism beyond overburdened urban conglomerations to relieve the unsustainable pressures on them. Two, create awareness among the public, and educate them about the value and beauty of nature. Three, support rural economies and create employment in those areas. Four, make use of the huge infrastructure of the forest departments which is otherwise crumbling, and generate funds for their maintenance. States like HP and Sikkim are pioneers in this field, have framed sound eco-tourism policies and have been successfully implementing them for many years. It is disheartening to see the Supreme Court upsetting the apple cart for no sound reason. Did it give these states an opportunity to present their side of the case?

Himachal has more than 500 FRHs (Forest Rest Houses), some of them of heritage value like the ones at Khanag in Kullu or Sangla in Kinnaur. Even more picturesque ones are in areas not connected by any road. They are huge attractions for the young, aware, nature lovers, including foreign tourists.They are all totally under-utilised, under-funded and are going to seed – the department doesn’t even have funds to maintain them adequately. Forest officers (for whom they were primarily meant) rarely visit the off-road or remote FRHs. Now that every second forest officer is either a PCCF or an Addl. PCCF their touring (if any) is limited to the road-head. The lower level field staff are mostly posted in their home stations and have no desire to spend nights away from their warm beds at home. So much for the concern of the forest officers for their rest houses! This was one of the main reasons why Himachal, as far back as in 2002, decided to utilise these FRHs by linking them to nature and eco-tourism. Some have been tendered out to private entities (with severe stipulations) since the govt. obviously lacks resources and manpower, while others are being run by the forest department itself. I have myself been to some of the remotest valleys and forest areas and have found that this model of tourism is working very successfully, and is drawing tourists to nature in ever increasing numbers, especially the younger generation. Local economies are benefiting hugely. Just the Sairopa complex in the Tirthan valley has a turnover of Rs. 80.00 lakhs per year and provides employment to dozens of local youth. It will now have to close down.

The Supreme Court order will put a halt to this positive initiative. It will also create a vacuum for accommodation in these pristine areas and all manner of illegal structures will come up (as in Kasol, Manikaran and Triund, to name just a few) at exorbitant prices, polluting and disfiguring these wonderful natural environments. Everyone, except these land sharks, will be a loser. Himachal, the first state in the country perhaps to have framed an Eco-Tourism policy in 2002 will be impacted adversely by this judgement. It had on the drawing board ambitious plans to tender out 113 sites under the PPP mode, and the HP Forest Corporation another 47 sites. I cannot help but feel that the Court should be giving greater priority to saving the trees in Delhi, or staying the construction of the insanely conceived Char Dham Highway in Uttarakhand which will lead to chopping down of 45000 trees. If at all it must concern itself with the question of using Forest Department assets for eco-tourism, it should limit itself to laying down guidelines rather than banning it altogether. Forget about throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in these critical, water stressed times even the bathwater has to be recycled! I do hope the Himachal, Sikkim and Uttarakhand governments will come together and challenge this order in a review petition

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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