It is oddly tempting to describe the area known as the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve as ‘tucked away’ up in India’s newest mountain state of Uttaranchal. In reality, the region towers and. sprawls for all to see, so long as one is up at the level of the vultures and eagles. For better or worse, getting to such soaring heights has been a necessary first step for seeing the area over recent decades; since the early 1980s, the Indian government has largely outlawed actual tramping through these hills, in the interests of conservation. ‘Reserve’ may ideally refer to a reservation in favour of natural ecosystems, but it has also meant that the communities in the foothills of the Nanda Devi mountain complex (see photo) have been left in legal limbo, living their lives in a ‘buffer zone’ and legislated outside of these lands.
Since Uttaranchal was carved out of northwestern Uttar Pradesh in 2000, there has been a movement to re-introduce an exotic species into the backwoods and upper reaches of Nanda Devi — tourists. Although this thrust for the reintroduction of tourism is coming from both state and grassroots levels, there the similarities end. While the Dehra Dun-based state authorities would like to spread the largesse or exploit it for remote beneficiaries — depending on how you read it — adamant local groups are actively seeking to maintain their hold over tourism. They would like to retain the decision-making power as well as tourism revenue among the communities who live here. Their success would keep control over Nanda Devi tourism with the residents of the Niti Valley, along the Dhauliganga and Girthiganga rivers, in the villages of Reni, Lata, Kailashpur, among others. While benefiting the locals, the initiative would also be a path-breaking example for communities in other areas, where tourism potential exists amidst economic marginality.
Nanda Devi is the second-highest peak in India, standing 7817 metres in the thin air between India and Tibet. After being expanded last year, the Reserve itself now covers more than 5860 sq km of gorges, peaks and rivers, but the most critical area for the current discussions is referred to as the ‘core zone’, a region surrounded by Himalayan peaks and ridgelines. This core sanctuary constitutes around 620 sq km of the Rishi Valley — a part of the larger Niti Valley — where the Rishi Ganga constitutes the only drainage out of the core region. The zone is almost entirely above 3500 metres, where a unique and remote microclimate has allowed for the flourishing of a host of Himalayan species, including the snow leopard, musk deer and hundreds of flora. Although it was traditionally used for grazing in the high alpine bugiyal by the local communities, the core zone was declared off-limits to all in 1982, when the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve was declared a national park. Permission to step foot within the reserve is presently the prerogative of Reserve officials in Joshimath, about 25 km away. That stricture has, however, been challenged on several notable occasions over the years, both by unlicensed trekking parties and groups of outraged villagers practicing pointed civil disobedience.
This rugged region was part of the local economy, mostly used for grazing during off-winter months, and there was a trading route that led through the area into high Tibet. The mountains also provided another source of income to the inhabitants, after the first climbing expedition arrived in 1934 to set foot in the ‘inner sanctuary’ with an eye on the Nanda Devi peak. Two years later, another group succeeded in making it to the peak’s summit. Over the course of the following 46 years, 14 additional expeditions achieved the Nanda Devi summit, while trekkers and climbers began to explore other parts of the Rishi basin. The effect of unregulated tourism on the area’s fragile ecosystem was compounded until 1982, when all activity was suddenly stopped. More than a decade later, an ecological expedition carried out over a tonne of garbage, left by a half-century’s worth of climbing and trekking.
At the time of the closure, when the region was still part of Uttar Pradesh, the UP Chief Secretary gave instructions for an official assessment of the ecosystem impact on the core zone by the local villages. This was never undertaken. While some outlying communities were not affected, villages like Lata and Reni were heavily impacted. Not only did tourism-related monies dry up (estimated at roughly an annual INR 8000 per family — a large sum for the subsistence peasantry) and traditional grazing grounds suddenly become out-of-bound, surrounding villages too began to levy taxes for use of their grazing lands. With livestock reportedly reduced by more than half, these villages began to crumble, as families were broken up with menfolk moving to the plains cities. Those who remained behind became dependent on government handouts.
Beyond their position on the mountaineering circuit, the villages of Lata and Reni were already well-known socio-political hubs, distinguished in these hills as the physical and spiritual wellspring of Chipko, the women-centred movement that successfully chased the logging industry from the community’s forests in the mid-1970s. Gaura Devi, the tribal Tolchha woman who mobilised the area’s women, was born in Lata, and agitated on behalf of the forests surrounding Reni. “Ecology is permanent economy,” the Chipko leader Sunderlal Bahuguna famously wrote, and it was towards this potent local resource that the people of the Niti Valley inevitably turned in the face of the lost land and economy. It was, after all, those very communal forests saved by Chipko — arguably the most famous environmental movement to emerge from Southasia — that, a half-decade later, were ‘reserved’ by the state. “We won the Chipko fight but lost the battle,” sighed one villager in Sangharshnama, a compilation on the region’s land fights. “Armed with strange laws … the Forest Department came to loot us.” In an October 2001 manifesto, the citizens rededicated themselves to their new transformative task, “drawing inspiration from Chipko’s radiant history”.
Chipko itself had weathered increasingly stringent criticism as the movement moved into the late 1980s, particularly for having paradoxically moved away from its local roots. Dhan Singh Rana, the former pradhan of Lata, explained recently how this happened: “While the locals’ role was that of performer, various scholars with diverse sources of scholarship took the role of rapporteurs and made their own interpretations.” Dhan Singh is now one of the driving forces in the current movement to make tourism productive for the sake of the local community, through an ‘experimental’ local organisation called Mountain Shepherds, known in the local Garhwali as Bhed Palak. The lessons learned from Chipko’s straying, he continued, “makes our case stronger to take the lead in issues concerning our lives and livelihood”. Sunil Kainthola, an activist with the Dehra Dun-based forest rights organisation Janaadhar and a fellow Mountain Shepherds organiser, agrees that the new movement is in continuation of the Chipko spirit. “Though the rights over fuel and fodder is still a contentious issue in the state,” he says, “the Forest Department is more keen on selling the landscape and wilderness of the area under the guise of ‘community-based tourism’.”
In April 2003, the Nanda Devi Reserve’s core zone was opened for limited ‘ecotourism’. Indeed, the story of Uttaranchal’s push to reopen the Nanda Devi Reserve to tourism has not necessarily been one of overt attempts to bulldoze roads, level ridges or construct towering resorts. Both the activists in Lata and officials of the Forest Department in Dehra Dun are ostensibly promulgating plans based on the relatively new ideas of ecotourism, sustainable tourism and community-based tourism – ideas so new, if not radical, that they are still lumped into a category termed ‘experimental’ tourism. Each definition has technically in common a stated goal of tourism improving the welfare of local peoples and communities.
Ecotourism is a term that has been in use in the Himalayan region for more than a decade, with Bhutan and Nepal also practicing their own versions. Overall, the idea is to benefit locals even while conserving the environment – and culture as a ‘renewable’ resource that needs to be preserved if tourism is to be ‘sustainable’. There is no doubt that there is ‘big money’ in ecotourism. According to reports published by the US-based International Ecotourism Society (IES), between two-thirds and 90 percent of tourists from the US, UK, and Australia consider “active support of the environment” and “support of local communities” to be part of any tourism entrepreneur’s responsibilities. The survey also suggested that up to 70 percent would pay as much as USD 150 more for a two-week stay at accommodation with a “responsible environmental attitude”. IES further reports that the ecotourism market has grown more than 34 percent during the past decade – three times faster than the tourism market as a whole.
While the seeming proliferation of pro-environment and pro-community tourism around India over the last decade may seem heartening, there is a vast gap between the rhetoric and the results. For instance, the website of the state-run Uttaranchal Forest Development Corporation (UFDC) blithely introduces its work programme as including: Timber production, sale of forest products, eco-tourism, in that order. (Repeated attempts to contact UFDC for this article failed.) While the flourishing of ‘ecotourism’ initiatives has led to widespread accusations of green-washing, the lack of a precise definition of the term may also have played a part. For example, there is no reference to local communities in the etymology. And where are the guidelines for dealing with communities – such as those of the Niti Valley – where economy, ecology and cultural heritage are so intricately entwined? Is the UFDC, or even Uttaranchal Tourism, equipped to consider such matters?
In the early days of the ecotourism debate, a 1997 paper published by the Bangalore-based advocacy group Equitable Tourism Options (Equations) foresaw the problems of such ambiguity, noting the semantic pitfalls common to ‘ecotourism’ and one of its progenitors, ‘sustainable development’. Reacting to the then-government’s Draft Tourism Policy, the Equations researchers stated that, “Sustainable development remains a fashionable phrase that everyone pays homage to but no one cares to define.” The authors pointed out that, with India’s tourism policy following mainstream sustainable development thinking, it may be useful for “building a very broad consensus … yet the debate at the operational level continues.” Dhan Singh Rana, living at the ‘operational level’, suggests that he believes that the importance of any imminent tourism activity in the Nanda Devi area should be used firstly to repair the livelihoods and traditional cohesion of Niti Valley families.
Based on such hopes, locals worry that the Forest Department is currently overreaching, in terms of both its knowledge and prerogative, by acting as an inexperienced ‘development agency’ – collecting taxes (including from areas normally overseen by the Lata forest councils, or van panchayats) and redistributing funds to those communities that collaborate with them. More than anything else, however, is the lingering animosity on the parts of the villages towards the state for decades of ill-kept promises. Along with the 1982 designation and restriction of the forest lands of the core zone came official promises, most notably for compensation and alternative grazing grounds and employment schemes. Community members say that such promises have still not been kept. With the 2003 reopening still barring the local communities from utilising the lands themselves, the locals have no desire to have the potential tourism industry be defined and overseen by anyone but themselves.
According to the IFS definition, as much as 95 percent of the revenue generated under a true ‘ecotourism’ project should remain within the ‘host communities’. While this might sound like an idealised or even outrageous amount to the ears of Dehra Dun authorities — much less to those of private tour operators, who are mostly based in Delhi —approaching such a figure would be relatively straightforward if the tourism infrastructure were simply to be owned and operated by the local communities. Such models are exactly where groups like Mountain Shepherds are pinning their hopes. In its 12 points, the •2001 manifesto adopted by the locals defines not only the intended structure of proposed tourism initiatives, but also sets out the objectives to give preference to “our unemployed youth and under-privileged families” and to provide for the “special needs of our senior citizens and disabled persons”.
Dhan Singh Rana offers that he is most concerned by the “equity equations” of the upcoming tourism opportunities. Although he refers particularly to the desire to spread the benefits of any additional revenue throughout the region’s population, there is also the crucial issue of pride. Despite the significant income from tourism prior to the 1982 ban, there are bitter memories of that experience. Says Dhan Singh, “Our role and status was on the last order of hierarchy in the mountaineering business. It was the outside travel agents, labour mates and western sahibs who usually called the shots, and all this happened in our own areas. Frankly, it was sometimes humiliating and compromising to self-respect.”
An ecotourism programme in the nearby Valley of Flowers, also in Uttaranchal, is often portrayed as a success story. Sunil Kainthola begs to disagree, however, maintaining that the only income for the locals comes through sales of bottled water and packaged food. The inhabitants themselves, he says, “have been relegated to the role of sweepers”. The Mountain Shepherds initiative seeks to learn from Uttaranchal’s own experience with tourism, as well as the experience of others who have experimented with ecotourism.
Fulfilment of such bedrock goals as dealing with under-privileged community members, keeping families intact and bolstering individual self-respect is desirable from any vantage point. However, even such ambitions require an intrinsically localised approach, in terms of establishment as well as sustenance. And it is obvious that in both the planning and implementation phase, the grassroots push for ecotourism will butt heads with the priorities of state authorities. In 2004, Uttaranchal and the Corbett National Park were awarded a prestigious National Tourism Award for the development of a ‘community-based tourism’ project involving three park-area villages. The potential irony inherent to a ‘community-based’ project sponsored and run by the state, however, is not hard to see: the award was given directly to Uttaranchal Tourism, not to the villages of Kyari, Choti Haldwani or Bhakrakot.
On the other hand, when the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve won a runner-up spot in the highly regarded international ecotourism awards given out by Conde Nast Traveler magazine the same year, one Indian daily was moved to point out that, “While the villagers of the Nanda Devi region are pleased with their achievement, Uttaranchal Tourism’s silence remains deafening.” That silence is the gap between bottom-up and top-down approaches: even when dealing with new and potentially progressive policies, most officials are convinced that Indian forests remain the realm solely of the state — such policies may be enacted for the bottom, but they will come from the top.
Back to the valley
Sunil Kainthola has described the inability of authorities to seriously contemplate community ownership as remnants of the lingering ‘Jungle Raj’ mentality. With all involved interests — public, private and local — salivating for a chunk of the looming ecotourism pie, it is hardly surprising that entities like the UFDC are hesitant to loosen their control over the landscape resources. Unfortunately, much of the government’s tourist-friendly talk regarding the importance of the grassroots and community-based programmes is undercut by the fact that the advisory committees constituted to develop tourism and ecotourism policies over the past decade have largely been made up of outside individuals. “As far as I know,” says Kainthola, “there was never an honest attempt to involve communities in the planning process.”
Some of the advisors have been benign, others well-meaning and still others suspect; some experts have been national, others international — but nearly all have been specifically external to the area under consideration. Such criticism is similar to that levelled regarding the past two decades of hiccupping progress made by India’s Joint Forest Management programmes, the problematic national and state projects set up to develop degraded forestlands with increased community involvement. More immediately, however, it also bears a remarkable resemblance to the problems originally encountered by the Chipko movement itself: a process that is over-reliant on external ‘experts’ with origins in India’s cities simply cannot adequately address local needs — good intentions and social-scientific acumen notwithstanding.
All of which is not necessarily to say that the state should not be allowed to set up some tourism infrastructure on its own. It is just that programmes that are not truly ‘ecotouristic’ should not be advertised as such. Dhan Singh Rana would prefer that the Forest Department focus on its own projects and “create their space on a competitive basis”. It is when the villages of the Niti Valley have been forced to be dependent upon the state, after all, that problems have arisen.
Despite suspicions of the Forest Department’s intentions — there are fears that it wants to maintain control over the land in order to auction or lease it to private interests later — Kainthola says that some kind of public-private partnership should not be ruled out. “For setting up a community-owned project, the need is to strengthen and empower the Panchayati Raj institutions to manage and take responsibility in the ecotourism management of their area,” he says, referring to the local government initiatives already in place.” This could not be achieved all at once, so the government should allow experiments like Mountain Shepherds.”
If a model were to be required for Nanda Devi ecotourism that would genuinely support the host communities, the mountain communities of Uttaranchal are already a repository of experience on local community involvement and action. These states’ mountain districts are unique for their roughly 6000 Van Panchayats, which since the 1920s have overseen more than 400,000 hectares of community forestland. Community members also have a long history of battling the Forest Department in the exploitation of forest products, and hence are well prepared to take on the authorities when it comes to tourism management.
When it comes to the specifics of tourism management, Mountain Shepherds is studying the possibility of utilising the area’s Bhotiya homes as pre-made tourist infrastructure, so that trekkers spend money in the mountain homes rather than stay in tents provided by trekking companies. Mountain Shepherds is currently involved in training 40 unemployed youths from the Niti villages as guides. After a probationary period, they will be offered a percentage ownership in the initiative itself. Within two years, the organisers envision that around 40 percent of the project will be owned by such grassroots tourkm professionals, with the rest of the money maintained in a trust aimed at funding the objectives of the 2001 declaration. The trust would be run in collaboration with the Gram Panchayats and other village institutions.
While proponents admit to several potential pitfalls in attempting to set up an entire ‘tourism industry’ based on the ecological- and community-friendly model, they are resolute to learn from both past and surrounding experiences. Explains Kainthola: “Let’s take the case of bottled water. Do only tourists need safe drinking water? Is bottled water the only solution, or is it the market behind it? We are not aiming at changing the entire face of mountain tourism, but we certainly intend to experiment on new ideas.”
Ultimately, proponents of Nanda Devi ecotourism are hopeful that their model’s success — economic and otherwise — will lead to greater political support. “We are trying to seize an opportunity,” says Khila Bisht, a member of the Dehra Dun-based Alliance for Development, which includes both Mountain Shepherds and Janaadhar. “It is one of the few opportunities that the area provides that allows the community to work in its own area, on its own terms, with no detrimental impact on the environment — a natural progression of the work that the community has done for centuries.”