In July this year, the Supreme Court banned all forms of tourism from the core areas of India’s tiger reserves. Soon after the verdict, demonstrations were held — most notably in the vicinity of the Corbett national park and also in Assam’s Kaziranga — to protest against the ban by communities which remain economically dependent on tiger tourism. The owners of hotels, lodges and resorts that dot these tiger reserves had reportedly participated in these protests as they too had been aggrieved by the apex court’s decision.
While it is true that the hospitality industry in India has a shocking record when it comes to adhering to standard ecological practices, it will be unwise to dismiss its grievances on account of three reasons. First, tourism helps a large number of hotel owners and their staff sustain themselves. It has been estimated that there are 1,000 tourist lodges in the periphery of India’s tiger reserves. Their employees cater to the needs of over six lakh visitors annually. Second, the money generated by tourism finances not just commercial establishments but also the State’s conservation efforts. Finally, entrepreneurial ingenuity, when combined with government patronage and stringent monitoring by environmental groups, can transform hospitality establishments into facilitators for the dissemination of crucial information about local ecologies, endangered species and the challenges that lie in the path of conservation.
That the demands of commerce and conservation need not be contradictory have been established by at least one beach resort, popularly known as Island Vinnie’s, on Havelock Island in the Andamans. During a recent visit, I was both surprised and impressed by the novelty of the techniques that are in place to force tourists to follow a set of stringent guidelines. For instance, each cabana — tented cottage — contains a notice, its contents printed in large black letters, warning tourists not to collect sea shells or coral. Plastic is not permitted inside the premises or on the beach. Tourists are reminded to conserve water, and not to bring along pets such as cats or dogs as they are alien to the local environment. Significantly, the resort does not have shark on its menu and discourages its guests from patronizing other establishments that serve shark meat or soup. Hawk-eyed, but polite, beach guides keep an eye on tourists to ensure that the instructions are being followed scrupulously. Members of the staff readily share useful information about the diverse marine life — be it the Dugong, the icon of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, or the endangered salt water crocodiles — employing a method that is shorn of pedantry.
Such efforts to raise awareness and respect for the island’s ecology have not been entirely fruitless. This is borne out by the pristine condition of the beach nearby. I have seldom come across another beach in India that is so thickly populated with, not humans, but members of the marine community. Crabs — black, white and red — scurry about the white sands, busy building colonies. Shells, large and beautifully patterned, and starfish are aplenty. There are thick clumps of mangrove and the water remains emerald green. Most importantly, the stringent rules have not kept away guests from the resort. It runs one of Havelock’s most reliable and popular deep sea diving programmes and even during the monsoons — a lean tourist season — I saw a steady trickle of eager visitors filling up the guest register each day.
Ecological entrepreneurism isn’t exactly a novel phenomenon. In the early 1980s, hotel owners in the Doon valley had set a precedent by participating in a popular movement directed against limestone quarries that were threatening the surrounding environment. It is thus a pity to discover that the State is yet to integrate the Andamans’ commercial establishments into its campaign to protect the islands and their diverse ecology. A report published by the Union ministry of environment and forests in 2011, while addressing the key challenges to minimize poaching in the Andamans, had proposed, among several other measures, enhancing incentives to motivate the depleted ranks of frontline staff to raise their commitment towards conservation duties. But there was no mention of recognizing or rewarding private conservation initiatives undertaken by environmentally conscious entrepreneurs. This is unfortunate, as monetary reward and State recognition would have certainly encouraged other private entrepreneurs to follow ecotourism guidelines rigorously not just in Havelock but also in other popular destinations such as Port Blair and Ross Island.
Significantly, one of the proposals of the MoEF states that hotels and resorts located within a radius of five kilometres from national parks and sanctuaries would be charged at least 10 per cent of their turnovers as “conservation cess”, which would then be spent on resource generation, management of man-animal conflicts and generating income for forest communities. Isn’t there then an equally strong case for the announcements of incentives for the handful of commercial establishments that have pioneered innovative ways to protect local ecologies? A segmental approach, combined with bureaucratic unimaginativeness, has resulted in the State’s refusal to accord commercial establishments a niche in the conservation debate. The success of smaller, and often poorer, African nations notwithstanding, central to this rigid compartmentalization is the idea that the relationship between tourism and conservation is inherently inverse in proportion.
Expectedly, government apathy is not the only challenge that confronts disjointed, but spirited, eco-tourism measures in Havelock. Visitors with little regard for the environment, both from within and outside the country, pose a grave threat too. In a popular eatery on the island, I overheard a group of Israeli students discussing excitedly the possibility of arranging a boat trip to visit an island that was supposed to be a reserve for tribal people. Another group, comprising older Americans, was bitter about the absence of the endangered shark on the menu. The local guides and autodrivers I talked to complained bitterly about the police taking the side of foreign visitors when they are hauled up by islanders for littering or other such offences. This blatant surrender to the ugly side of commerce, once again, underscores the need of turning hotels — often the first point of contact between a visitor and the local environment — into viable ecological hubs.
Yet another threat stems from the deteriorating ethnic relationships on the island. One evening, during a chat at the local market, I met a few Bengali settlers who had relocated to Havelock as a part of government rehabilitation packages after Independence. The men confessed that they have turned increasingly nervous because of the allegedly predatory motives of the sizeable Tamil community. The following day, while on my way to a fishing village near the enchanting Kala Paththar beach, a young and prosperous looking Tamil businessman rued the opposition he faced from Bengalis, and alleged that the community lacked entrepreneurial zeal.
What is evident is that the ethnic fissures have widened since the tsunami (Havelock, unlike Port Blair, escaped crippling devastation). The tension centres around allegations of unequal distribution of relief to the affected communities. The bitter ethnic rivalry over scarce welfare measures and sparse natural resources has weakened community resolve to fight ecological degradation. This development reiterates the need of widening the dialogue surrounding ecological conservation to include socio-cultural realities. The fate of a local ecology, such as the one in Havelock, is intricately linked to, and is likely to be decided by, corollary developments in the island’s history, culture and politics.
What I also found disquieting is that sparse conservation measures by both private entrepreneurs or by the State remain remarkably vague about the contribution of the oral tradition of the indigenous communities. It is possible that many of the ecologically sound techniques of identifying and preserving shells, coral and those related to fishing had been passed down across generations within tribal families. They then gained wider acceptance as tribal communities began to interact and coexist with those who settled on these islands later. There is thus an urgent need to not just preserve but also examine these oral traditions more closely, because they are excellent repositories of knowledge about the local ecology and of ways to conserve it.
But this institutional hesitancy to honour the influence of indigenous customs on the aesthetics of conservation undoubtedly mirrors a larger failure: that of the successful assimilation of the tribal people with other communities. My abiding memory of Havelock is not just about the sea that changes colour with the changing light. It also includes a telling episode in which a drunken tribal man lay sleeping inside a shelter near the jetty. Surrounding him were a group of tourists who took his photographs on their mobile phones, poked him gently in the ribs, and, on receiving no response, broke out in nervous laughter.