The big, blurry picture
The new eco-tourism guidelines specify no penalty for violators, offer no incentive for good practices and shut doors on all tourists
Why should a property that keeps 80 percent of its land open to wildlife pay the same tax as one that has 80 percent built-up area?
In effect, the message is that as long as a hotel pays the cess — a kind of pre-penalty — it can go on conducting business as usual. Most hotels will anyway pass on the load to clients. A 10 percent hike in tariff is unlikely to reduce the numbers of tourists and ease the pressure on forests. If at all, it will dispel the notso-well-off tourist who is not necessarily the rowdier or more demanding of the lot.
The guidelines do talk about restricting land use and construction, area of coverage, waste recycling and disposal, rainwater harvesting, solar power, noise pollution, etc. District revenue and forest authorities are supposed to ensure that “severe penalties” are imposed for noncompliance. At the same time, “violators of these norms will be appropriately dealt with by the Local Advisory Committee, to be constituted by respective states for each protected area with representatives from local panchayat, communities, NGOs, etc”. This ambiguity apart, there is not a word on what these “severe penalties” are.
Barring tourists from forest areas reclaimed by moving out villages, the guidelines stipulate a five-year deadline for shifting all tourism activities to buffer areas. Meanwhile, a maximum of 20 percent area of core forests larger than 500 sq km will be open to eco-tourism if 30 percent of the surrounding buffer is restored as a wildlife habitat during those five years. For core areas smaller than 500 sq km, 10 percent area will be accessible for tourism if 20 percent of the buffer is restored. These are ad hoc specifications, much like the quasi-scientific equations for calculating a forest’s tourist-carrying capacity.
The proposed ban on setting up new tourist facilities on forestland is a must. But existing rest houses, after dismantling lavish amenities, if any, should be made available for tourists who are ready to sacrifice most creature comforts for a true jungle experience. They deserve access to any forest as long as they do not complain about hard beds, basic toilets, plain meals and no electricity.
At the same time, eventually barring even day-safari tourists from core forests, otherwise made impregnable by law and left solely to the Forest Department’s charge, will shut the only window to accountability. The tiger may or may not resent being watched. But the forest staff?
• Tiger rush Safari vehicles line up inside Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh