DHARAMSHALA: The tranquility veiling Dharamshala hills has given way to turbulence. As if crying for help, each tree guarding the pristine silence of the place today seems weary of thing to come. The uncertainty in the air is hardly allowing spiritual vibes to settle down on leaves that no longer rustle with the swaying wind. Instead, there’s a crackling voice all around as if everything is falling apart – peace, harmony… and life itself.
The place has long been a melting pot of different cultures, churning out different new living relationships; and never has the calm been broken except for rare windy days with some local issue snowballing into a controversy. But now, as if rocked by an earthquake, the twin-town stands divided between those who claim to be concerned about environmental degradation in the area and those who think that unnecessary hue and cry is being raised about the issue.
The controversy arose with an American woman – Lisa Mastelotto – alleging that illegal felling of trees was being carried out during night in McLeod Ganj area, which has led to ecological imbalance. In a petition sent to various officials, Lisa wrote, “The sickening sounds and sight of escalating and incessant illegal and indiscriminant chopping of trees in direct violation of the Himachal Pradesh Municipal Act 12 of 1994, Section 221(1) explanation, is resulting in depletion of flora and fauna and also soil erosion in upper Dharamshala. It is totally heart-breaking. To see the place rapidly transforming into a hazardous, unsightly concrete jungle and a slum on slopes, with multi-storey buildings that are illegal and dangerous for public safety and environment.” Lisa also claims that there are several illegal/unauthorised structures which the Town and Country Planning department had already either issued notices to stop construction and/or demolition notices, but to date no ‘concrete’ action has been taken.
On the other hand, a traders’ association from McLeod Ganj also wrote to the CM complaining that Lisa had been disturbing peace and harmony in McLeod Ganj. In fact, their tirade against Lisa has grown more personal over time as has been seen in various allegations levelled against her. Lisa also alleged that, on complaint from these hoteliers, she was even threatened by the local ASP that she would be deported if found taking photographs around the place. Of late many local people including environmentalists and lawyers too have come in support of Lisa, but that has helped little to resolve the confrontation.
In fact, the situation is becoming worse, with the fight now heading towards the court through PILs. Lisa’s supporters through local Indian advocates have also filed applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act with at least eight different departments regarding environmental issues, which again is not proving an easy task.
If not today, a similar situation was bound to happen any time. As it happens with every tourist place, Dharamshala too today is burdened with its own reputation. While expectation are running ahead of ground realities, people here have desperately been trying to catch up. Presence of Tibetans and foreigners on one hand has left an impact on the sociology of the place, but more than that they have become an integral part of the tourism-related economy of the place. Under such circumstances, locals, too, cannot sit with hands folded and let outsiders run the economy. It is no secret that many westerners have developed business interests in McLeod Ganj, and Tibetans of course are the mainstay of business here. And it is another reality that most of the big business establishments here are owned by people from the plains – that leaves locals with little option but to make desperate attempt to match the rest in whatever way.
While environmental violations are being carried out by all, including locals, it is the latter who can play a major role in improving things, after all it is their own land. For this they need to be convinced that if the present trend continues one day they will be left alone with all tourists migrating to another verdant territory.
Mistrust against foreigners, as has been seen in Lisa’s case, may have its roots in allegations by locals that foreigners and Tibetans often team up to mistreat them. There may be no logic to it, but efforts should be made to allay these fears for the sake of peaceful coexistence.
Many organisations, including Indian, Tibetan and foreign, have been doing good work to save the environmental of the place, but they need to have more humans-centric approach, rater than working in isolation. Lets understand the fact that protecting the eco-system is not the job of a single individual or an organisation but our collective responsibility, and it is certainly more important than any business.