By: Satyakam Bharti
There’s hardly a curve left on roads crisscrossing Himachal from where you can experience the enchanting mountain landscape. That is because of encroachments on roadsides or simple mismanagement of places offering such views. Turning a blind eye to the problem, successive state governments have shown complete nearsightedness in maintaining and developing tourism-related assets, which has led to virgin pasture after pasture being mutilated due to haphazard growth and sheer negligence of authorities. As a result, the state today cannot boast of even a single decent tourist place that shows any signs of planning or foresight.
Leave aside the main tourist towns in the state, which have been ever chaotic, indiscriminate commercialization of the land resource in the state has ensured that every possible place that in any way had some tourist potential is today full of squalour. While marathon meetings are regularly held to discuss how to promote tourism, lately high-end tourism, in the state, the discussions hardly take into account the existing mess or how to prevent further chaos.
The government has for long been talking about promoting new places with tourist potential, but lack of planning and foresight may again prove fatal for these virgin territories as it happened with other tourist towns that have turned into concrete jungles. The moment the government declares a plan for a certain place, the land mafia loses no time in getting there or somehow they have developed this intuitive power to be there even before such plans are announced. It has happened with every major project the government has announced, resulting in land prices going sky-high and the original project being overshadowed by illegal or haphazard construction around.
Kufri near Shimla and Talnu in the outskirts of McLeodganj are perfect examples of lack of interest on the part of government to monitor development around places with tourist potential. What could have been ideal mountain retreats are today bleeding mountain tops lacking any kind of planned construction. Ten years ago Talnu was beautiful, idyllic place offering the closest and easiest possible view of the Dhauladhars. It was a sunset point tourists were just beginning to discover. The government probably knew it, but failed to act, or decided not to act, and as a result today the place no longer offers open meadows and unhindered views as hotels dot the landscape. Had the government developed a plan for the place, defining the maximum number of hotels, shops and related activities to be allowed there, the story could have been different.
The story, in fact, is the same all over Himachal with the town and country planning department literally sleeping, either covertly or overtly. The tourism department has been coming up with wonderful ideas to promote the state, but unless a coordinated effort is made to lift the overall standard of infrastructure and facilities available in the state, all efforts are set to go waste. The need of the hour is that when a coordinated effort by different departments does not seem working, a special vehicle should be constituted to plan, execute and coordinate tourism related projects.
The state government was quick to jump on the SEZ bandwagon to promote industrialisation, whereas it should have made efforts to create special tourism zones. These tourism zones could be developed by some tourism infrastructure development body that carries out the whole gamut of activities like identifying places, acquiring land, and then developing them as tourist spots in partnership with the private sector and also the local populace. It’s a fact that the local population in Himachal derives fringe benefits from tourism related activities, whereas organized hotel industry and tour operators are outsiders. Thousands of localities who own land in the mountains have become landless and also unemployed after selling their small holding to hotel owners. It is very much possible to make these marginal landholders as stakeholders in tourism projects by employing the land pooling technique which gives them some ownership in the developed project.
These tasks could easily have been done by HPTDC, but the corporation seems more interested in serving daily meals to state guests and ferrying them in and out of the state. What we require is vision to see a Himachal of the future, if not better then at least at par with popular international mountain resorts. It’s a challenge but not impossible. The babus and their masters can at least visit such places and see for themselves. And this, of course, is not at all difficult.