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11 Jul, 2005

Who Is Really Terrorising Tourism? Watchdog Group Asks

BANGALORE: While the world was preoccupied last week with the London bombings, a group of vocal non-governmental organisations in India last week warned that they do not intend to lose sight of a parallel form of terrorism taking place right through the Asia-Pacific region.

Although the NGOs were focussed on Indian issues, they warned that forests, heritage, wildlife and tribal lands are being terrorised regionwide by an “unholy trinity” of politicians, bureaucrats and investors in the name of economic and tourism development.

Convening under the aegis of the Bangalore-based NGO Equations, the grouping of environmentalists, academics, social workers and other activists said that deregulation and privatisation of Indian tourism would extract a huge price on what’s left of the country’s forest cover, water and other natural resources.

The Indian government has embarked upon a tourism marketing campaign under the slogan ‘Incredible India.’ But activist Mr Panduranga Hegde of the Appiko Movement said, “We now have an opportunity to see to what extent Incredible India is credible.”

India’s economic liberalisation programme is leading to intense competition among the states, transport and hotel sectors to attract both foreign and the far more voluminous domestic visitors. Many of the states see their national parks, wildlife reserves and heritage areas as being ideal for ecotourism.

Although officials claim to have appropriate policies and regulatory controls to manage ecotourism, the activists say a collusion of corrupt politicians, subservient bureaucrats and greedy investors will make a mockery of these regulations.

All three “are colluding to sell off India en masse,” said Mr Mathivanan of the Tamil Nadu Environmental Council. “Management of all the natural resources is getting commoditised.”

Because the forests are rich in mineral resources like bauxite, gold and timber, along with potential for hydropower and tourism, ownership issues have created conflict with the indigenous tribal people, known as ‘adivasis,’ millions of whom are being displaced while awaiting passage of a tribal rights bill.

Said Mr Pradip Prabhu of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, “Mobs lynch them (the tribals), police harasses them and the public chastises them. They are deprived of a dignified life. They are not on the electoral rolls and hence are not paid any attention by politicians.”

He said the Indian government issues various regulations to decide who can and cannot enter the forest reserves and national parks, but these only further alienate the tribal people because the forests are the source of their life, not a resource for commercial gain.

“It is important to understand who came first — the adivasis or the Government of India? Certainly the adivasis, so it is perhaps the Government of India who is the encroacher,” said Mr Prabhu.

He said it was tragic that the government spent huge fortunes on a Border Security Force to keep out foreign illegals while contributing to the displacement of its own people from their own land within the country itself.

Some of most significant concerns are over the future of the tsunami-hit Andaman & Nicobar islands, with activists expressing concern over plans to create a joint marketing campaign with Phuket to feed visitors through there as part of economic recovery efforts.

Mr Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman Ecology pointed out that the islands suffer from a severe shortage of fresh water, particularly in the period before the monsoons when water is available for a few hours once in three days.

Mr K.G.Mohanlal of Ecotourism Director, Kerala, said that in his state, four water-parks which consume half a million litres of water a day are coming up at a time when people in many parts of India don’t have enough clean water to drink.

Said Ms Albertina Almeida of Bailan Choosad, Goa, “Tourism needs all kind of infrastructure – land availability, single window availability (for clearance of bureaucratic permits and procedures). But whose land is going and what price are they getting? It’s like having foreign territory on local soil because (locals) have no say in the local areas.”

“People say what kind of tourists we want. I would (ask instead) what kind of development we want? Maybe some people don’t even want tourism.

“The challenge is for us (NGOs) to puncture the glamour of globalisation and the projections they make about tourism. We need to recognise and expose the other sides of the story.”

Animal rights activists are also concerned. “Someone should ask the animals whether they want tourists,” said Mr J.Manjunath of the Wilderness Club. “Animals need their space, just like we humans need our space.”

The NGOs admit they are under-funded, not as well organised as the ‘unholy trinity’, and without access to sophisticated communications and lobbying strategies.

Nevertheless, they concluded that they intend to use all the democratic means at their disposal – especially the media, the courts as well as their ability to ‘name and shame’ corporations — to preserve the forests and defend the rights of the tribal peoples.

NGOs are also planning to raise similar issues in the Greater Mekong Subregion with the planned by one of them, the Ecumenical Coalition for Tourism (ECOT) to Chiang Mai, as of January 2006.

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