Sarla Thakur’s husband has only a half bigha (970 square yards or about 2 kanal) agricultural land. Since he has a mental disorder, the family’s entire responsibility, including paying for the education of two teenage sons, is on the 37-year-old lady of the house. Her income depends on tourists’ making a visit to the snow point at the Rohtang Pass; and this earning is in jeopardy.
To make ends meet, the woman from Kulang, a 60-house hamlet about 7 kilometres from Manali, rents out traditional dresses to the visitors for a perfect picture, but by getting the Himachal Pradesh government to ban all tourismrelated commercial activates such as adventure sport and entertainment rides at Solang, Marhi and Rohtang, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has spoiled the survival scene for her. If the ban continues, she might have to discontinue the education of her children.
Sarla earns Rs 250 to 300 a day in the peak tourist season, and just half of that in the rest of the year. Snow, anyway, shuts the pass for almost six months. “The government says our activities are polluting the environment around the pass, but I fail to understand how renting out traditional dress can do that;” says Sarla, “with my income from tourism, I have started building a toilet at my house, and now I don’t know when I’d be able to complete it. If open defecation continues, will that not pollute the environment?”
She is not the only one affected by the blanked ban on all tourism-related activities from Vashisht village to the Pass. The July 6 decision has stalled life at nine villages between Manali and Rohtang. Almost all inhabitants of the Palchan, Burwa and Shanag panchayats are dependent on tourism. “Nearly 30 women of my village are into the dress rental business at the Rohtang Pass, not by choice but by compulsion, because they have to support their poor families,” says Kuvju Devi, 50, who three decades ago was among the community’s first women to step out of house.
“With my earnings over the years, I have been able to marry off my five daughters. The sixth is in Class 12. But if our business remains suspended for long or never resumes, the life will not be the same;” adds Kuvju, “we will be pushed back four decades, when we herded sheep for livelihood and hardly any children went to school.”
She is also Mahila Mandal president of the Palchan panchayat that represents Palchan, Solang, Kothi, Ruwar and Kulang villages. Some 200 women from her panchyat are in the same business as her. If we take the women from Burwa and Shanag Panchyats as well, the number is nearly 300; and in all nine affected villages, nearly 2,000 people are directly involved in tourism-related business activities.
THE CHANGE IT BROUGHT
Manali and the Rohtang Pass came on the tourists’ radar in the mid-1980s and became a hit with them when disturbance started in the Kashmir valley. Tourism boom came to Palchan, Ruwar, Kothi, Kulang, Solang, Burwa, Majhach, Shanag and Goshal.
With little land holdings and just 47 government employees out of the adult population of 4,200, the people of these nine villages on the Manali-Rohtang road switched to tourism-related businesses such as renting out traditional and snow dresses; being ski guides, and offering tourists the thrill of riding snow mobiles, all-terrain vehicles, ponies, and improvised sleighs made of wood and tyre tube. “For all 1,100 households in nine villages under three panchayats, tourism is more of less the mainstay of their economy,” says Roshan Lal Thakur of Burwa, the area’s only village with decent landholdings. “In a good season, we earn enough to send our children to Kullu, Chandigarh or even Delhi for higher education. If there is no tourism,” adds Thakur, “most of us will be on road, and forget studies, most of the children will have to be either labourers or road-construction workers like their older generations.”
RIDE TO FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE
“The division of family land left me with just 1 bigha, which was not enough to survive on, so, I kept four ponies to earn from the joy-ride business. By God’s grace, I now have 17 ponies and have been able to send my two sons to college in Kullu. But if the business stops, these ponies, my source of income, will be white elephants that I’ll have to sell eventually and move on to something else,” says Ses Ram Thakur of Ruwar village. He is president of Horse Association of the Rohtang Pass and Solang Valley. “The nine villages have 500 horses, and the business feeds at least 100 families, for most of which, it is their only source of income,” adds Ses Ram. Ruwar’s 90 families own a total of 150 bigha agriculture land and, only four men out of them are into government service. “Like other villages around, we also are dependent on tourism,” says Karam Chand, owner of two bighas and a snow scooter in partnership with his younger brother, Devi Singh.
TOURISM BUSINESS EMPOWERED WOMEN
Before tourism, the women of these villages were homebound. Tourism brought them both income and empowerment. They found the respect that came with contributing to family’s income. They started sending even daughters to school and college. “Most of us have never been to school. A few of us had primary education; but our children are going to college, only because we have money to spare after buying food,” says Promi Devi, who donated 2-biswa (170 square yards) land out of her six-biswa space for building a common hall for the village women. The government contributed Rs 1 lakh to the project, and the village women gave it their labour. The Mahila Bhavan is 70% complete but the empowerment dream looks like is about to end.