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Sunday, Sep 15, 2019

Can a green tax save India’s Himalayan towns?

A cess on tourists will not save them and their fragile ecosystem unless such steps are backed by strong regulation and implementation of existing laws

analysis Updated: Oct 15, 2018 15:01 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
A member of the Waste Warriors team, Dharamsala, June 11, 2018
A member of the Waste Warriors team, Dharamsala, June 11, 2018 (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

If I ever have to choose my favourite Himalayan hill town from the wide array India has, it will be Darjeeling in West Bengal (not for parochial reasons). This choice may surprise many because the toy town has lost its charm, thanks to ruinous politics, violent agitations (Gorkhaland), unsustainable tourism and bad resource planning. The saving grace remains the Kanchenjunga, which towers majestically over the “Queen of Hill Stations”, and Glenary’s Bakery & Café. But then memories can be dangerous things.

The destruction of Darjeeling is not Darjeeling’s story alone; many of India’s Himalayan towns are paying/have paid a heavy price for their natural beauty, salubrious climate and religious spots, all of which make them tourist magnets. This summer, Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) and Nainital (Uttarakhand) suffered severe water scarcity due to the increasing numbers of hotel rooms, higher consumption of water, environmental changes and land use change, which affects the capacity of the land to hold water. Add to this the lack of controls on illegal construction, very little demand management in terms of water use, no long term planning for water security, lack of investment in the ecological and physical infrastructure — which means that the system only wakes up when there is a crisis.

In Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala, the waste management system is so poor that often piles of garbage flow into local streams, choking and polluting the natural drainage system. The Alpine meadows of Uttarakhand are under such stress that in August, the high court asked the state to restrict the number of tourists visiting these eco-sensitive places and banned night stay in the meadows.

Tourism is indeed big business in the Himalayan states. Over the years, it has grown not just because of improved facilities and infrastructure but also because the other once-favoured destination, Kashmir, has almost fallen off the tourist map because of political problems. According to NITI Aayog’s recently released ‘Sustainable Tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region’ (IHR), every year an average of about 100 million tourists visit the ecologically sensitive Indian Himalayan region, which is home to about 50 million people. With an aim to generate funds to offset this environmental damage, the Aayog has recommended an “introduction of a green cess — in the form of payments from service consumers” because it “can increase tax revenue and help maintain and enhance critical services”.

While one understands that these tourist destinations need funds and the polluter to pay the price, only a green cess or tax on tourism is unlikely to have any impact if it is not accompanied by strict regulation and the implementation of existing laws. “In many places, as we have found in our work in Nainital, the issue is the flagrant violation of existing laws, the building of structures in eco-fragile and eco-sensitive zones, and the neglect/apathy of the enforcement authorities — who turn a blind eye to these processes,” says director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, Professor Bhaskar Vira. “A green cess will do nothing to improve governance and enforcement mechanisms, and this is the problem at the moment, not the lack of funds”. Many others believe that like toll gates or cess for education, the intent is right, but when funds start coming in, the focus area changes and a lot of it goes into administrative costs. Others talk about how tourism departments in states don’t have the necessary heft and trained personnel to have a say in town planning processes.

Instead of just focusing on revenue generation, it is important to devise strategies for the consolidation of urban settlements and ensure that they are provided all facilities before further growth is permitted. It is also important that buildings in these towns are based on the local ecosystem, taking into account seismic fragility and the need for aesthetics, says Centre for Science and Environment director general Sunita Narain. All this, of course, will require the creation of strong regulatory institutions in the towns. The municipal by-laws must provide for construction activity to be banned in areas, which fall in hazardous zones or areas close to rivers, springs, and watersheds. In many cases, these provisions exist in the by-laws but have not been strictly enforced.

There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy on these matters first before imposing a new cess on tourists.

First Published: Oct 15, 2018 14:58 IST