Residents of Lahaul valley celebrating the inauguration of the Atal Tunnel that provides all-year round connectivity to the tribal region of Himachal Pradesh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened the tunnel on October 3.(HT file photo)
Residents of Lahaul valley celebrating the inauguration of the Atal Tunnel that provides all-year round connectivity to the tribal region of Himachal Pradesh. Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened the tunnel on October 3.(HT file photo)

Atal Tunnel brings tourist influx to HP’s Lahaul, locals brace to preserve culture, ecology

To cope with outside influence, call for tighter controls, sensitisation drives for conserving fragile ecology, local tradition amid limited infrastructure
By Gaurav Bisht | Hindustan Times, Shimla
UPDATED ON OCT 19, 2020 06:13 PM IST

The influx of tourists to tribal Lahaul and Spiti district since the inauguration of Atal Tunnel across Rohtang Pass on October 3 has prompted calls for tighter controls to preserve the cultural heritage and fragile ecology of one of Himachal Pradesh’s remotest regions.

With limited infrastructure, it is becoming a challenge to check littering by tourists along the road stretch between Manali and Keylong. Since there are no dustbins on the route, the garbage on the roadside slides down the hills with rain, polluting the rivers. As a first step, the Sissu panchayat near the north portal of the tunnel has imposed a fine of Rs 1,000 for littering. It has put up boards warning visitors against littering the area. With no public toilets in the remote valley, tourists defecate in the open.

The extent of the problem can be gauged from the fact that more than 8,000 vehicles cross the tunnel daily since Prime Minister Narendra Modi threw it open to the public on October 3.

‘FOLLOW BHUTAN MODEL OF TOURISM’

“While the tunnel has opened doors to visitors, there is no planned tourist activity in the region. As a result, it is commonplace to find trash along roads and the pollution level has gone up, threatening the fragile ecology,” says Chander Mohan Parsheera, 54, a social activist who heads of the Institute of Vocational (Tourism) Studies at Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla.

“There is a need to adopt the Bhutan model of tourism in the Lahaul valley,” he says. Bhutan adheres to a policy of high value, low impact and volume tourism. Its government has set a limit of 3.5 lakh tourists to the Himalayan kingdom a year each of who are charged $250 (Rs 18,328) daily. This money is used to develop tourism in the country.

“Our fears have come true. We had been concerned about the impact on lifestyle of tribals due to the opening of the tunnel, hydel projects and tourism,” says Parsheera, who also heads the Lahaul-Spiti Janjatiya Kalyan Samiti. He says there is a need to regulate tourism and focus on waste management, including setting up more toilets, to check environmental degradation.

‘DON’T WANT TO GO KULLU-MANALI WAY’

Lahaul and Spiti district is home to many a Buddhist monastery, including the ancient Tabo monastery built in 996 BC at an altitude of 13,500 feet. Of the estimated 32,000 residents of the tribal district, 85% are Buddhist. Kungri Gompa and Dhankar Gompa at Kibber at 14,200 feet are popular monasteries, too, while Pin valley follows the Nyingma sect of Buddhism.

“The tourist boom is a threat to the culture of Lahaul and Spiti. Kullu and Manali are examples of how the influx of visitors changed the local culture. The tourists brought drug culture to these valleys and today they are infamous for narcotic trade,” says Shimla-based historian OC Handa.

YOUNGSTERS TAKE INITIATIVE TO PRESERVE CULTURE

Before the tunnel’s opening, Lahaul valley was closed for tourism during winter when most cultural festivities took place. “Since there was no interference, most weddings were solemnised in winter months,” says Sonam Zangpo, 36, who heads the Young Drupka Association.

Zangpo fears that with tourists getting access to the valley all-round the year, their presence could influence youngsters in Lahaul who would end up aping them. The association, comprising 700 members, has been conducting awareness meetings and social media initiatives in the tribal region, urging locals to preserve and take pride in their culture.

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