The interests of commercial tourist enterprises have overridden ecological concerns and the understanding of ecotourism is blatantly unsatisfactory.
Extant conversations around environmental protection in India are seemingly confined to certain regions and states, which constitute an interesting news head or fascinate public imagination. Often the discourses on balancing environmental conservation and economic considerations are jaded, with an attitude of resignation from both the civil society and the government. This has distinctly manifested in the management of tourism in some of the ecologically and culturally rich regions of India. One such example is of Jammu and Kashmir, which boasts of some of the richest geographical diversity in the country, housing complex mountain chains complemented by innumerable rivers, lakes, springs and rich biodiverse wetlands.
Sixteen regions around the major national parks and protected areas in the state, declared as eco-sensitive zones (ESZ), are replete with tourist potential and have been largely exploited to that effect. Unfortunately, the invasion of tourism policy has placed a disproportionate burden on the ecological zones.
Further, reports have often highlighted the pitiful state of tourist infrastructure alongside poor environmental management, which has led to shoddy waste disposal, pollution and a general deterioration of the environment. Even as the beneficial contribution of tourism to the politically unstable and insurgency-torn Valley has been widely acknowledged, it has adversely impacted the flora and fauna of the region, and has had a detrimental effect on built environment, manifest as changes in land use and the depletion of natural resources.
The internal economy, which is as heavily reliant on tourism as it is on other key economic activities like agriculture, has been struggling to strike a desirable balance between development and environmental protection. The existing legal and institutional frameworks have offered very little assistance in this regard.
Unbridled growth of tourism and the impact on natural resources
The ‘carrying capacity’ – the level of visitor use an area can accommodate without an unacceptable decline in the quality of surrounding environment and natural resources – of the state has been on the decline. J&K’s State of the Environment (SoE) report states that between 2004 and 2009 there has been an exponential inflow of tourists, amounting to a nearly 25.15% increase from the previous period.
However, the corresponding growth in scientific safeguards for protecting the environment against human interference has been insubstantial.
For instance, Centre for Science and Environment records that the Dal Lake, which is one of the world’s largest natural lakes, has shrunk from 75 sq km in 1200 AD to barely over 12 sq km today. A large number of commercial establishments, hotels and houseboats have significantly encroached on the lake while adding to the pollution and general deterioration of the water body.
Extensive marshes have been formed in lower areas of some of the largest wetlands through catchment drainages, particularly between Srinagar and Sopore. A large portion of these has been drained and reclaimed for agriculture and settlement. Similarly, popular pilgrim routes, especially those leading to Vaishno Devi, have been dotted with problems of sanitation and waste disposal.
Paltry regulatory structures
A committee to strategise sustainable ecotourism was constituted by the state government in August 2012. The objective of the committee was to formulate a plan to promote tourism in eco-sensitive zones while giving adequate importance to conservation requirements, carrying capacity of the topography and sustainability.
However, there is no information on the fate of this committee and even five years since its constitution, well beyond its pre-set shelf-life of a month, no report or findings have been submitted.
In 2015, the government only managed to put in place a threadbare draft tourism policy that is prima facie inconsequential.
While the declaration of ESZs provides for the prohibition of unsustainable activities and preparation of Zonal Master Plan with the participation of local communities, no active measures have been taken towards this end.
In the existing ESZs of the state, no follow up schemes or policies have been devised for their maintenance and development. The SoE report notes that the tourism department is contemplating a number of activities, such as the promotion of ecotourism, regional environmental impact assessment, restoration of degraded land, wetlands and water bodies and the imposition of green tax. However, none of these have been operationalised.
Multiple agencies, feeble control
Environmental administration in J&K is distributed between several agencies and departments. The existence of multiple authorities only complicates the problem of who controls and regulates the numerous lakes, streams, water bodies and wetlands in the state.
Except for J&K Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (which, despite what its name suggests, is responsible only for the Dal Lake) or Wular-Manasbal Development Authority, another meek agency with undefined functions, there are no entities that can be held accountable for the protection and development of these natural resources.
While part control may vest with the Department of Revenue, others, like the Department of Fisheries; Department of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing; Department of Wildlife Protection and Department of Urban Environment Engineering, may also claim control.
In spite of having special authorities for the upkeep of the Dal Lake, it suffers the same fate of pollution through untreated sewage as Nageen Lake, Chuntikul and Jhelum river.
Wetlands International has also reported that the Wular Lake has shrunk because of encroachment and choking through pollutants. Unfortunately a 2009 J&K high court order, in response to a writ petition filed by Syed Mujtaba and Green Kashmir, threatening the closure of houseboats if appropriate measures, including the installation of sewage treatment plants (STP) in these establishments, were not undertaken, has had no effect on existing operators. A number of hotels in Srinagar and other primary tourist spaces do not have any sewage treatment facilities. The expenses incurred in undertaking proactive measures and setting up STPs are indeed discouraging. But there has been no effort to subsidise these plants or adopt a cheaper and more viable technology.
Few state environmental laws are at variance with central laws. Except for the states government’s argument for absolute control over forest land under the Jammu and Kashmir Forest (Conservation) Act, 1997, which conflicts with the Supreme Court order on diversion of forest land to non-forest use, there have been no significant legal departures.
However, at the level of implementing orders by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), one sees a brazen disregard by the state government. For instance, in spite of a series of orders issued by the NGT in separate petitions filed by Gauri Maulekhi and Dr Irfan Ahmed and others regarding waste disposal, municipal solid waste management and maintenance of environmentally sensitive routes in pilgrim and tourist destinations, the state government has failed to take any positive measures.
Although the NGT has directed the state government several times to submit a comprehensive report on public health and maintenance of ecology, followed by reporting on the status of engineering waste-based energy plants, scant attention has been paid to the issue. The tribunal appears to be hesitant to pursue stronger measures and the agencies of the state have been visibly complacent.
In this light, it would be useful to undertake an evaluation of the functioning of various urban development and environmental agencies and authorities operational in the state. Unfortunately, the state government has shown little inclination to develop a model of sustainable tourism and environmental conservation. Interests of commercial tourist enterprises have overridden those of ecology and the understanding of ecotourism is blatantly unsatisfactory.
Further, it is imperative for NGOs and the civil society to closely follow the implementation of orders and directions issued by the courts and tribunals that address environmental issues. This would provide an adequate safeguard against the usual limpness that characterises administration and environmental governance.
Sakshi is a research fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi.