How Much Can The Hills Take?

While the hills provide the visiting tourists a refreshing ambiance; an uncontrolled and highly concentrated tourism industry imposes heavy burdens on the meager resources.

Unbridled construction spree in the catchment area of Bhimtal lake-the largest water body in Kumaon Himalayas. Photo: Mukesh Rawat

With large parts of India still under the spell of a scorching sun, the hill stations in Uttarakhand are abuzz with visiting tourists. The pleasant weather in the hills no doubt is a welcome change from the sweltering heat of the northern plains. But tourism in Uttarakhand has larger connotations than just providing the visitor a quality vacation.

Uttarakhand is a state whose lifeline is supported on a thriving tourism industry. However, while the hills provide the visiting tourists a refreshing ambiance, an uncontrolled and highly concentrated tourism industry imposes heavy burdens on the meager resources.

Local media reports are already abuzz with problems like parking space, room availability and water crisis in places like Nainital, Mussoorie and Almora. There are also reports of long traffic jams in various approach roads to these hill stations. Due to a combination of consecutive bad monsoon and poor water management, the water level of the lake in Nainital itself has gone down by nearly eight feet-probably an all time low.

The Harish Rawat government on May 14 declared the entire state to be drought affected. Despite being home to scores of perennial rivers, water crisis is a recurring problem every year in the hill state. It was only recently that large tracts of forest area in the state were under massive forest fires. The tragedy further dried up the water sources.

Between 2000 and 2012, the total number of tourist arrivals in the state saw an increase of nearly 41 percent. According to the Uttarakhand Annual Plan 2011-12, the total floating population in the state is estimated to be “4-8 times of the fixed population”. It further states that on an average every year 3-4 crore people visit the state on account of tourism and religious pilgrimage.

These figures, taken at face value, are definitely a good signal for the state’s economy. A thriving tourism industry also encourages growth of sectors like urban infrastructure, transport and communication. However, the irony with tourism in Uttarakhand is that though it enriches the economy, signs of any meaningful infrastructural development are hard to come across. A visit to any hill station in the state will provide ample evidence of long traffic jams, congested streets, honking cars, clogged drains, taps running dry, absence of parking space, unregulated construction to name a few.

Various studies conducted in the aftermaths of the Kedarnath disaster of 2013 also outline the problem of an excessive floating population in the state. Apart from the burden on the local resources, absence of a regulatory mechanism to check the flow of tourists during the peak season also disturbs the stability of the fragile hills due to high vehicular movements.  These movements vibrate the hills well beyond their carrying capacities. It isn’t very surprising why there are so many instances of landslides across the Kumaon-Garhwal hills during and after the tourist season. It is true that the landslides are primarily triggered by heavy rains on the hill slopes, but the contribution of the excessive vehicular movements can also be not ignored.

In this background, the moot question remains- are the hills at all ready for this?

Though tourism will continue to be a major contributor to the state’s economy, a prudent approach aimed at creating a balance between tourists and local resources is the need of the hour. One of the possible approaches can be to diversify the tourist population in the state. Instead of concentrating tourists to the likes of Nainital, Mussoorie and Jim Corbett National Park, it would perhaps be wise to develop new tourist destinations in districts like Pithorahgarh, Champawat, Bageshwar and others. This shall ensure both the economic interest as well as environmental conservation in the state.

The question is, will we?