- The Indian Himalayan Region every year records about 100 million tourists and the number is expected to increase to 240 million by 2025, putting huge pressure on resources.
- The high number of tourist inflow can have negative impacts like inadequate solid waste management, air pollution, degradation of water sources, loss of natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystem services.
- To address such issues and ensure comprehensive development of the IHR, NITI Aayog recently released a set of five reports emphasising on a series of measures to sustainably develop the region. The reports include detailed measures including the introduction of a green cess.
Every year an average of about 100 million tourists visit the ecologically sensitive Indian Himalayan region (IHR), which is home to about 50 million people. In seven years, the number of tourists is expected to touch the 240 million mark putting huge pressure on the state’s natural resources. With an aim of generating funds to address the issues in the region, the Indian government’s think tank, NITI Aayog, in a latest report has now recommended introduction of a “green cess” in the form of payments from service consumers.
The report, ‘Sustainable Tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region’ states that “payments for environmental services (PES) such as charging entrance fees might also offer a valuable long-term solution within the tourism industry, as tourism relies heavily on the existence of sound natural environments”.
It is one of the five thematic reports released by the NITI Aayog in August 2017 to drive sustainable and comprehensive development in the IHR. In June 2017, the central government’s think tank had set up five working groups to prepare a roadmap for action in five thematic areas, while recognising the uniqueness of the Himalayas and the challenges for sustainable development in the region.
The five themes were, “inventory and revival of springs in Himalayas for water security, sustainable tourism in Indian Himalayan region, transformative approach to shifting cultivation, strengthening skill and entrepreneurship landscape in Himalayas and data for informed decision making”.
IHR is significant for India. Stretching for about 2,400 kilometres across the northern border of India, the IHR extends from the Indus River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east. It covers 533,000 square kilometres across 10 mountain states and four hill districts of India that make up the country’s north and northeastern borders.
The region stretches from the mountains in the northern states of Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh to the north-eastern states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, and also covers the hill districts of Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong in Assam and Darjeeling and Kalimpong in West Bengal. IHR also shares borders with six neighbouring countries with upstream/downstream geographical connect.
Green cess to manage tourism pressure on the Himalayas
With its towering snow-laden peaks, majestic landscapes, rich biodiversity and cultural heritage, the IHR has regularly drawn visitors and pilgrims from the Indian sub-continent and across the world. According to official government data, tourists to IHR have been steadily increasing over the past few years. In 2015, it was about 136.07 million compared to 84.2 million in 2011.
But the rise in the number of tourists comes with huge risks attached. The NITI Aayog report noted that “the prevailing model of tourism in the IHR is viewed as a source of environmental damage and pollution, a threat to socio-cultural heritage, a heavy user of scarce resources, and potential cause of negative externalities in society.”
“Specific negative impacts linked to the current form of tourism in the IHR include the replacement of traditional eco-friendly and aesthetic architecture with inappropriate, unsightly and dangerous construction, poorly designed roads and associated infrastructure, inadequate solid waste management, air pollution, degradation of watersheds and water sources, and the loss of natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystem services. Cumulatively, these are affecting long-term tourism development prospects in the IHR,” the report observed.
The report quoted a recent assessment by the Ladakh Ecological Development Group, according to which, the average use of water by a local resident in Ladakh is 25 litres per day whereas each tourist consumes 75 litres day. The number is significant for a place like Ladakh which is a water deficit area and mostly dependent on snow/glacial melt and Indus river flow.
The think tank’s report observed that the “impacts of mass-tourism and disregard for carrying capacity in the tourism development trajectory of the IHR have led to serious concerns among policymakers, residents and visitors” and highlighted that going forward, tourism in the region should be developed on sustainable development principles as opposed to mass tourism.
It said that the management of destination carrying capacity becomes ‘vital’ which basically means getting the balance right in the volume, timing and location of visits and for reducing congestion and ensuring socio-environment compliance.
The report recommended an “introduction of a green cess – in the form of payments from service consumers” as that “can increase tax revenue and help maintain and enhance critical services.”
Negative impacts of tourism on the environment
With rising number of tourists, there are bound to be direct or indirect causes and effects like pollution, overexploitation of natural resources, food insecurity, ill-planned urbanisation, traffic congestion, loss of indigenous culture and natural disasters. “Cumulatively, these negative impacts will affect the long-term tourism development prospects of the IHR,” the report stressed.
It said that as per the data of 2009-2012, IHR states were accumulating 22,372 metric tonnes (MT) of municipal solid waste per day and by now the quantity must have increased substantially, given that the number of tourists to the IHR has also gone up by a huge margin. Additionally, the collection, segregation, disposal and recycling of this waste is not organised, the report said. It called for a zero waste policy and recommended that “destinations must have a system to encourage enterprises to reduce, reuse, and recycle solid waste.”
Earlier this year, Shimla faced a severe water crisis and the NITI Aayog’s report also notes the impact of unsustainable tourism on water.
Another one of the five NITI Aayog reports, ‘Inventory and revival of springs in the Himalayas for water security’ observed that nearly 30 percent of springs crucial to water security of people in the IHR are drying and 50 percent have reported reduced discharge.
It is significant as springs are the fundamental source of drinking water for the majority of the rural Himalayan population and even the most conservative estimates state that 60 percent of the population in the IHR depend upon spring water.
The report recommended a systematic mapping and revival of springs across the Himalayas and launch of a national mission on springshed management. It also suggested a “recharge area protection in the form of spring sanctuaries including measures prohibiting land use change in recharge area.”
On drying up of Himalayan springs, NITI Aayog’s vice chairperson Rajiv Kumar stated that drying up of millions of springs, which are the lifeline for meeting water requirements of millions of people across the region, are causing untold misery to both rural and urban inhabitants. “Urgent actions are needed to address critical issues of waste management and water conservation,” Kumar added.
Measures to protect the environment and promote sustainable tourism
NITI Aayog’s report on sustainable tourism argued that India is “marketing the natural and cultural glory of the Himalayas at a very low premium and allowing development in IHR as we do for the plains of India”. The report recommended that physical infrastructure such as hotels, restaurants, and road and rail networks in forest areas must be ecologically friendly and suggested an “environmental auditing of tourism service providers based on environment efficiency and carbon generation”.
It also called for preparing “smart mountain tourism destination” business plans on the lines of smart cities and stated that the “private sector could be invited to invest in responsible tourism based on a PPP-bidding process”.
The report also noted that as IHR has borders with six countries, the enhancement of existing cross-border and interstate circuits of tourism can help in diversifying and decongesting tourism demands.
However, it batted for opening up of “protected areas and national heritage sites for a limited number of tourists with low impact and high income with environmental standards strictly followed (waste, decibel levels, number of tourists).”
“Here apart from already existing transboundary tourism circuits, it would be logical to factor in future investments China is promoting, such as its Belt and Road Initiative as well as the historical Silk Road,” it added.
Challenges for the Himalayan region
In the northeastern states of India, thousands of the households continue to practice slash and burn (shifting cultivation). The NITI Aayog’s report, another among the five reports, ‘Shifting cultivation: towards a transformational approach’ stated that the issue of this kind of cultivation needs to be addressed in view of ecological, food and nutritional security. The report called for launching a mission and setting in motion steps to update and authenticate data on shifting cultivation including the total number of households involved.
Meanwhile, NITI Aayog’s report on, ‘Strengthening skill and entrepreneurship landscape in IHR’ said that, “strengthening skilling and entrepreneurial opportunities on the principles of sustainability and resilience could contribute to harnessing the immense potential of niche mountain products as well as address uncertainties, such as adverse impacts of climate change.”
The report recommended that many of the traditional mountain crops are known to be highly nutritious and are increasingly sought after in the niche markets of metropolitan India. “For example, mountain buckwheat, millets, legumes, upland rice, and tubers have tremendous potential as health foods,” it added.
The vice chairman of NITI Aayog, Rajiv Kumar, said that the IHR has seen a slower pace of development as compared to the rest of the country, leading to economic stagnation.
“Employment and higher education opportunities have been concentrated in the urban centres in the plains, causing the aspirant youth to migrate out. It is necessary that any development activity to economically lift the region, besides being environmentally sustainable, should target the youth. This will also help check migration outflow. Thus a strong thrust on skilling and creating advantageous opportunities in the areas of goods and services is needed,” he emphasised.
The reports also called for setting up of a “Himalayan Authority” as an overarching institution to coordinate integrated and holistic development of the Himalayan states, to ensure convergence and synergy and to provide strategic guidance.
The report on ‘Data for informed decision making’ called for development of a comprehensive database on the IHR.
VK Saraswat, a member of the NITI Aayog, advocated making “environmental sustainability” a must into all decision-making. “A Himalayan authority as proposed in the report merits consideration to bring this coordination with lead ministries at the Centre and Himalayan states, along with other key stakeholders for synergistic actions. It will also foster regional collaboration to address issues that have regional dimensions, for example, regional tourism circuits, regional markets of niche mountain products to build upon ‘Act East Policy’ of the (central) government,” said Saraswat.
He further said that a “Central Data Management Agency (CDMA) for Himalayan region” proposed in the report needs to be considered for not only ensuring availability of consistent and reliable data having bearing on SDGs but also ensuring that the data sharing happens to help planning and decision making at different scales, from local to national and regional.
Banner Image: The Indian Himalayan region is home to about 50 million people. Photo by Dr. Satyabrata Ghosh/Wikimedia Commons.