Will Himachal, Uttarakhand learn some hard lessons from this years' tourism-related fiascos?
This summer season has seen a massive increase in the number of tourist arrivals in the hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. This has primarily been because a large number of tourists picked these places over Jammu & Kashmir. While it has been a windfall for those associated with the tourism industry, the sudden rush has badly exposed the administration in both the states in terms of their ability to handle the increased footfall.
For example, a mere 4 km journey from Shimla Barrier to the Victory Tunnel took anywhere between two to three hours for the vehicles to cover. The scene in Nainital earlier this week was no better. While tourists from Delhi reached Hanumangarhi Temple in six hours, it took them another five hours to reach their hotel close to Mallital. It can take up to three hours to cover the distance of just 45 km between Kullu and Manali on any given day or the same distance between Bhuntar and Manikaran.
Then, of course, there are freak incidents that made headlines. A cloudburst between Patseo and Zingzing Bar had blocked the Manali-Leh highway for a good 17 hours this week. Some days ago there was a 21-hour long jam between Sundernagar and Kullu because of a traffic snarl at Jarol.
All this simply points towards the need for a rethink on the tourism policy of these state governments.
High time now
Manali has been groaning under tourist pressure for several years now. Reports say that more than 23,000 tourists visit the town every day in the month of June and a large number of them head for the Rohtang Pass.
A restriction by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) capping the number of vehicles going up to Rohtang at 1,200 has led to more confusion and chaos as the taxi operators with permits now fleece tourists.
Not adhering to the government rates that start from Rs 2,400 for a small car, they have reportedly been charging up to Rs 8,000 for the same. The distance covered is just 50 km.
The administration blacklisting around 3,000 violators had recently led to a strike by taxi operators that had made things go from bad to worse.
The tourist season in Shimla has started becoming a nightmarish experience. Water scarcity, lack of parking spaces and traffic snarls have become a routine. Things get worse on weekends when people from nearby towns of Punjab and Haryana arrive and the footfall reportedly crosses 20,000 on an average and can go up to double the figure as well. There is simply no space to park.
The ongoing construction of making the road between Parwanoo and Solan a four-lane one has added to the chaos as this stretch has become prone to land slides and frequent traffic snarls. It is a common refrain that the drivers from the plains hardly have any idea of driving in the hills and try to overtake other vehicles frequently, thus breaking the line and causing snarls.
The situation is no better in Dharamshala and Mcleodganj that have tourists coming from all over the globe. It has been reported that 90% of the hotels at these places have no parking facility.
The same is the scenario at Mussoorie and Nainital, the top two destinations in the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand.
“In Nainital, tourists reach up to Hanumangarhi from Delhi in five hours but it was taking another five hours to reach their hotels. There was already more footfall this year and the recent Eid holidays added to it,” points out a local resident Intkhab Alam.
This has led to the crumbling of civic amenities and the result has been heaps of filth, public easing itself along the roads and total chaos on narrow roads. It has become very difficult for the pedestrians to commute on the once pristine Mall Road.
Nainital has otherwise also earned a notorious reputation of its hoteliers fleecing people because the administration has failed to even get them to print tariff cards in all these years.
“This time there have been instances of some tourists returning home from Roorkee and Dehradun on learning about the chaos in Mussoorie,” disclosed a media person from Dehradun.
The result of all this has been terrible. Reports point out that the air quality went for a toss over the last fortnight in Shimla with the Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM) increasing by almost 40%. In Manali, the RSPM recorded at the weekends went up to 60.35 microgram per metric cube which is also way above normal.
Experts say that the situation is expected to be the same in Mussoorie and Nainital where no such study has been carried out yet.
Things have come to a pass that the high courts have been compelled to intervene on these issues.
The Uttarakhand High Court has directed the Senior Superintendent of Police and District Magistrate of Nainital to work out a plan to combat traffic snarls witnessed during the tourist season every year.
Following a PIL, a division bench of Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia and Justice UC Dhyani has reportedly asked the authorities to submit short-term and long-term plans to fight the problem of overcrowding.
The advocate for the local civic body told the court that the state has released a fund of Rs 26 lakh to Central Institute of Road Transport (CIRT) that will look into the situation and implement plans for the betterment of roads.
With tourists flooding the town to get a respite from the summer heat, Nainital suffered an unprecedented day-long traffic jam on 27 June that took children two to three hours to reach home from their schools located just 2 km away.
Similarly, the Himachal Pradesh High Court has directed the state authorities to explore the possibility of an elevated road from Tunnel No. 103 up to the Old Bus Stand to at least help the pedestrians.
A division bench comprising of acting Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice Tarlok Singh Chauhan further called for examining the feasibility of an over road pedestrian bridge from near the high court parking to the Mall Road.
In its earlier order, the court had constituted an eight-member committee under the chairmanship of the Chief Engineer of the PWD to give suggestions on improving transport facilities and developing road infrastructure in and around the town.
Some days back, the high court had directed the state administration to come out with a long-term vision plan for regulating and managing traffic in Kullu, Manali, Rohtang Pass, Kasol and Manikaran.
The court had observed that –
'Mere widening of roads or construction of new roads may not solve the issue per se. Traffic management includes many factors, like traffic control, which envisages measures of traffic flow, management of parking areas and removal of encroachments on roads, etc. It has to be understood that driving through a traffic congested area is tedious and the same adversely affects the health of one and all. There is not only waste of fuel, but it also pollutes the environment. Haphazard parking of vehicles, encroachments on roads, the absence of civic sense and lack of strict enforcement of traffic rules, all lead to traffic congestion'.
Vinod Pande, a retired forest department officer who is a keen observer of the tourism sector based at Nainital, pointed out –
“Tourism has to be decentralised and the mainstream tourism at certain places has to be discouraged. Both our governments and tourists have misunderstood the concept of eco-tourism. It means a decentralised development of tourism sector while being sensitive to the environment where the beneficiary is a common man living in far-flung areas that have an abundance of natural beauty. It does not mean construction of big concrete resorts in jungles.”
He said that it is high time the government intervenes and regulate tourism.
“They can come out with a policy like only locally registered vehicles including taxis can ply from the gateway to the hill stations. There should be more emphasis on public transport. This can ease the problem of traffic to a large extent,” he said.
He also pointed out that everything cannot be left to the courts to decide because courts can only give orders. It is the government and the administration that have to implement them in true spirit.
The governments have many lessons to learn from this years' experience but the question remains – will they?