Millennium Post

Give back our greens

Give back our greens
In a welcome move, the union environment ministry has prepared a detailed guideline that will not only boost eco-tourism efforts near wildlife habitats and de-congest exiting tourism facilities but also empower local communities. This guideline was submitted to the Supreme Court this week in a response to an RTI that sought to regularise tourism in and around wildlife sanctuaries, especially in lieu of the massive degradation of and the eco-hazards posed to the rapidly declining tiger population in the country. The ministry has admitted that unregulated tourism near wildlife sanctuaries and parks have led to 'exploitation, degradation, disturbance and misuse of fragile ecosystems'.

Doubtlessly so. It is an old story that unrestricted tourism, frenzy over forest pilgrimage sites and disregard for local norms often violate the thin between civility and satisfaction and tourists become a sincere threat to the ecological balance of protected forests and the natural movement of wildlife species. Tourism is indeed a nightmare for conservationists and ecologists alike. There have been suggestions of banning or heavily regulating tourism inside protected wildlife habitat but the best solution could have been to strike a delicate balance between tourism and conservation on one side and between tourism and livelihood of local communities on the other. The new set of guidelines is a firm step in that direction.

Now tourism operators around India’s 600 protected areas and pilgrimage places inside forests will have to pay 10 per cent as eco-tax that will directly go into conservation efforts and betterment of local communities who earn their livelihoods from the forests. As the next step, all tourist operations in core areas of tiger reserves and other critical wildlife habitats must be phased out in the next five years. After that, no tourist activity will be allowed in any core area of a tiger reserve. And outside the core areas, those local communities who have been displaced due to tourism activity will get priority in running tourism operations, the guidelines state. And till they are phased out, the tourism operation in core areas will have to comply with several severe restrictions on noise pollution, carbon emission, energy usage, traffic movement etc.

Even those outside the core areas and continue to operate paying the conservation fee, must follow a set of general guidelines of sourcing 50 per cent of their energy usage from renewable sources, declare only limited days for visit to forest temples and heavily control tourist movement. The ministry has also proposed setting up a state-level monitoring agency to ensure that the guidelines are implemented.

Hopefully these guidelines will act as a deterrent for profit seekers who exploit the pristine wild environs and local habitations to take home a tidy sum but invest little in return. The forests are primarily a national property and not of profit seeking businesses. And if after the nation it belongs to anyone, it has to be the local communities who have been their custodians for ages. And should remain so.
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