Incredible India: Time to shift focus from consumption to nature and locals

Kiran Chaturvedi, who runs an eco tourism lodge in the Garhwal hills of Uttarakhand, lived just a few kilometers close to the recent Uttarakhand floods.

Kiran Chaturvedi, who runs an eco tourism lodge in the Garhwal hills of Uttarakhand, lived just a few kilometers close to the recent Uttarakhand floods. She writes how preparing for disaster management in the context of sustainable tourism is an urgency now more than the necessity it always was.

Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe. – Anatole France.

The Birdsong Cottage. We heard no birds at all for 4 days, when the only sound outside was the drumming of the raindrops on the roofs, the roll of thunder and the sharp clap of lightning. It was quite an experience and test of my endurance to stay in the tent night after night with pounding rain, strong winds and biting cold. NO one expected this in middle of June.

This line captures fully the essence of travel for me. Every time I travel, I feel this connection, this oneness with the rest of creation.Travel provide me a release, immense joy, freedom and a sense of expansion.

Over the years we have travelled, interacted and lived in the mountains and other off beat locations and arrived at our own understanding of these places and our own view of tourism’s place in the overall scheme of things. When I focus on tourism in the Himalayas, what strikes me is the contrast between the grand beauty that pulls in visitors, and the painful reality of the lives of locals. A fragile yet bountiful eco-system is now nurtured by a weakening social set up. The majority of rural people seem stuck in a hopeless spiral of no escape from the drudgery of difficult lives of thankless toil.

The Himalayas are a special place, with special needs and a specific lifestyle built around its realities. Today, in our mad rush to the hills for our recreation and repose, we seem to be overlooking this to our own peril, and the consequence could be long term damage to the hills and their inhabitants.

The scene on 14th June when we reached our cottage. And within minutes it was pouring, and didn’t stop for next nearly 86 hours, with extremely low visibility throughout.

The recent floods in parts of Uttarakhand have further brought home the plight of the natural and human resources of the hills, if left to the random march of unsustainable, unmindful development. We had barely started commercial operations at our guest home venture this year when the floods struck. While we are very fortunate to have had no adverse impact of the floods, the heavy rains were felt with all their force at our location as well, and our guests had to cancel their treks due to the washing away of connecting roads to the trek locations. However, the biggest impact on us was the chain of thought it led to, and the introspection, research and ideation that followed.

The contrast between our least visited part of Garhwal and the regions suffering floods was the first thing to strike us. Our area is as of now, very pristine, remote, known only to locals, and there is no outside footfall except the few visitors we have brought to the region. Moreover, we are on a ridge – a very safe and flood free location , as all the rainwater rushes downslope. So while we were safe due to a fact of geography, the rest of the story was disturbing indeed. As we moved out of our ridge location, we noticed that wherever tree cover is not present, on slopes, due to overgrazing, road blasting or timber cutting, landslides quickly blocked the roads.There was some slope sliding and house collapses closer to the local town, which is hugely overbuilt and unregulated. We shudder to think of the implications if it were to develop into the kind of place that the whole Kedar Valley had become.

Then, as the disaster progressed all around us, we noticed the lack of any government machinery for news dissemination in time of crisis. We had no reliable information on road conditions, flood waters and weather, except for the TV and Radio and phone calls of concerned people back in the plains.

When the rains stopped after three days, we ventured out to the market and found all supplies dried up as the roads coming up were blocked or washed away. So the need of local food security/ storage for remote locations was brought home to us strongly.

And all along, we saw the stoic acceptance of the situation by the locals, the lack of panic and the sense of capability to handle what came their way. However, this was only the case in our little part of that region. Elsewhere, people were not so self sufficient, relatively speaking. They lost fields, cattle, breadwinners, property, family members, life and limb. They had little to sustain themselves besides the wages earned from the tourist trade to the big pilgrim centers that now were just mounds of debris.

The situation we saw there during those days and the lack of any pre-planning in the tourist/ pilgrim hubs made us think how we as a local landholder, business and concerned party could develop our work locally in a holistic, integrated and sustainable way.

20th June 2013. Exactly 6 days since the rain and cloudbursts began. The turbulent Alaknanda as it comes down from Badrinath, at Karnprayag, where it meets the Pindar. Luckily, Karnpryag, which is our highway connection (28 kms downhill from Birdsong) was spared any harm in the floods. I do feel the low spread of urban sprawl and its lesser importance as a place of halt for pilgrims and tourists was it saving grace.

Could the floods have been predicted and losses reduced by preparing ahead of time?

The floods could certainly have been predicted. In fact, they were predicted and the range of rainfall too. Had they not been predicted, common sense could point out to this possibility. Now, as a regular to the region, we know every monsoon leads to flooding, to landslides. The existence of a rubble dam on the lake above Kedarnath was known to all the locals, and to to the authorities as well. Such dams can burst anytime with heavy rains, and this is no secret. Using this knowledge, a regular watch on the situation could have helped take preventive steps to move people and vehicles out of danger, or stopping the Yatra mid way could have been taken before disaster struck.

And yet, the disaster happened, and all were caught unprepared, Because no one thought in a holistic, interconnected way. or what is now emerging as a vital new field of study- Eco-system management. No one was bothered to connect the ground reality of geography, geology and the weather conditions. Not the temple authorities, the Government, tour operators, visitors nor the disaster relief authorities. There appears to be a total disconnect from the realities of the place, except to the reality of earning quickly and heavily from a densely packed short tourist season. Hotels had come up on the path of a river, which is the most dangerous place to build on in a glacial region prone to heavy rains and now subject to erratic weather patterns as well.

August 2012. Few days of rain lead to this rise in the river Ganga at Shivpuri, near Rishikesh. Isn’t this an indication already for going easy with the tourist flow into the region? Just the same evening this picture was taken, the yatra had to be stopped and all roads blocked for traffic due to huge landslides and road sinking at various places along the Rishikesh – Badrinath route. So why is everyone blind to this reality? Why could the Yatra not have been stopped already when this was the situation in the morning and rains were predicted for next 3 days?

Is the Government solely responsible for disaster management?

We clearly do not think it is, and more importantly it should NOT be! Because of the intensely localized nature of some catastrophes and the remoteness the regions, and the scattered small communities, self help and self defense always has to be the first line of response. While it is true that the government is the overall in charge of looking after our safety and security, isn’t it up to us to also to keep ourselves safe, to protect our children and our lives? The local communities too have a role to play in disaster prediction, prevention and management in regions of great natural vulnerability. There have been so many instances of locals helping save lives with their early warnings. In our village too, no taxi driver was willing to take anyone to Badrinath or Kedarnath even on 14th June, saying the rains looked like a cloudburst on the way.

In Harsil, I heard of local villagers blowing whistles all night , keeping vigil on the rain water and flooding river, warning locals and nearby hoteliers to move out to higher ground out of potential harm’s way. Typically, the hotel guests downslope ignored these warnings and help. The villagers even came down hill, knocked on the hotel doors asking guests to vacate their rooms and come take shelter in the village uphill! We MUST harness and promote this sense of a local connect with elements in these regions. We must keep locals with suitable knowledge in the forefront of facility planning, infrastructure development and disaster preparedness. And give more power to locals, via systems like early warning community radio broadcasts and use of the internet and telephone services to predict, pre warn and prepare for disasters. General education and awareness on local conditions and how to work with them, and around them to sustain life and livelihoods has to be critical component of any work done in the region, and we as a travel venture are certainly keeping this in focus.

Do visitors have a responsibility? What about travel businesses and operators?

If familiarity of home is what one seeks , then why travel? Visitors definitely need to be aware of where they are coming to, what this earns in terms of both the rewards and risks, and need to prepare accordingly. This is the responsibility of travelers to themselves and to the place they visit. To be aware, sensitive visitors who leave no trace and make no demands that are contrary to the carrying capacity and environmental DNA of a place. Moreover, besides the safety aspect, our visitors will be thoroughly educated about the issues of local impact- climate change, global warming, agricultural production, soil erosion, deforestation, river basin and dams….Not because we think all the world’s disasters are waiting to fall on their heads when they visit us, but because these issues are a part of the himalayan experience and visitors who come to us can only develop an enhanced awareness, and appreciation of the place and its marvelous bounty when they see a complete picture, not an airbrushed version.

August 2012. Landslide and road sink near Kartikswamy Temple, in Mohankhal Forest range, Rudraprayg district. These off the grid places face such total collapse of infrastructure every monsoon and yet no issue is made by the press and the wider world as no one outside even knows. This year since the yatra route was badly affected, it has come to everyone’s notice.

And finally, all of this boils down to a more sensitive, aware, knowledgeable response in future travel offerings from the travel trade as well. I am hopeful more and more sensitive and eco-sensitive travel ventures will be the trend of the future as sustainability becomes mainstream, a part of all business plans. For our part, we will continue advocacy, and leading by our own example on the ground and through thought leadership, constant learning and sharing.

There are various reasons for this rampant and unregulated growth of urbanized chaos and tourist ghettoes in the hills, but the key point for me is that this can and must change, and we are going to take the steps in our work in the region, for our part at least. We want to envision a tourist paradise in the Himalayas that is pristine, under built, scaled down and a haven for locals and visitors alike.

We imagine people not traveling to over packed, overbuilt ecological cesspools that seek to offer the familiar comforts of cities in the hills, but rather traveling to embrace a new way of seeing things.

Birdsong & Beyond specializes in unique getaways in different locales, with a deep soul connect, showcased by our own property in remote, pristine Western Garhwal Himalayas. Read about Birdsong and Beyond’s plan for sustainable tourism tomorrow.  

Pics: Kiran Chaturvedi

Also read:

Uttarakhand floods: Unsustainable tourism in an injured State

The changing landscape of the Gori Ganga valley


Kiran Chaturvedi is a wearer of many hats. A trained Sociologists, Ex- Qualitative Researcher and now Founder of Birdsong & more


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Kiran Chaturvedi is a wearer of many hats. A trained Sociologists, Ex- Qualitative Researcher and now Founder of Birdsong & more

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  • Thanks for sharing your travel experience. After read this content, i’m sure about that you enjoy great travel in india. India is really a very nice and beautiful travel destination to visit natural beauty.