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Nature vs. Numbers: Can Himachal protect its environment while welcoming tourists?

Himachal Pradesh's rising tourism has led to severe environmental issues like waste management and deforestation. Influx of tourists and infrastructure projects have strained resources, leading to monsoon floods and ecological imbalances.

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
Nature vs. Numbers: Can Himachal protect its environment while welcoming tourists?

Photo credit: Sakshi Patwa/pexels

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Chaman Kapoor, head of the Manali Nagar panchayat, elaborates on the overwhelming waste situation in the Himachal region. He says, "Garbage collected from Sarchu to Rohtang in Lahaul and Spiti district, and from Kullu's Soja and Kasol is dumped in Manali's waste treatment plant. The plant, designed for 20 to 30 tonnes of garbage daily, is now dealing with 70 to 100 tonnes – exceeding its capacity."

The influx of tourists has inevitable environmental challenges, including waste management issues, deforestation, and strain on local resources. Popular destinations like Manali, Shimla, and Dharamshala are particularly affected. In 2023, Himachal Pradesh welcomed 1.60 crore tourists, including 62,806 foreigners, marking a 6% increase from the previous year. The growth, driven by the state's promotion efforts under the tagline "Unforgettable Himachal," underscores its allure as a hub for Himalayan adventures and eco-tourism. However, this popularity is now threatening the essence of Himachal Pradesh. 

In 2023, 509 people died and 38 went missing in state monsoon floods. Over 15,000 people became homeless and the state government estimated the loss to public and private property at Rs 12,000 crore. Experts suggest the impact has a lot to do with rampant urbanisation to accommodate growing tourism in the state.

Tourism strains Himachal’s environment

This tourism boom comes at a significant environmental cost. Aditi Chanchani, Regional Lead at Eicher Group Foundation and Chair of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council's India Working Group, expresses concern "Overcrowding leads to increased pollution and strain on local resources."

Chaman Kapoor, head of the Manali Nagar panchayat, paints a grim picture of the waste management crisis,

"The waste treatment plant was set to handle 20 tonnes of garbage from seven municipal council wards. But, now it has to cater to three other nagar panchayats."

The state government's road construction efforts to improve accessibility have inadvertently caused environmental degradation. The construction of four-lane roads has disrupted the ecological balance, while beneficial for tourism. An example is the six-kilometre four-lane road from Kullu to Manali, built on the Beas River bed by erecting walls on the flood plains. This road was washed away in floods last year, highlighting the unsustainability of such development practices.

India - Himachal Pradesh - Chamba - 8
Himachal Pradesh's rising tourism has led to severe environmental issues like waste management and deforestation. Photo credit: Flickr/Manfred Sommer

Himachal Pradesh faces environmental challenges compounded by climate change. A 2020 report by the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences revealed that India's average temperature increased by 0.7 degrees Celsius from 1901 to 2018. The Hindu Kush Himalayas, including Himachal, experienced a more dramatic 1.3°C increase from 1951 to 2014.

Poor tourism management lacks coordination

Sandeep, Managing Director of People for Himalayan Development, criticises tourism management in the state, claiming, "The state has always failed in tourism management. They lack skill and appropriate institutions. The Tourism Development Department has only 40 staff for the entire state and lacks integration with other departments."

He points out the lack of coordination between departments and opacity in fund allocation.

"They're creating solid waste management plans. The urban body is talking about solid waste management. Why isn't the Tourism Department involved? No one knows where their funds are going. They collect hundreds of crores of rupees yearly in Green Tax. They spend that money without transparency. Nobody knows how the money is used for ecological sustainability."

Sandeep proposes restructuring state tourism management, emphasizing the need to rethink tourism. He suggests three acts for the state government to consider: the Panchayati Raj Act, the Forest Act, and the provision for PESA (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas) within the Panchayati Raj Act. Two types of tourism planning are necessary in these acts.

He suggests creating urban and rural tourism development committees. "You'll have to do urban tourism planning with urban bodies. Create urban tourism development committees - like a Shimla Urban Tourism Development Committee. Their job would be to create Shimla's tourism development plan, or Manali-Kullu's tourism development plan. At the panchayat level, create a Panchayat Tourism Development Committee to manage tourist interaction with resources - streams, waterfalls, rivers, water, pasture lands, forests, and beauty spots."

Tourist Vehicles at Rohtang Pass,Himachal Pradesh
Tourist Vehicles at Rohtang Pass, Himachal Pradesh. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Aman Gupta

Sandeep emphasises local management and accountability:

 "How will tourists be made responsible? And how will stakeholders - gram sabha members, tourist operators, adventure sports providers, or food vendors - be held accountable? Panchayat Tourism Development Committees are necessary for effective micro-management of tourism."

Singh warns of Himachal's ecological peril

Guman Singh, convener of the civic body group Himalayan Niti Abhiyan and environmental activist, offers a sobering perspective: "We're witnessing destruction, not development in Himachal Pradesh. The tourist influx and unscientific development have pushed our state to an ecological disaster."

The activist criticises rapid infrastructure development for tourists,

"Look at our roads. A six-kilometre four-lane road from Kullu to Manali was built on the bed of the Beas River by erecting walls on the floodplains. This road was washed away in the recent floods. Is this sustainable?"

Singh's concerns extend beyond road construction to the overall approach to tourism in the state. He vividly describes the congestion at tourist spots: "Near my village Banjar, Tirthan Kullu, I saw vehicles lined up for almost a kilometre on both sides. There were around 1500 vehicles. The situation has become uncontrollable."

Eco-tourism, and helipads

In response to these challenges, Himachal Pradesh has emphasized eco-tourism. The state's Forest Department has led the initiative, revising its Ecotourism Policy in 2016 and 2017 to make Himachal Pradesh a leading ecotourism destination while protecting its natural resources.

In October 2023, the Himachal Pradesh Government and Himachal Pradesh Ecotourism Society identified 11 sites for the promotion, including Swaar, Saurabh Van Vihar, Neugal Park, Bir-Billing in Palampur forest division, and others. Eco-tourism aims to conserve natural resources, create travel opportunities, encourage cultural understanding, and raise environmental consciousness.

The state is grappling with how to benefit from tourism while preserving its natural heritage. The plan to build 16 heliports and attract 50 million tourists annually has raised concerns among environmentalists and local communities.

Guman Singh questions the feasibility and environmental impact of these plans, "Can these mountains bear the weight of heliports and helicopters when four-lane roads have caused damage to Himachal Pradesh? More mountains and trees will be cut for heliports, worsening the balance and causing landslides. Where will the buildings for 50 million tourists be built?"

Singh concludes with a call to action, "It's time we reassess. Are we willing to sacrifice Himachal's essence - its nature, clean air, and cultural heritage - for short-term gains? The choice is ours. We can continue this destruction or pioneer a new sustainable mountain tourism model."

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