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Traffic jam in Tirthan valley

Last Updated : 03 August 2019, 05:46 IST

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Gushaini, in the lower Tirthan valley of Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh, is synonymous with the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP). Till a few years ago broadly two categories of people used to visit the valley. Those seeking the peaks and valleys of GHNP – be it for treks, wildlife sightings, silences or else - and the anglers lured by trout in the Tirthan river! Their numbers were low; read manageable. Today, their numbers have been overtaken by the quintessential tourists, who come — with friends or family — looking for a good time away from where they stay. These include people coming for weekends and those who add Gushaini to other destinations nearby or not so nearby.

This summer, I visited Gushaini after a gap of a few years. Tourism and a lot else that goes with it appeared to have risen manifold, during this period. A recent government report also points to the rising tourist numbers in Himachal Pradesh and highlights Kullu as one of the two districts which ‘registered a significant increase’. On one of the days, we got stuck in the traffic on the road from Banjar (the tehsil headquarter) to Gushaini!

As we slowly made our way we came across recent constructions on both sides of the river. On another day, two cars that stopped to ask us directions — as we enjoyed the drizzle — had windows shut and air conditioners on! All this left me wondering and I tried to understand what was happening in the valley and whether it was limited to the valley.

Good and bad

Two unconnected actions appear to have aided this spurt in numbers in the valley. One is the Unesco tag acquired by the GHNP. This has brought significant media coverage for the place. Today many of the properties (home-stays, guest-houses or tents) also have Unesco and GHNP in their titles! I am not sure how much of this was envisaged when pushing for the tag! Another and possibly having a greater impact is the homestay scheme of the state government which has picked up in the valley.

Avay Shukla, former additional chief secretary to Himachal Pradesh government, had in his article Govt needs to be proactive in the Tirthan valley, referred to the scheme as ‘a spectacular success’; ‘one which achieved twin objectives of tourist dispersal and livelihood creation in rural areas’.

He added that ‘preserving the natural environment from its excesses was a challenge’. Sanju, who has been guiding treks in the area, for more than a decade, said that the Tirthan valley today boasts of more than 50 homestays. More are coming up and some as far as 15 km further ahead of Gushaini. At best, he added, one in five meets the norms stipulated.

So what happens when tourist numbers race way ahead of systems, rules and infrastructure? Let us take the case of waste management. Keshav, head of a cooperative that organises treks, mentioned that not only had disposing trash in the river become common but some of the properties also discharged sewage directly into the river.

A river they used to drink the water from, not long ago. To top it, most of the properties are located on the river bank. Majority of those thronging the place are averse to walking and prefer properties on the road. And, the road in Gushaini, snakes along the river. Complaints pertaining to waste and sewage disposal are made to the respective authorities but in most cases, no action is taken. It appeared that it was easier to fine tourists than to charge locals! “Local politics,” Keshav said, “is to be blamed.” In the few days that I was in the valley, I heard this line frequently; and interestingly, from locals.

Stephan Marchal of Himalayan Ecotourism says, “The Tirthan valley is famous for its delicious mountain fruits, but it is now the tourism money that the locals and other want to harvest. Tourism is synonymous with easy money and without effective regulations, everyone tries his luck, bringing the entire valley into a beauty-destructive development.”

Situation grim

The scenario, unfortunately, is not very different across the state. The situation in the bigger and better-known places is only far grimmer. This year the heat-wave which hit northern India during summer exacerbated the situation as it led the tourist numbers in the state to go further north. Manali alone is touted to have generated 2,000 tonnes of waste during May and June. Hill-stations are now becoming synonymous with trash piles. And, waste management is just one of the issues which tourism has left us struggling with. The list (of issues) also includes a shortage of water and the absence of parking space.

Coming back to GHNP, I was stuck with questions. Today, the majority of those who visit GHNP do not venture beyond Rolla, a point not far from the boundary. Locals whom I interacted with raised concerns with overcrowding at Rolla. With new roads coming up these numbers are only expected to rise further.

What if, tomorrow, three more Rollas come up? Given GHNP’s difficult terrain and that it neither has motorable roads nor allows ponies, the number of people going inside (beyond Rolla) may not go up significantly but does GHNP have a plan for tourism in the areas abutting the park boundary? Does some of the trash land up inside the park boundary? Are the decision-makers and influencers concerned that rivers flowing from the peaks inside are being fed with trash and sewage not far from the boundary? Are they willing to do something about it?

Indians need to get out and enjoy the mountains and rivers. The economy can also do with some help from tourism. There is little to debate on these. The current madness, however, warrants a method. If we are able to bring in one, and in time, it may still not be too late to prevent the Gushainis and Jibhis (also a valley in Kullu) from becoming Shimlas and Manalis. And the onus is not just on the authorities!

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Published 02 August 2019, 18:19 IST

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