The Himalayan Ranges and the Western Ghats have been rich bio-diverse mountainous regions that have sustained livelihoods for centuries. They’re also a hotspot for tourism development, with their cool climates, idyllic landscapes, and lush greenery. There are over five hundred hill stations around the country, most primed for tourism. The majority of these are located in the Himalayas (Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Meghalaya) and the Western Ghats (Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala).
Over the last 30 years, the massive expansion of the national economy has enabled the commodification of mountain resources (forests, water, labour, agriculture and tourism) to the extreme detriment of local communities and ecologies.
We’re witnessing the impacts of excessive and unregulated tourism across almost every mountain and hill destination in India. Unending traffic jams, spiralling prices, increased pressure and diversion of water, electricity resources and fuel, pollution, poor waste management and litter; social costs on vulnerable demographics such as women and children, drugs, of displacement of people, etc. Unregulated and thoughtless infrastructure development in mountainous regions has led to dozens of landslides that have taken far too many lives and massive soil erosion that directly affects ecologies as far away as the coasts into which these mountain’s rivers flow.
Take the case of Panchgani: with a population of about 14,000 persons as per the Census 2011 data, it faces tremendous pressure from tourism. In 2014-2015, this small hill town received more than one lakh (a hundred thousand) tourists. Tourism has been increasing over the years and this has caused unprecedented loss of vegetation, increase in urban sprawl, pressure on resources such as water and electricity and problems of littering, pollution, and traffic jams. Don’t forget, of course, that this hill town is part of the Western Ghats range of mountains, a fragile ecosystem that supports not only millions of livelihoods but a delicate balance of diverse vegetation and wildlife. So much so that Panchgani was declared an eco-sensitive zone in 2001 by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and accorded special protections. These measures have only temporarily addressed some of the issues of waste generation and pollution in the area, but the area will not be able to withstand even a slight increase in tourism.
It is the local communities who have paid the biggest price for unregulated tourism in these regions. Rivers swollen with water and debris were left with no natural drainage routes and take lives and livelihoods away. EQUATIONS works to study the impacts of this uncontrolled development of tourism on local communities, their livelihoods, and the fragile ecosystems in the region. We push for more equitable, sustainable and well-planned regulation and policies to manage the development of tourism in the region and mitigate its adverse impacts.