Is Sustainable Tourism a Myth?

By Patricia Mukhim

The other day we saw a release from the West Jaintia Students’ Union (WJSU)warning “outsiders” not to interfere and raise any alarm on the limestone mining in the area since  “limestone” has been gifted by God for the community to mine the way they want (laissez faire). The word “outsiders” here means people who don’t belong to West Jaintia Hills. This is a new form of exclusivism that has entered our lexicon. The Khasis use the phrase, “leh katba mon” (do what I please) in a defiant sort of way when someone tells us to refrain from doing something. Now telling people to, “lay their hands off our affairs,” has become the new parlance of pressure groups in the guise of students’ bodies. In the first place why should a students’ body be worried about mining? How are they linked to the mining business? Does mining have anything to do with education? If at all, enlightened students should be questioning the sustainability of the whole mining exercise where hills have come down one by one and forests are being cleared with the mining debris left behind for no one to clean up.  Students should be concerned about the bleak future that mining portends. I once asked a limestone mine owner and transporter how long the limestone would last. His reply was a casual, “At least 50 years.” By implication he would be dead and gone by then and hardly matters what sort of planet he leaves behind. Such people must be funding the pressure groups to ensure that no whistle blowers get anywhere near the mining sites; least of all environmentalists whose lives are in constant danger.

And pray what are we mining the limestone for? It is to send at the minimum 300 trucks load of it to Bangladesh. There is little or no value addition in Meghalaya despite there being about 14 cement companies in the state; the majority of them in Jaintia Hills. The exports include limestone from Lafarge Company with mines at Nongtrai in Shella and the daily consignment going to Chatak in Bangladesh via conveyor belts. The irony is that people in these mining areas also want to hard-sell their villages as tourist destinations. In fact the corporate social responsibility (CSR) fund from Lafarge which is to be spent on rejuvenating the forests around the mining areas is partly claimed by the affected communities for promoting tourism.  This is an absolute travesty! Of course Lafarge is paying a decent amount to address environmental concerns but what about the local miners many of whom have abandoned the mines and left them to the elements without a care for the environment?

Our mindsets are such that we are able to distance ourselves from the environment as if we are not part of it. And what is it that makes us do that? Money of course! When money plays a dominant role in our decision making then everything is justified. So does this mean money is bad? Is capital bad? No it isn’t! It’s our mode of earning money and of spending it that is problematic.

There were great philanthropists that earned big money in their time but they spent that for social causes. Andrew Carnegie, George Soros, Warren Buffet and our own Azim Premji earned wealth so they could set up foundations for social welfare. Do you have even one cement merchant doing that in our state? Or a limestone exporter who has set up a school? Or a coal mine owner who has started a college or hospital? Not one! Why? Because it seems that the culture of philanthropy is not in the Khasi-Jaintia DNA. We have proved to be selfish people wanting to exploit all resources for one generation and leaving behind a barren earth. And in this exploit there are many who assist the rapid deforestation. Many of them are in the Forest and Environment Department. They help bend the rules so forests can be cleared mercilessly. Any attempt to point out the devastation caused by irresponsible mining is quickly rebutted by citing the Sixth Schedule. As if this Schedule was created to destruct the future of the “jaidbynriew!” It is unfortunate that the descendants of Rev JJM Nichols Roy – the architect of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution– who envisaged it as an instrument for protecting his people – the weak and defenceless tribals against the more advanced non-tribals (since the Khasi and Jaintia Hills district was part of Assam then and ruled by the Assamese gentry) – are no longer here to defend its legacy and its core ideology.  They have all migrated to the United State their motherland.

This brings me to the Tourism aspect in Meghalaya. Let’s face certain facts. Those in the State Tourism Department don’t visits these sites like ordinary travelers minus the ML 01 carriers hence they don’t see what they should see and remedy. Ordinary travelers like us who are footloose and fancy free but only on weekends, tend to get away from the city to where our hearts call. Alas! Almost all the tourist sites are overcrowded and noisy. You thought you would get out of the city for a breather but realize how wrong you are. About 500 or more vehicles from Assam make their way to Sohra alone. The traffic jam on Saturdays and Sundays starts from the Air Force headquarters and does not end until you are closer home. Is that any charm for a Sunday drive?

So you are tempted to rant over Facebook at the complete lack of regulations on the number of tourists that can visit any destination so that equanimity is maintained and the destination does not turn into a cacophonous bus stop or railway station. But you are warned not to speak harshly for you will affect the livelihoods of the local ‘people.’ The word ‘people’ is an idiom that is most misleading. The question to ask is – how many locals are benefitting from the tourism business? Do they have a voice in placing their suggestions before the so-called tourism promotion societies? Would the “destination owners” listen to voices of dissent or do they believe that all of us should conform because ‘peoples’ livelihoods are at stake? Do the tour operators, hoteliers and guest house owners worry that the tourism destinations are getting overheated? That there are too many footfalls and carbon footprints per day which have their impact on the vulnerable settings? Or is the idea simply to make money while the destinations are able to ‘sell’ themselves and then abandon them once they have served the capitalistic purpose? It is indeed agonizing that Sohra a place with so much history and culture is now a “commodity” sold to those that have the money to buy its beauty!

Sadder still is the fact that the tour promotion societies will not admit that most tourism destinations are now overcrowded and have far exceeded their carrying capacity. Here too the caveat is that those who are not from Hima Sohra have no right to speak about its impending disaster.

So if we don’t live in West Jaintia Hills we are banned from speaking against coal and limestone mining and if we don’t live in Sohra we will be hunted down for speaking against the greed that has turned Sohra into a savagely ravaged woman, since it is in the feminine (‘Ka Sohra’) that every place in Khasi-Jaintia land is referred to.

What is it with the greed of our people that we can’t even think of the immediate future? Here the blame lies with the government. A government is elected to ‘govern.’ The word govern according to the  Cambridge dictionary means to control and be responsible for the public business of a country, state, city or other organised group. Governance in turn is a process whereby the government which wields power, authority and influence also enacts policies and takes decisions concerning public life and social upliftment. Good governance means coming up with good policies that bring about order in society.

In 1988 on becoming CM of Meghalaya, the late PA Sangma was appalled to discover that Meghalaya did not have a single policy in place. The state was functioning on auto-pilot. He immediately came up with a Health Policy and started initiating others in the more crucial departments but did not have enough time because he was unseated in 1990 by those who preferred to function without policies.

Today his son Conrad Sangma is on the hot seat. He has initiated the Education Policy which is yet to see the light of day. Now his Government is coming up with the Water Policy and soon with the Solid, Liquid and Biochemical Waste Management Policy. But a more urgent policy needed today is on Tourism and the regulatory mechanisms. If Meghalaya tarries with this policy and there are no serious deliberations and no regulations in place soon, Meghalaya tourism will die a natural death. And that would be disastrous!

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