Community-led tourism in the West Jañtia hills District

By H H Mohrmen

We have heard of the different types of tourism such as Eco-tourism, Cultural tourism and what have you, but one rarely hears about community-led tourism. In the context of Meghalaya and in particular the West Jañtia Hills District, most of the successful tourist destinations now are community-led. To begin with, in the tribal community of Meghalaya especially in the Khasi Pnar society, there are two major institutions which play a very vital role in the different aspects of the culture of the people.

The Khasi Pnar or the Hynñew Trep which include the Khasi, the Pnar, the Bhoi, the War and other sub-tribes is a unique community, in the sense that that there are traditional elements which largely influence how the society operates. The Hynñew Trep people may have evolved into a modern society but the two major institutions still have immense influence on how the society functions. The two important institutions which greatly influence the dynamics of the society are the Dorbar Shnong or the village council and the Kur or the Clan. These are very important components of the Pnar society which still have immense control on how the society functions and more importantly, influence the dynamics of the society. They even influence the land ownership or the land tenure system which is being followed by the people in the state and in the War Jaiñtia area in particular.

One will not be able to understand the society, if one does not understand these two important institutions in great detail. The next question that begs the answer is – what do we mean by  community-led tourism. In simple words it means that it is the community which decides what is to be projected and what the unique selling point (USP) of the area is. And it also decides how the same is to be sold in the market.

Generally large parts of land in Jañtia hills are owned by the community which include the Village, the Raid and the clan but as time passed individuals first took ownership of the land where they build their houses and now a large part of land is in the hands of private owners.

The importance of these two institutions cannot be ignored if one is to understand how the tourist spots at least in West Jañtia hills came into being. To describe the community-led tourism in Jañtia hills, the two case studies that one would like to share is that of Shnongpdeng tourism spot which was led by the Dorbar Shnong or the village council and the Krangshuri waterfall tourist spot which is led by the Buam clan of the Thangbuli and Umladkhur village area. The two case studies also bring to light the truth about how the two institutions at their best can bring so much change in the community and also bring economic development to the members of the respective community.

Tourism promotion in Shnongpdeng, a village which is near Dawki on the India-Bangladesh border was an initiative of the Dorbar Shnong. Initially it was a collective decision of the community to protest against the District Council’s plan to lease the river to private entity for mass catching of fish.  This led to the launching of tourism in the village. To keep the wheels rolling the village then constituted a body which was later registered under the Co-operative Societies Act. It is this body which manages the day to day affairs of the tourism business in the village and its members are elected by the general body of the village and are answerable to the same. In this arrangement individuals or families can own their tourist business units, but are under the management of the Cooperative society. Even those members of the community who do not directly benefit from the venture, stand to gain from the profit the dorbar chnong collects. So it is a win-win situation and this is a testimony to how progressive dorbar chnong can bring change to the land and the people.

It may however be reminded that when Shnongpdeng emerged as a popular destination, the major problem that the venture faced was the lack of parking space. There is one clan in the village which owns the land which can be used for parking. When the dorbar chnong and the clan could not come to any understanding, the district administration had to intervene. Arunkumar Kembhavi was then the DC of West Jañtia hills, (late) Donny M. Wallang was the Director DRDA and Isawanda Laloo was then the SDO of Amlarem. Finally the district heads were able to convince the two institutions to agree on revenue sharing formula and the parking space was constructed by the district administration.

In what can be called a ripple effect, Darang a village adjacent to Shnongpdeng also followed a similar approach and supported by the District Basin Development Unit West Jañtia hills and SURE Jañtia hills the partner  NGO conducted a capacity building program for the community and Darang is now another important tourist spot in the area.

The other case study is the management of the Krangshuri waterfalls and the Sua Ludong which is an extension of the Krangshuri project. In the War Jañtia area of Amlarem sub division, West Jañtia hills district, a large part the land is owned by the clan hence residents of the village can seek permission from the clan to use any land with only a nominal fee which is to be paid to the custodian. In this case the Buam clan of the Thangbuli-Umladkhur area manages the area. All the units in this project are managed and owned by the clan and the people who are engaged in the different units mostly belong to the same clan. The income from the projects is also being shared by the member of the clan, so in this case community means the clan.

Although the writer has visited Kudengrim before the village was promoted as a tourist destination, but one has not been able to associate with the venture. The truth however is that even this destination is being promoted by the community and in this case the dorbar chnong of Kuderngrim.

It may however be reminded that it was F.R. Kharkongor the then DC of Jañtia hills district who on seeing the damage done by coal mining to nature suggested that people should also look beyond Mooïong or coal mining for livelihood.  Kharkongor cleverly used the prefix ‘moo’ which in Pnar means stone or rock and said that not only ‘mooïong’ but  ‘mootourism’ can also provide people with alternative livelihoods. The Shillong Times recently carried out a feature story of community-led tourism in Molamylliang village which is located at the heart of the coal mining areas. It is another case of how the community in collaboration with Forest Department and recently the Community-led Landscape Management unit (CLAM) has been able to bring the much needed change to the area.

It is heartening to see that many potential tourist spots are being identified even in the East Jañtia hills. Recently the Chief Minister visited Sahksaw which is upstream of Rynji falls in the same district. What the government and the Chief Minister in particular need to remember is that mining and tourism cannot go together. Sahksaw is part of the river Myntdu and its water used to be contaminated with Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). The change in the water quality we see now is because of the ban on coal mining. The Government has to decide whether it wants tourism or mining. It can’t have its cake and eat it too. And the State Government is yet to venture into the immense potential of cave tourism in East Jañtia hills and the tourism potential of Narpuh Wildlife Sanctuary.

One hopes that the Government would at least document the above cases and use the same as case studies to understand how tourism developed in the region.

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