Wildlife officials, village residents, conservationists and ecotourism promoters are upbeat that the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) will get Unesco's World Heritage Site status. But the locals have come up with a slew of riders: Before getting the title, they want the government to settle their traditional rights and make them the real stakeholders in the ecotourism management of the park.
The GHNP is in focus as the park is being tipped as a hot nomination among 39 other properties for the heritage title. The park is a unique global hotspot of rich Himalayan biodiversity, located in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh.
The park propels a vision of lush environs in its lower hills at a height of 1,700 m that billows up, catching a glimpse of surreal snow at 5,800 m, its highest altitude. It spans 905.4 sq km area, including 61 sq km of the Tirthan wildlife sanctuary in the southeast, and 90 sq km of the Sainj wildlife sanctuary in the southwest.
All eyes are now set on the Unesco's World Heritage Committee (WHC) meeting in Doha from June 15-June 25 that will decide on the heritage status to the park. Wildlife officials are optimistic about the park getting the status.
It qualifies for the site not only because "it is an area of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance", but also because it is a lifeblood for rare and endangered high altitude flora and fauna that thrives in abundance in its habitats, something unparallel anywhere in the world.
Dr Lalit Mohan, the state's Chief Wildlife Warden, and Dr Sanjiva Pande, Additional Principal Chief Conservator, Forests, are expected to plead the case for inscription before the heritage committee. India may become a WHC member this time and the park stands a "bright chance of being inscribed as the Unesco's 189th world heritage site", say officials.
The park missed out on the status during the WHC's meeting in Cambodia last year. The committee sought clearances from the park's authorities to include or exclude areas before it gets a nod. As a result, both Tirthan and Sainj wildlife sanctuaries were included in the park, a move that has raised the ire of villagers who are opposing the inclusion of the sanctuaries without settling their traditional rights.
A Unesco team led by vice-chairman, World Congress on Protected Area (WCPA) of International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Dr Graeme L Worboys, inspected the park on October 6, 2012, and submitted a report to the IUCN, which forwarded it to the WHC, a universal body that grants heritage inscription.
Even if the WHC gives its nod, it can review its heritage sites after five years and can revoke inscription if "management is not up to the mark". Dr Graeme said: "It is a world challenge before the heritage property site managements to monitor tourism in a right way. The impact in the property can be negative if tourism becomes unmanageable, but a key is to strike a balance".
What makes it special
The GHNP is a natural reservoir of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance and home to rare and endangered high-altitude flora and fauna. The park contains the "most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including threatened species of outstanding universal value for science and conservation".
The park is protected by natural barriers from all sides. It is contiguous with the 675 sq-km Pin Valley National Park in the cold desert of Spiti in Trans-Himalaya, the 503 sq-km Rupi-Bhawa Wildlife Sanctuary in Kinnaur, and the 61-km Kanawar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kullu. It supports a full range of western Himalayan biodiversity and protects other islands of biodiversity around.
The park is home to many species, making it a perfect groove for wildlife, medicinal plants and biological biodiversity in a small area. It supports species of subtropical, alpine, the south-east Asian forests, Siberia and the Asian steppes.
The flora shows affinities with the Mediterranean, Tibetan as well as cis-Himalayan region. The Himalayas have evolved a high proportion of their own endemic species like several species of balsams and Himalayan Tahr, which are well represented in the park.
The park remains free from human interference due to its inaccessible rugged terrain. This makes it as the biggest conservation unit in the northwest Himalayan region.
The Jiwa, Sainj and Tirthan rivulets and dozen other smaller ones — all feeding the Beas — run like the park's arteries. The catchment of the rivulets was notified as the GHNP in 1984. It lies between latitudinal range of 310 38'28" and 31054'58"N, and longitudinal range of 770 20'11" and 77045'00".
The GHNP is protected on the northern, eastern and southern boundaries as it meanders between permanent snow and steep ridges. About 5 km of the western periphery of the park has been declared as an ecozone. It spans a 265.6 sq-km area, but its legal status remains ambiguous as it is partially inhabited by about 2,408 families who have traditional rights.
"The park is unique and has an outstanding universal value," says Ajay Srivastav, former director of the park. To the east, it has the Himalayan mountains and forms part of the boundary between four ecological zones — the dry deserts of interior Asia and well-watered lowlands of the Indian plains, the Oriental and Palearctic faunal realms, the high plateau of Tibet and the jumbled Himalayan peaks, and the catchment of the Beas and Sutlej.
The park has no villages. Even the Tirthan sanctuary has no village inside it. But the Sainj sanctuary has villages of Shakti, Maroar and Shugard located on the bank of the Sainj Khad, a tributary of the Beas. Two major hydropower power projects — 100-MW Sainj and 1320 MW Parbati — are coming up in the Sainj-Parbati basin in the Sainj lower valley around the ecozone.
Traditional rights an issue
Local NGOs and the park authorities have locked horns as the world heritage status will bar entry into the park and forfeit the traditional rights of the locals under the Wildlife Protection Act. Dila Ram Shabab, a former legislator and a 91-year-old writer in Tirthan, says: "We have no problem with the heritage status, but the state government must ensure that our unemployed youth and entrepreneurs get a say in eco-tourism and management of the park. Village residents should be made stakeholders rather than porters to assist rich tourists brought in by certain dubious NGOs in connivance with certain forest officials who have made the park their own property."
Various NGOs like the GHNP's Committee for Protection of Forest Rights, Friends of Tirthan, Sahara and Himalayan Niti Abhiyan and Kardar Sangh of Devis and Devtas have joined hands and declared that they would seek a stay on the government's move to declare the park as a heritage site.
Ranjiv Bharti, president of Friends of Tirthan, says the government is unclear on the locals' religious and grazing rights in the buffer zone, Tirthan and Sainj sanctuaries and the park area. Shupi Kuni, Hans Kund, Shri Mahadev and Shaktisar are pilgrimage centres for "devis" and "devtas" and their "karkoons", who go there often for pilgrimage, he claims.
The villages of Shakti, Maroar and Shugaad in Gara Parli gram panchayat in the Sainj sanctuary have refused to move out as their lord of land, Brahma Rishi Devta, has been living there since centuries. "It is a question of life and death for us. We will not leave our villages," says Hira Lal, a village elder of Shakti. Even Athara Kalru, legend of 18 deities is born here, which flourished into 365 deities is worshiped by villagers all over the Kullu valley and are bought here for pilgrimage, he says. The villagers say they will continue to graze their cattle, collect fuel wood and herbs from the sanctuaries. "We live in the dark ages. There is no power and road connectivity as the areas is under the Wildlife Protection Act," says Liqt Ram, another elder.
The NGOs had submitted a memorandum to Dr Graeme during his visit in 2012 and later to the WHC director, but they have not received any communication yet. The NGOs have decided to move the High Court, seeking a stay on the government's move, says Guman Singh, convener of the Himalayan Niti Abhiyan. The Anderson report of 1864 was made the basis for the settlement of rights of only 311 families in the 1990s when the park was created. A majority of the villagers have got nothing till now, he claims.
BS Rana, the park's director, and GS Chandel, Divisional Forest Officer, Wildlife, say the apprehensions are premature as the issue would be settled at a public hearing by the District Collector.
The heritage status will trigger an ecotourism boom in Tirthan, Jhibhi-Soja and Sainj valleys. Angling in Tirthan and trekking, camping and birdwatching in the park have great potential that can add to the income of the locals. But the wildlife department has no blueprint on how it will make local entrepreneurs and NGOs stakeholders in the project.
Local entrepreneurs are protecting Tirthan and its tributaries as an exclusive habitat for the trout. "We are against five-star resorts and hotels which have already ruined Manali, Shimla and other hill stations in the state," says Raju Bharti, who runs a home stay unit in Gushaini, about 7 km from the park.
From Soja in the Jhibhi valley to Gushaini in Tirthan valley, the locals have set up camping sites, small home stay units and guesthouses. But the park doesn't draw too many eco-tourists as it has not been popularised among nature lovers across the world.
"It will protect the biodiversity in the park and boost eco-tourism, but where is the government's blueprint?" asks Bharti.
The government had banned hydropower projects in Tirthan in 2005 to preserve Tirthan as a destination for trout angling. "The wildlife department has not invited us for talks," says Sandeep Kanwar, who runs camping sites in the Jhibhi valley.
The wildlife wing has set up a grid of 30 trap cameras to track the movement of animals and poachers, but not a single case was come to light. Poachers camp in the park's inspection huts and target rare animals and birds for their prized fur, feathers and meat during winter, when animals take a downward journey due to snow in the higher reaches, locals say.
Though the park authorities claim that these species have increased their number over the years, they have no scientific data to support their claims.
The herbal mafia is allegedly having a free run. Promotion of medicinal plants among villagers remains on paper. Most funds are cornered by NGOs, societies and women self-help groups. Villagers get crumbs and are often hired by smugglers to collect herbs like naag chatri and patish.
Villagers strive hard for survival as NGOs and the park authorities have failed to reach out to them. Some dubious NGOs take tourists to the park area or the ecozone and earn 80 per cent profit, but nothing comes to the villagers. The park has collected about Rs 98 lakh since 2002 from the Medicinal Plants Board of India for the conservation and promotion of medicinal plants and herbs among villages in Sainj and Tirthan ranges.
The mafia is being run by herb collectors, many of who are from Nepal. Wildlife official Chandel says herbs have been planted in about 90 hectares with the help of NGOs. "The Biodiversity, Tourism and Community Advancement society brands its produce and sells them at its outlets. The ranges are open for collection as per the rights of villagers, but no case of smuggling has come to light recently," he says.
Rich gene pool