Anxious for Lahaul: Changes post opening of Atal Tunnel are triggering an ecological rethink : The Tribune India

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Anxious for Lahaul: Changes post opening of Atal Tunnel are triggering an ecological rethink

Anxious for Lahaul: Changes post opening of Atal Tunnel are triggering an ecological rethink

Gushaal village in winter. Photo courtesy: Rahul Rohel

Kesang Thakur & Vikram Katoch

POST the opening of Atal Tunnel, Lahaul is at the cusp of a massive transformation. It’s a critical moment, a right time to infer lessons from recurring disasters and exploited landscapes elsewhere, be it the recent floods that devastated Himachal Pradesh, or the hydropower havoc in the neighbouring tribal district of Kinnaur. Some urgent questions emerge. Why are our collective calls for sustainability not effectively translating into action? Why are we fearful that Lahaul will follow the same chaotic path as Shimla, Manali or Dharamsala?

Atal Tunnel

Sustainable tourism, or its equivalent ‘eco-tourism’, is not a new utterance in Lahaul. The sensibility percolated way before the 9-km-long Atal Tunnel’s arrival. Indeed, the desires for sustainability and its strategic translation into action can be traced a decade-and-a-half back in the protests against hydropower projects. As the tunnel neared its opening in 2020, sustainability gained further weight in local anxieties about this geopolitical project’s socio-ecological impact. Three years later, official data on incoming tourists signals high environmental risks and urgency for a Lahaul-specific sustainable tourism plan. Despite the concept’s minimal translation into practice, this is a thread, a vision that continues to bind Lahaulis.

Like others who wish for the post-tunnel shift to be non-destructive, we, too, aim to centre local voices. We are looking at how the post-tunnel transformation is triggering an ecological ‘rethinking’ in Lahaul, and also analysing tourism and sustainability. Our personal and professional visions aim to nurture thought processes that challenge the mainstream notions of growth, centering everyday visions and actions that emanate from a deep care for the environment.

The Himachal Pradesh Tourism Policy Plan 2019 admits the role of mass tourism in environmental degradation. To counter this, the policy proposes “carrying capacity based tourism destination development”. To achieve sustainability targets, it sets short (0-3 years), medium (3-5 years) and long term (5-10 years) goals. Three years later, we still lack a basic assessment of the “maximum number” of tourists “emerging” destinations such as Lahaul can handle. Official data reveals per day tourist inflow outnumbering the valley’s total population, especially in winter. In December 2022, the highest per day vehicular traffic was estimated at more than 19,000. There’s yet no evaluation of such intense movement of people and vehicles in a valley which otherwise remains snow-bound for six months. Can a policy that has failed in fulfilling one of its core short-term goals then promise long-term benefits?

The policy also proposes enlisting registered homestays on the Tourism Department’s website, alongside mandatory quality checks every three years. Locals have shown interest in homestay tourism, with close to 500 registered across the valley. However, these still await online enlisting. The valley’s tourism veterans believe that homestays will lower the risks of land use by limiting the construction footprint and over-commercialisation, as it is occurring in Leh. With more than eight years of tourism experience, and having witnessed several market fluctuations, Padma from Gemur village views quality tented accommodations as another sustainable investment. He cited the case of Ladakh, where given the record-breaking figures of the 2022 summer, businesses availed hefty loans to add new motor bikes and taxis. The recent flooding brought the sector to a standstill again. “Covid-19 gave us a taste of how vulnerable it is to rely solely on tourism. With tents, one can always dismantle them and reutilise the land for farming,” Padma added, convincingly.

To benefit host communities, the policy emphasises a “special area plan for tourist villages” with “panchayat to control haphazard growth due to tourism”. However, in June this year, the state government issued a notification enforcing the Town and Country Planning (TCP) Act from Atal Tunnel up to Tandi, bringing seven gram panchayats under its purview. The notification came without any prior consultation with the panchayats, thus violating its own policies. Locals protested, shunning the notification as an attempt to centralise decision-making, while highlighting the TCP Department’s failure in ensuring construction compliance across Himachal. “With limited land, one cannot construct thoughtlessly in a topography like ours. Moreover, there are a lot of nature-imposed restrictions,” opined Sachin Mirupa, the young pradhan of Kokar panchayat.

Under its “green protocols”, the policy also talks about efficient solid waste management. In the absence of an ethical model yet, Lahaul is far from being a ‘zero-waste destination’ as envisioned in the policy. Talks have been ongoing about setting up waste infrastructure plants but for now, waste is “buried, burnt or simply dumped into streams and rivers”, shared Sunil, a former Block Development member. Amid constant negotiations for budget with the district administration, the zila parishad, for now, is testing tech-based waste and sanitation models in specific tourist spots.

Under ‘destination control management’, the policy calls for restricted vehicular use, limited access to protected areas, heritage and ‘pristine’ sites. But with trans-Himalayas being vulnerable as a whole, one wonders where this boundary of ‘pristine’ begins and ends. Such faulty demarcations view nature as detached, something located out ‘there’ but not in the midst of imagined ‘tourist villages’. Packaging ‘culture’ as a tourism product can have complex local outcomes. This was evident in the Sissu panchayat’s decision this year to suspend tourism activities between January-February, a period of both rest and rituals dedicated to deities.

There are no concrete policy outcomes as yet. However, at the community level, sustainability as an ethos can be especially sensed in several youth-led socio-political actions. These initiatives are far and few for now but valuable enough to keep our hopes of a sustainable future for Lahaul alive.

— The writers are researchers studying sustainability in Lahaul

#Atal Tunnel #Lahaul and Spiti

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