Let Rajaji Be!
The Rishikesh ashram in the core area of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, where the iconic band, The Beatles, once stayed, has been opened to the public in disregard of wildlife laws.
Photo: Eran Sandler/Public Domain.
About the Campaign:
In 1968, the global rock phenomenon known as The Beatles spent a tumultuous few weeks under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh. Nearly 40 years later, the ashram has reopened its doors to the public in a bid to attract tourists and dollars. Preserving cultural history should be a cause for celebration, but when it’s at the expense of our natural heritage, it’s not quite as heartening. The ashram, you see, lies within the bounds of the Rajaji National Park that was declared a tiger reserve just last year. With the intended inauguration of a café, a learning centre and classes at the ashram, there is little doubt that disturbance in this core critical area of Rajaji is going to mount.
According to India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, that forbids commercial activities in Protected Areas, core critical habitats are required to be kept inviolate for the purpose of tiger conservation. Ironically, it was the State Forest Minister Dinesh Aggarwal, who spoke of commercial plans for the ashram at its opening on December 8, 2015.
On paper, initiating any non-forestry activity within a National Park requires the consent of innumerable bodies formed to safeguard our wild heritage. These include the State Board for Wildlife, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), and the Supreme Court. Yet their authority seems to be in question. In 2011, the Standing Committee of the NBWL gave conditional approval for the project, but while the project has breezily been inaugurated, the conditions have not been met. Further, NTCA officials told conservation journalist Prerna Singh Bindra, who first exposed this issue, that they “don’t recall giving permissions for constructing or opening the ashram, and strongly advise against any unnecessary disturbance within the core of a tiger reserve.” And then there’s the simple fact that opening the ashram violates the Supreme Court-endorsed NTCA guidelines that recommends phasing out of permanent tourist facilities located inside core critical tiger habitats.
The Gohri Range of Rajaji, where the ashram is located, is rich in wildlife, and studies by the Wildlife Institute of India have indicated the presence of not just eight tigers, but also species like leopard, elephant, black bear, king cobra and Great Hornbill. It is not difficult to imagine what impact a populated tourist facility will have on these animals and their environment. In fact, visitors can drive their private vehicles directly into the reserve to the ashram after obtaining perfunctory permits from the gate.
The reopening of the ashram isn’t the only problem that Rajaji faces, but it is one that was entirely avoidable. In the few weeks that The Beatles spent in the ashram they wrote prolifically, churning out many of their biggest hits, but they also grew increasingly disenchanted with the Maharishi, and the relationship eventually soured beyond redemption. Given its history, the reopening of the ashram seems to be little more than a tourism gimmick. It would have served the Forest Department better to have heeded The Beatles advice, and just ‘Let It Be’.
THE OTHER PROBLEMS
1. Work on the expansion of the Delhi-Dehradun highway that cuts right through the park is ongoing. Hundreds of trees have been felled and the disturbance to wildlife has been colossal.
2. The Kaudiya-Khimsar road that passes through the park’s Chilla Range is being upgraded. It has splintered connectivity between the park’s eastern and western ranges.
3. Environmental journalist Bahar Dutt has reported that a 60 km. wall that will disrupt elephant movement is being built in the reserve. The matter has been placed in front of the National Green Tribunal.
4. Rajaji hosts within its boundaries an army ammunition dump, a village, a canal and a railway track, all of which place considerable anthropogenic pressure on the reserve and its wildlife.
Sanctuary Asia readers, please send letters or e-mails to the Uttarakhand Chief Minister demanding that the ashram remain closed to the public, and that an inquiry be commissioned into the legal status of the ashram. By all accounts the ashram does not have the necessary clearances to operate, is in violation of Supreme Court-endorsed guidelines and has failed to meet the conditions set by the NBWL. Please reiterate that Rajaji is a tiger reserve, and the first priority of the Forest Department is conservation not tourism.
Address your letters to:
Shri. Harish Rawat
Chief Minister’s House,
Uttarakhand New Cantt Road,
Dehradun – 248001.
With a copy to
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 2, February 2016.