Meet Mrs. Vinay Rathi Jha
As Secretary, Tourism, Government of India, Vinay Rathi Jha holds the key to the implementation of a vital component of the National Wildlife Action Plan – wildlife tourism. An anonymous wildlife supporter for years, she has now come out in the open to defend India’s vanishing wild heritage. In a freewheeling discussion with Bittu Sahgal, ranging from tiger shows to turtle conservation, she puts forward a wholly different perspective on conservation and wonders why wildlifers have been so slow to strengthen and expand their support base.
You say you are willing to work with wildlifers to protect ‘Incredible India’?
Most certainly! Not just me, but over 100,000 tourism professionals who are proud of their country and are willing to back their promises with time and money. The question I ask is whether the conservation movement has the foresight and the space to accommodate this goodwill. Thus far we have seen fewer signs of this than we would have liked.
You believe that tourism can truly help save wildlife in India?
Of course I do. More than most other sectors of the Indian economy, the tourism sector has self-interest at stake here. Like the Taj Mahal, the tiger and elephant are incredible brand ambassadors and drivers for tourism. They earn us respect in the global community and pride within our own nation. Look at it like this, if tourism does not match with wildlife, what does? Nuclear power? Industry? Mines? We have stronger bonds than most realise.
Would your ministry consider paying to protect habitats that help promote tourism?
Yes. By way of entry fees, which we believe should be higher than they are in most wildlife destinations. We might also consider backing a sort of ‘wildlife protection surcharge’ to be paid by lodges, hotels and tour operators, on a site-by-site basis, where we could be sure that the money was being invested in direct protection, or benefits that helped win support from local communities.
What else do you feel tourism can do?
It can lay the foundations of public support for tough conservation decisions that might otherwise be politically uncomfortable. And let me first make one thing clear before you ask me the question. In my view wildlife protection must take precedence over all else, including tourism, in our sanctuaries and national parks. This said, the National Wildlife Action Plan itself lays out a blueprint to turn tourism into a conservation tool. I could offer several improvements in the action plan, but for the moment am content to work on those ideas that reflect both ground realities and common sensitivities. One way forward is to leave hospitality to tourism professionals and field protection to the wildlife people.
Even this demands a degree of synergy that has not been evident thus far.
I agree that the scope for enhanced synergy exists, but the situation is fast improving. In the past the problem was a near total disconnect between wildlife and tourism professionals. Some years ago, states like Kerala realised that individual destinations cannot work if the landscapes in which they exist are ecologically and environmentally unstable. This was when a larger initiative was set in place that presented rivers, beaches, mountains and forests as one contiguous stretch of ‘God’s own country’. The ‘Zero Waste’ campaign begun by environmentalists fitted in perfectly and synergy evolved where none existed. I’m not saying this will always be the case, but it does provide scope for common cause.
Indeed, but wildlife imperatives are so very different. Tourism success itself could pose a worry for little-known destinations, which could be overwhelmed by over-sell.
That is always a worry, even for heritage sites like Khajuraho, the Taj Mahal, or Konark. No one understands better than the tourism professional that overwhelmed destinations die young. But the answer is not to lock visitors out, but to enforce discipline using a combination of wildlife laws and tourism guidelines. Equally critical is the need to instill ownership pride in our own people. Guests respect what their hosts respect. If we spit and litter, this encourages tourists to do the same. If we speak in hushed whispers, all but the most recalcitrant guest will do the same.
Photo: Bittu Sahgal.
Catering to elite tourists often ends up with facilities like golf courses, swimming pools and concrete monstrosities, often right inside forests like the Sálim Ali National Park in Srinagar.
The Ministry of Tourism certainly would not endorse any such thing today in ecologically-sensitive areas. Intelligent tourism options suggest that ‘experiences, excitement and education’ be marketed, not ‘facilities’. Of course, we must create a degree of safety and comfort for travellers. But in wildlife areas, these would probably take the shape of tented camps, guided trails (where possible), gentle canoe rides, birding camps and other varied experiences that would enable visitors to commune with nature. Some of the most up-market tourist facilities in the world do not even offer electricity to their clients.
How can the Ministry of Tourism control things when they get out of hand, for instance, the mushrooming of hotels in Ranthambhore and the virtual traffic jams in deep jungles to see the ‘tiger-shows’ in the Kanha and Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserves in Madhya Pradesh?
We cannot ‘control’ things in the traditional sense, particularly since tourism is a state, not a concurrent subject. Our role is restricted to offering guidelines. As in the case of family planning, with tourism too education is probably the most effective tool available to us. As for the ‘tiger shows’, I am aware of the criticism, but this is really a wildlife management affair and up to the park management. No tourism official would, or could, insist on tiger-shows. In fact, most tourism professionals also agreed with the position taken some years ago to stop the ‘lion-shows’ in Gir, which involved tame goats led in front of wild lions.
What about controlling the sheer number of hotels and lodges that crop up like mushrooms the moment a destination becomes popular?
Such trends degrade the tourism potential of destinations. Though it may sound elitist, wildlife destinations need low-impact, high-value tourism. But this must benefit local communities, or else the antagonism alone will drive away the visitors. This is often the result of panchayats and other local authorities doling out unlimited construction permits, often against tourism guidelines and the law. It is up to individuals and groups working in the geographical area to keep a tight vigil. Towards this end, tourism professionals and this ministry would be their allies.
Lets talk about our capacity to service visitors. Would the Ministry consider financing wildlife NGOs to set up training centres for wildlife guides?
It’s possible. In Periyar, Kerala we worked with the Forest Department to train poachers, who now take groups trekking in the forest. I see no reason why this cannot be extended to train young villagers and locals. But you must remember that our function at the Centre is primarily to facilitate, guide and advise. The states would always do the actual implementation of such ideas.
Photo: Ajit Deshmukh.
Where will the large, long-term investments in people and destinations come from?
From the tourism industry and their financial backers. Also those who have a ‘vested interest’. This would include both villagers who will earn entrepreneurial incomes and genuine wildlife supporters who recognise the wisdom of creating a personality and image around a wilderness as a sort of armour to protect it from future harm. On our part, we would be more than willing to promote the destination in India and overseas, which in itself is a major part of any investment. The greatest investment, of course, comes from the wildlife authorities and the NGOs working to protect the area, without which neither wildlife, nor tourism would be possible. Ultimately our largest investment and our surest success would be determined by our ability to produce a virtual army of knowledgeable, smiling people to greet and care for visitors and provide them with unforgettable experiences.
What about conflicts? Some people suggest that tourism has no place in forests where wildlife laws now prevent local people from taking resources and produce that they once used to.
If you refer to communities that used to hunt and gather, I have to say they are rare, and I do not even advocate tourism in such places, which would include parts of the Andaman Islands and perhaps the more remote areas in the northeast and Bastar. But even critics must recognise that tourism is one of the world’s largest employers, not for menial jobs, but for the self-employed. It’s not a perfect world, but if we move forward openly and with genuine caring, I see tourism as a tool to resolve conflicts, not create them. Marginal farmers who struggle against wildlife every day of their lives, could find that sustenance from wildlife protection brings them more security, more peace and more self respect than they currently enjoy.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIV No. 2, April 2004.