ByÂ Meenal Tatpati:
This May, my sister and I packed our bags and decided to head towards Corbett. We registered ourselves with a Pune based tourism company and boarded the Ranikhet Express at Delhi. At precisely 4:30 am, the Ranikhet Express halted at Ramnagar Railway Station. I clicked some photos of the platform before we were hurried into the cars waiting for us at the door. Several people were already packed in for their safaris into the park.
A small settlement during the early days of the British Raj (around the early 1860’s), the commissioner of this part of Nainital, H. Ramsay settled land rights and converted it into a town famous for tea estates, Ramnagar town was developed along the River Kosi. With the sudden interest the country showed in the tiger due to Project Tiger in the 1970’s, a new breed of towns has sprung up surrounding tiger “paradises”. Tiger Towns, where the entire town depends on the Tiger for its livelihood. So the tea gardens have now given way to tiger tourism hotels, several luxury resorts and inns. And of course, a population dependent on the tourism that the tiger brings.
We were supposed to tuck in some breakfast before the Safari. So, we got into the vehicles that were waiting for us and sped along Ramnagar. The town was already awake. Gypsies were flying past on the road-National Highway 121. Cute white houses sped past. We passed the Kosi Barrage (this Kosi is not the Bihar Kosi) and somewhere after that, the Shiwaliks started becoming visible. The Himalayas, whether snow capped or not are a magnificent site to behold! For my sister, it was her first glimpse. For me, having done the Garhwal part, Kumaon was certainly new, yet seemed to evoke memories of the Ghat ride towards Haridwar I had a year ago. I could go there again and again…
Through the little souvenir shops selling Corbett memorabilia, the real Ramnagar manifested itself. Schools, shanties, bus stops, KMVN buses, slowly breaking the news that people live here! Its home to people! And maybe, tourism is home to them too now. Maybe tourism and the people it brings with it is the “real” Ramnagar.
After a hearty breakfast we deposited our bags at one of the several luxury resort’s that have mushroomed here. This, in economic terms and the now famous GDP language adopted by most of my countrymen (and women) is very important for the economy of Ramnagar as well as that of the nation. Just the entry fee for foreigners is Rs. 400/-, not to mention the vehicle, stay, guide and camera charges!
But the park is just the skimmed surface. Every year 70,000 tourists visit the Park, a stunning figure for any National Park or reserve in the world. These 70,000 need a place to stay. Each of these 70,000 cannot and will not like to stay in the jungle throughout their trip. Some out of these 70,000 want all the comforts they get in cities, Electricity to charge camera’s if nothing else, water supply, ac’s, swimming pools, attractive looking lawns, non-vegetarian food, alcohol, music, snacks, plastic bags…you name it, Ramnagar’s got it. It even has a 24 hour market for all your needs!
And a staggering number of luxury hotels. Hotels with spas and hotels without spas, hotels to “rejuvenate your senses”, hotels with lawns and hotels with rivers running behind them, hotels with their own private forests! Very good for the Nation’s economy, isn’t it? After all, local youth are getting employed! You provide comfort, people come, tiger thrives and automatically, the Forest thrives.
Or does it?
The hotel we were transported to was a typical three star luxury hotel. As far as the wilderness was concerned, it had mango orchards and manicured lawns and a river running behind it and a swimming pool in it. It was as exotic or Indian as a penguin! Entrance was grand and intimidating, lovely cultured promenades, huge rooms with automatic ac’s, an exclusive dining hall, a bar. It looked like a lovely place to unwind and especially have a nice warm bath since we were without water for most of our 2 day stint in the jungle.
While in the hotel, I decided to do what I do best. Hound the locals! With questions! I made friends with the waiters, our gypsy driver Mr. Tiwari, our tour organizer Mr. Joshi, all of whom were Ramnagar residents. Every one of them repeated the same thing. Ten years ago there were just two hotels in Ramnagar. As the interest in the Tiger grew, more hotels started coming up and today, the hotel business is burgeoning beyond anybody’s control! The government has a simple explanation. More people, more money, more equipment to save tigers.
However, more people translates to more demands, demands mean more hotels, more hotels mean more tree felling and more waste generation, more of this means the Tiger vanishes or worst still, it encroaches. And the suffering majority is not the tourists. We get to hear horror stories of tiger attacks. It’s a thrill to hear about those in the jungle, sitting around a safely compounded camp fire. The locals, the jungle, the forest guards and surrounding communities are the ones whose daily lives are really affected and who have to face the brunt of encroaching tiger attacks.
Just a year ago, one of the villages on the periphery of the Corbett reserve lost 5 people to a tiger. Each of the five had ventured into the jungle to gather either moss or firewood since these are jungles which the tiger rarely frequents. Alarms were raised. The forest department shot down the wrong tiger. The man-eater still looms large. My thoughts lingered to the Tiger. As a nation we are obsessed with this magnificent beast. A “sighting” is all it takes for us to repeat the story over and over again to whoever is ready to listen. I pride myself at being a “jungle-lover” not a “tiger-fanatic”. But the faint glimmer hope of a glimpse at the Tiger who had succeeded in eluding me on four previous National Park trips had brought me here, as a tourist. I began wondering, if I needed these luxuries when out on jungle trips. Or were my demands for city-like facilities a literal luxury in a place like this. Wasn’t a simple room with bath facilities more than enough?
By coming from outside and demanding comforts in Ramnagar, wasn’t I adding to the already complex situation there?
We also visited the famous Girija Devi Temple at Garjiya near Ramnagar. This temple is built on a mound in the Kosi River which about two years ago had to be trekked to be reached by tourists. Today, tourist demand has allowed for the creation of an over bridge leading towards the Temple. So really, darshan of the deity has become easier. But at the cost of what? The hills and the river.
The residents know that the tree cutting has to stop. They firmly believe that last years’ major flash floods are a warning against cutting trees. They know the tiger will encroach if trees are cut. They believe that tigers will only survive if trees are left uncut. How do I as a tourist fit into this scheme of things? The country’s growing middle class now has the means to travel to the National Parks and Reserves which were initially the domain of the elite and research groups. But do we have the sensitivity needed to sustain our Reserves? Are we empathetic with the locals who stay back and clean up the mess we create by our 2-3 day’s stay, with literally their lives?
Is the tiger-crazy tourist listening?