By Tallulah D’Silva:
The Union Minister of State for Tourism, Shri Shripad Naik, recently stated that he will support and promote a green tourism plan for Goa. A good plan is one that recognizes the State’s green assets, and Goa is blessed with pristine beauty, rich biodiversity, and complex man-made natural systems harnessing these natural resources in the most sustainable and non intrusive way. If we don’t recognize and make efforts to conserve these, no plan is good enough, or green – particularly one that is merely hogwash!
Goa is currently at a juncture where the challenges of urbanization, tourism, business, sanitation, water supply, waste management, traffic congestion, connectivity, and population are at its peak, and addressing these with the right long term vision will be key to its sustainable development. Can development supersede or occur at the cost of environmental degradation? Remember what happened to the people of Easter Islands? For business to do well and development to take place with the least impact to the environment, it is important to first acknowledge what we have and the role it plays, to then be able to conserve these characteristic assets. What are Goa’s ecological assets then and resulting economic drivers?
Let’s take Tourism, which is the backbone of Goa’s economy. Why are tourists coming to Goa? The first tourists set foot in the 1970’s – primarily ‘Hippies’, who made Goa their refuge for its pristine beauty and ‘susegad’ village life. Since then, the number of visitors to this tiny coastal state have spiraled, and current figures estimate that 3.5 million tourists, both Indian and foreign, throng Goa annually. And this is a staggering number, if one compares it to Goa’s population of 1.5 million! And a large percentage of these tourists favor the coastal belt, and around 85% prefer to stay at the small and medium guesthouses and hotels mostly run by local Goans. Over the last 30 years, tourism has flourished and raked in good revenue to Goa’s economy, with all stakeholders benefitting from the cash pie. But the stark lacuna has been felt at key points, where basic supplementary services and amenities should have been provided for, by the government and its relative departments. Changing rooms on the beach, washroom facilities, information centers, garbage management systems, and wastewater management systems have long been absent, and no steps have been taken to remedy this basic infrastructure requirement. Imagine if the Government back then had the foresight to formulate a vision for tourism in Goa 30 years hence! No tourist will be keen to come to Goa if there is garbage strewn all around, sewage seeping into the water bodies, etc. It is not too late, and now that the current government has taken steps to assert a vision for a green tourism plan and promote its cultural traditions and hinterland tourism, it is time to strengthen the vision by first recognizing what Goa’s ecological assets are, and take measures to strengthen and protect these, and only then integrate new infrastructure to improve business.
What are the assets that drive Tourism in Goa, and how can we strengthen these?
1. Goa’s greenery is replete with agrarian fields, beach vegetation, urban tree cover, and protected forests. It is a privilege to be one of the World’s top 25 biodiversity hotspots. This is one of our greatest assets, and one that can drive eco tourism for generations. And who is sustaining these? Farmers, forest communities, and the state forest department. Who benefits from these? All the stakeholders in the tourism business. Least of all, the farmers and forest communities. How do we conserve this asset? Simple. Promote agri-tourism by bringing the farmers into the fold of eco tourism. Promote organic farming and products. Orchards, coconut groves, and paddy fields are our future food security, unless you want to consume heavily pesticide-doused apples and other food items from China, New Zealand, and other parts of the globe! Promote home-stays around forest areas. Allow forest communities to run home-stays. Let the communities get direct benefits from this model of promoting hinterland tourism. Develop the Wildlife Sanctuaries such that these have a 3KM buffer zone, where eco tourism can be allowed, keeping the core area completely undisturbed, and therefore allow biodiversity to flourish. Development must be non intrusive in these eco sensitive areas. All road cutting across Wildlife Sanctuaries and protected forests must have underpasses to allow wildlife to evolve undisturbed; reduce road kill, and thus, enrich the gene pool. All activities must be high on experience, and low on built infrastructure. White water rafting in Goa by the Tourism Department is a very good model, and similar activities like nature trails, camping with tented accommodation facilities, bird watching trips, etc., are good eco tourism models to replicate. Another idea to promote non-intrusive activities is to promote camps for researchers and scientists, and citizen science projects where comprehensive documentation of Goa’s flora and fauna can be promoted and listed.
2. Goa has unique waterways and man made khazaans. Goa is water rich due to the fact that it receives a high amount of rainfall, and yet it faces water scarcity in many areas, particularly during the summer. Its forests are the sources of fresh water and its main lifelines- the Mandovi and the Zuari, originate in the upper reaches of the forests along the Western Ghats. This fresh clean water is perennial. We also tap fresh clean water in wells that comes from natural aquifers, as Goa is rich with lateritic soil and rocky topography. Preserve all of these in villages, hinterlands, even towns and cities, and we can ensure water security for generations! Goa’s coast is unique with creeks and the backwaters that are managed by sluice gates that monitor the tidal currents. These are our natural infrastructure systems and security against the imminent rise in sea levels due to climate change in the future. All the khazaans and fields beyond are catchment areas for fresh water, man-made rain water harvesting system as rain water runs down the surrounding hills and flows down to these low lying fields, where it percolates and replenishes the ground water table. The saltpans along the backwaters are our manufacturers of natural salt. Rich in iodine and minerals, it is locally harvested and a guaranteed remedy for common colds, sore throats, etc. Ask grandma! These also support rich bird life and microorganisms. Millions of tourists visit Goa to sight birds – both endemic and migratory ones, that thrive in these habitats. When the seawater rises, the creeks will allow the water to flow into its backwaters via the sluice gates and beyond the wetlands and some into fields where the bunds have been breached. If these existing natural systems are conserved and protected from rampant construction and development, these will act as safety mechanisms and will limit the impacts of sea level rise. Restoration of bunds that have been breached will help to conserve all our agrarian lands and ensure food security for the city and state.
3. Goa has its unique built heritage with forts and causeways. Forts all along the coast act as effective buffers against the fury of the sea and the causeways allow for easy accessibility. These need to be conserved at all costs and impacts of new developments properly understood. Goa is yet to implement a heritage master plan for tourism.
4. Goa’s coastline, with unique beach vegetation and elements like sand dunes, ipomoea runners, casuarinas etc. is one of its most important assets, and one that sparked tourism, but has now got so ravaged with indiscriminate flattening of its sand dunes, absence of vegetation, rampant construction, waste water, and garbage pollution, that the day is not far when no tourist will want to step out on its sandy shore. Strict regulation and monitoring by the local bodies, basic infrastructure, and supplementary services will be key to its survival. And it is now time for the government to wake up and prepare a vision and master plan for its coastal tourism and implement it without further delay, provided it follows a transparent, inclusive, and participatory process, where all stake holders including the community are made key members of this exercise.
1. Conserve all the above-mentioned ecosystem assets. If we don’t protect these natural assets and the interests of the local community, we will lose business! Protect and conserve these and business will flourish.
2. Let new infrastructure be non intrusive. Sensitively plan new roads, bridges, and connections. Are these necessary in the first place? Why place another bridge when there are already two or even one? Who will benefit? How will it impact mudflats, fishing, and other traditional occupations? Again, the focus needs to shift from the current one, where mobility and congestion can be solved not by widening roads or building new ones or adding flyovers, but improving the public transport system itself. Introduce new swanky buses, better facilities for the public. Let people accrue the benefits. Allocate funds for infrastructure with priority to people and one that has least impact on environment.
3. Community comes first. Local people are priority. Local communities are the primary stakeholders, let them be involved in the decision making process. Let them be made a part of the business plan.
4. Basic amenities are a must. Every tourist hub must be facilitated with proper bins, washrooms, information kiosks, etc.
5. Garbage and wastewater management systems must be made mandatory. Completely clean Goa of garbage and grey water/sewage, and have in place decentralized micro systems that use low energy, natural methods of recycling to reuse waste and garbage as a resource.
6. Adopt a policy with these as long-term goals. Or else every time the government changes, a new plan is floated and all efforts seem to be mere attempts at green washing tourism in Goa.