Wednesday, October 15, 2014


The Tatas have the best hotels in India, next only to Neemrana Hotels. During a stay in their Garden Retreat in Kerala, it struck me how inept India's forest policy was: we would have a much better chance of preserving our forests and wildlife if we brought about a detente between nature and our rich. This column was published in Business Standard of 1 February 2001.


Most people react emotionally to environmental concerns. They are either for or against the Narmada Sarovar, chipko movement, or Supreme Court’s closing of industrial activities in Delhi. If challenged, they will remember all arguments supporting their belief and betray more or less complete ignorance of arguments on the other side. Our attitude towards the environment is of a piece with our reaction to massala movies.

Although I do often support environmental concerns – for instance, chipko, or protection of wildlife – I find my fellow environmentalists unbearably depressing, querulous and negative: they are not my favourite company. The truth is that on environmental issues there is always another side; and environmentalists’ unbending loyalties strike me as too simple-minded. All of us belonged at some age to gangs, cliques or groups that demanded loyalty and gave security and companionship in return. Most of us grew out of these cuddly relationships. Some did not, and they became environmentalists.
But recently I spent some days in Taj Garden Retreat at Kumily, which has a small but fascinating book collection on the environment, and read In Search of Wild India by Charlie Pye-Smith, who came in the early 1990s to produce a series on the Indian wilderness for Channel Four, the British television channel. What he wrote was only slightly less insufferable than average eco-terrorist stuff, but the superb photographs redeemed the book. And they made me think: there is something worth saving in our wilderness in spite of environmentalists. I would go further and say that it is worth producing new wildernesses: as a visit to Periyar would convince anyone, environment is a consumer good that adds to our happiness just as a good Scotch does.
That is the economic argument; but the ecological movement is a political one. Politically, I think lovers of wilderness would have a greater chance of success if townsmen like me became mass consumers of wilderness. This idea would strike terror in the hearts of true environmentalists; they would get nightmares at the thought that India’s billions should invade the few remaining forests in busloads, liberally distributing plastic bags before they depart. And in this attitude they are united with the forest department.
I have walked hundreds of miles through many of Europe’s forests without once being stopped; in America, the government has turned wildernesses into major tourist attractions. By contrast, I have been struck by the hostility of our forest department. I have often wandered into the Borivli national park and run into unfriendly forest guards. At Periyar, the guards do not try to stop you, but instead charge you; and you are admonished not to wander off the pucca road, which is all of three km long. In every sanctuary, the only accommodation is in government hostelries, which have extremely few room, often charge exorbitant rates, and sometimes serve terrible food.
Around the more accessible sanctuaries like Corbett and Periyar, numerous private hotels have come up and defeated the forest department’s seclusionary designs; but access to the forests is so restricted that it cannot support much tourism. Aranya Nivas guest house of Kerala Tourism Development Corporation in Periyar had vacancies at the peak of season. The forest department’s tourist launch was not running, I was told, because the department owed Rs 350,000 for diesel; either someone had bungled, or the launch was not profitable (but the department’s jeeps, which transported only employees, were running merrily about – they suffered from no diesel shortage).
In some ways, Periyar is ideal for tourism. Tourists are taken down the lake in launches, from which they watch wildlife at a respectable distance. Elephants and deer are the residents; tourists are the oglers. It is a bit like Hollywood, where one is taken around and shown the palaces of various famous film stars. This is the model to follow at other dam sites; tourists should be taken around in boats. But they would not come unless there is something to see. Bhakra-Nangal dam is India’s biggest and most famous; but I have never met anyone who visited it for sightseeing. It must be because there is nothing to see; the surrounding hills must be a bare, monotonous yellow ochre. But that can be remedied. They can be planted with jacaranda, mimosa, gul mohar, flame of the forest and other colourful flowering trees in intricate patterns; a perpetual riot of colour would attract tourists from all over the world. Nor need trees be the only attraction; if the right grasses and succulents were planted, the lakeshores could support cinkaras, sambar, neelgai and other wild animals.
Forests which do not have a lake in their middle pose a more difficult problem, for there it is difficult to achieve the right degree of segregation of wild animals and civilized humans. But the latter have already found a solution of the problem in their zoos. The thing to do is to build a moat around the forest, and beyond it, a road. The moat, when filled with water, will attract wild animals to the edge; and the road will serve both as a vantage point and, suitably fortified, be a means to keep humans out of the forest. This latter is a major concern in many Indian wild life sanctuaries. Cowherds want to wander into them to feed their buffaloes; poor people want to go in and inaugurate new slums; and tribals want to live off the forests. All these activities need to be limited and controlled; and a dangerous highway, replete with Indian drivers, is the best way to do so. Just in case the animals do not suffice, the periphery should be planted with hotels, hamburger stands, casinos and other means of entertainment. All such entertainment would create employment. In Periyar, a tribe specialized in collecting the bark of some trees, and was in the process decimating them. To stop it from doing so, the authorities gave the tribals government jobs and turned them into trek guides. When I went, none was to be found. But if the treks were turned into adventure tours, with tent camps and eyries for smooching, there would be so many aspirants that tribal guides would be in short supply, and none of them would have to poach to survive. The honeymooners who throng second-rate hotels would much prefer to be let off alone in a forest.

Environmentalists loathe development, which they think serves rich farmers and ugly industrialists. They like to ask: what kind of development? By good development they mean stagnation – leave the environment, the tribals, the poor alone. It is an attractive point of view; no one can view with joy what civilization has done to these. But environmentalists do not have a ghost of a chance against the rich and the ugly; in a democracy, the kind of development they loathe will prevail. However, even such development can be made kinder to the people and things that they care for. And if approached correctly, it can be so successful that private entrepreneurs will complete the hundreds of unfinished dams, plant forests around them, populate them with wild animals – and persuade some people to become unkempt, unshaven, unclothed hunters and gatherers for the tourists’ sake.