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Monday, June 18, 2012

Animal kingdom reels under a human invasion

Pinak Priya Bhattacharya, TNN | Jun 18, 2012, 06.51AM IST Scene 1 (On Murti bridge, NH-31 , Jalpaiguri district): It's homecoming time and the sprightly Murti roars along its gravelled pathway into the lap of the jungle . The sun, too, having finished its day's business, slides idly behind the horizon of towering willows that make up the fringes of the Gorumara National Park. As birds chatter and insects screech, the wind whips up the Dooars crescendo — a melody of cacophonic sounds that welcomes a visitor in these sylvan plains of North Bengal and Assam. This otherworldly charm is broken by a gruff, rasping voice, bringing the focus back on the business at hand. "The site is ready," says the weather-beaten face, a narrow smile on the pan-stained lips. It is Bhola (name changed), one of the 'land lords' of the region. "Let's go," he adds, "And please remember my commission, in cash." The second part of the sentence is spoken like a warning. Scene 2 (Two hours earlier, at a watchtower inside Gorumara): The speck of green on the white river is obviously what has caught the deer's attention. It sniffs at it, licks it and even gives it a playful poke with its sharp horns even as the foreign object — a green crushed beer can — floats downstream and bobs up in front of another couple of deer grazing a few hundred metres away. But not given to the free-spirited ways of their thirsty mate, they ignore the invader. The rare sights are captured in a flurry of clicks by excited tourists, oblivious to the alarm bells they set off in the mind. The contamination is spreading fast. Bhola and the beer can are representatives of the twin maladies that have infected the picturesque and richly bio-diverse Gorumara forest — unregulated tourism and an explosion of commercial activity around the forest's perimeter. Along with the Buxa and Jaldapara reserves, Gorumara forms Bengal's famous forest troika in the Dooars as the home of the one-horned rhinoceros and over a century-old forest retreat established during British rule. The upscale tourist's fantasy and the creative Bengali's muse, the lone bungalow deep inside the forest's belly was for long civilization's only window to Gorumara's animal kingdom — elephants, bisons, leopards, the rare hornbills and of course, the rhinos. Wildlife activist Belinda Wright's mother Anne has fond memories of the Gorumara of the 70s. "I knew the place well. In those days, the only place to stay there was the forest bungalow with its lovely viewing point that looked down on the jungle," she says. If Anne were to visit Gorumara today , she would understand the scale of the invasion. The forest bungalow and its viewing point remain intact but have lost their coveted status. What was for close to a century a forested stretch of highway interspersed with tea gardens is now home to about 90 resorts — average to plush, budget to luxury — that began sprouting at the turn of the millennium . At a vantage point in the Dooars, and a few hours' drive from Darjeeling , Kalimpong and Gangtok, Gorumara is a tour operator's dream. A dream that has been realized in the maze of resorts that now have the national park in a stranglehold and the number of tourists — at least 70,000 a year, according to Kamal Bhowmick, secretary of the Lataguri Resort Owners' Association. While officials like to harp on the development story and the fillip to the local economy, the source of the beer can floating inside the forest reveals the real danger of such a lopsided theory. On the partially dried up Murti river bed, at least a couple of kilometres past a 'No Entry' board that classifies the area as a part of Gorumara National Park, loud music blares from the decks of an SUV parked close to the river. A group of around 10 youths matches steps with 'Chammak Challo' and takes large swigs of beer, flinging can after can into the river that's flowing straight into the forest . "What better way than this to celebrate nature," one of the youths, an engineering college student, says. Curious case of Gorumara Gorumara has no buffer area. It may seem strange but, as forest officials point out, many protected areas, including reserve forests across India, have no buffer area. Yet, Gorumara is different. Some of the resorts in Lataguri — which alone hosts about 34 of the 90 that dot the region — Murti and Dhupjhora are right on the fringes of the forest, well within the range of a straying animal. The forest department says it has no right over the land and no control on construction activities on them. "Investors only need permission from the government's land department as these are private lands," says Bhowmick. Officials say in case of tribal lands, investors strike partnership deeds with local villagers, who have first ownership rights over the land, and give them a slice of profits. In short, there seem to be no legal hurdles to building a commercial establishment on the fringes of Gorumara, as is evident from the large-scale construction work visible on three sides of the forest. A senior state forest official points out that the Pollution Control Board (PCB) does have a rule that makes it compulsory for commercial premises within a kilometre of a national park to obtain a no-objection certificate (NOC). "It's the only real hurdle for investors . Unfortunately, there is no clarity on who should take action if the NOC rule is violated because the land technically does not belong to the forest department ," the official adds. While conservationist Raghu Chundawat blames this on "too many legislations , but no flexibility" , and green activists slam the authorities for ignoring the carrying capacity of the forest , the government argues Gorumara's core area is safe and tourism poses no threat. "Gorumara is a well-protected forest," says state forest secretary Subesh Das. "Our basic policy is that tourists will be only allowed in the forest's periphery, not in the core areas. There is also a demand that more tourism facilities should be allowed in the region," he adds. It's this demand that has made the land around Gorumara hot property. And brought into business Bhola and his growing clan. 'Land lords' : A big deal "This is the best site you can find to set up a resort," Bhola says, pointing to the river, which is less than 100 metres from the 15-bigha site he is trying to sell. "There will be nothing between your resort and nature. Perfect for honeymoons ," he adds with a wide, toothy grin. The meeting with Bhola was set up through some local contacts. The TOI correspondents met him and his two aides at a spot of their choice just outside Gorumara forest, posing as investors scouting for land. "Don't worry about the rules, just remember our commission , 4%, and everything will be taken care of," Bhola says as a possible 'deal' is discussed. Though he works as a tour operator's local partner, Bhola says fixing land deals is what earns him the big bucks. Agents like him hook up with potential buyers, show them the land, set the terms of the deal, bargain a price and finally set up a meeting with the actual land-owner . Land prices range anywhere between Rs 5lakh - Rs 10lakh per bigha, depending on the location and infrastructure . The 4% commission is charged from both the buyer and the seller . So, in a deal worth Rs 1crore, the 'fixer ' earns Rs 8 lakh. "It's good business," Bhola says. And it's brisk business, too. Plots on sale in Lataguri and Murti are advertized on prominent real estate sites and portals like Quikr. With the Gorkhaland agitation making Darjeeling an unreliable holiday spot and quake-shaken Sikkim still recovering from last year's tragedy, the Dooars has emerged as the preferred tourist destination in the east. A resort around Gorumara is, therefore, considered good investment with longterm profitability. Conservation vs Development The tourism dilemma is at the heart of a raging debate on how to protect natural wealth like forests and yet put them to profitable use. But the answers are lost in the din of political rhetoric, vested interests and highdecibel activism. Some of India's biggest tiger parks like Periyar, Ranthambore, Dudhwa and Mudumalai don't have buffer areas and are grappling with the same tourism conundrum as Gorumara. The area around Corbett national park was recently declared a silent zone — noise pollution is banned in a 500-metre radius around the forest — by the Uttarakhand government on the orders of the high court. But forest officials say every time a tourism project near a protected area is opposed, they are labelled "anti-development" . Many villagers around Gorumara, for instance, don't complain about the resort boom. "Earlier, a youth would make Rs 2,000 a month cutting wood. The same youth now makes Rs 5,000 a month driving tourist cars," one villager says. "But we don't like the Kolkata culture," he adds. "The tourists smoke, drink and cavort around here, it teaches our children bad things." A senior state forest official says the government is trying to raise awareness among local residents about the longterm impact on their livelihoods if the forest area dwindles. "But there should be more coordination between the PCB, the forest department and district officials to find a way to stop the unregulated growth of commercial structures," the official says, adding, "Of course, political will is required, too." The solution could come in the form of a national eco-tourism policy, the draft guidelines of which have been prepared by the MoEF. The carrying capacity of a forest is central to these guidelines. Gorumara, where tourists far outweigh the carrying capacity, can hope for a breather once the policy is notified. The state, too, has formed an eco-tourism development committee comprising experts and government officials to address these concerns. "The committee has been recently formed. A comprehensive policy is being formulated ," says forest secretary Das. Sumita Ghatak, DFO wildlife II, Jalpaiguri, adds, "We are trying to declare the area an eco-sensitive zone. The proposal is being readied and will be submitted soon." But proposals, guidelines and policies , however well-intentioned , must survive the scrutiny of committees, negotiate the hurdles of bureaucracy and finally pass the political acid test. Gorumara, with the noose of realty tightening around it, can't afford the long wait. Save the forest, it's the call of the wild.

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