India's go-to person for tourism, the man who branded Kerala as "God's own country", and turned the southern state into one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country, simply cannot come to terms with the devastation in Uttarakhand.
Amitabh Kant, who is credited with pioneering tourism marketing in India, believes the tragedy is because of a significant error of judgement of the state authorities. "Uttarakhand should not have taken the path of industrialisation for development and should have been developed as the best destination for sustainable tourism in the world. States must focus on their core competence; not every state should industrialise." It's difficult not to agree with Kant after seeing images of the hill state that has been ravaged by floods. More than 1,000 people are believed to have been killed and at the time of writing as many as 1,400 were still stranded.(On Saturday, the Uttarakhand assembly speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal said the death toll could cross 10,000.) Rescue efforts have been hampered by incessant rains and the tough mountain terrain. Even as television channels beamed horrific visuals of the calamity, the debate on whether the industrialisation of the hill state had contributed to the disaster turned into a face-off between environmentalists and the chief minister Vijay Bahuguna, who claimed the tragedy was a natural calamity.
"This is a very childish argument that cloudbursts, earthquakes and tsunamis are because of human factors. In the history of hundreds of years of Kedarnath, no such incident has taken place. In a Himalayan state, this catastrophe has come about in 37,000 square miles of area. This cloudburst, 330 millimetres of rain, cannot be anticipated," Bahuguna said in an interview to Times of India. Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment, is one of the many environmentalists who believe the total opposite - that the disaster in Uttarakhand is "as much man-made as it is natural. Any development strategy that is not environmentally sound will become more disastrous and more tragic. All this means that we cannot afford to get development wrong." RESPONSIBLE TOURISM
Kant, an IAS officer, agrees with the environmentalist brigade. According to him, deforestation is the cause for the flooding and the only way forward is for the state to adopt a strategy of responsible tourism. Even if the state were to slow down industrialisation and was to focus on tourism, it would have to totally change its vision for the sector. Most of the tourists who visit the hill state do so for religious reasons and visit shrines in Badrinath and Kedarnath. Kant's formula for growth for the state is clear-cut: spell out a vision for preserving the ecology and heritage of the state and follow it up by aggressively chalking out a marketing strategy for tourism. "They should develop high-value tourism that will enable the state to raise substantial revenues through the sector. The mass religious tourism has now become garbage tourism, with people spoiling the beauty of the hills, and it needs to be regulated," says Kant. At the same time the government should curtail mining, constructions and big power projects that require cutting trees and blasting through the mountains. "No hotel should be taller than the tallest trees in the area and construction should conform to local culture and the design too should be indigenous." Kant is the first one to admit that these ideas do sound utopian and there may be people who would still be dismissive about discouraging industrialisation. "But unless such measures are taken, I am afraid all our hill destinations are under threat; we need to start taking corrective action." Industry is quick to rubbish Kant's growth formula. ML Gupta, who runs a pre-fabricated engineering solutions company in Uttarakhand, says...