The inclusion of Assam’s Kaziranga National Park in the Union government’s Adopt a Heritage scheme has not gone down well with many of the state’s activist bodies and communities living around the reserve forest.
The Union tourism ministry scheme, which provides for the “development, operation and maintenance of world-class tourist infrastructure” of tourist sites by private companies, includes three other monuments in Assam. While no company has yet been formally signed up to adopt any of these sites, a Guwahati-based travel company has submitted an expression of interest.
As protests broke out, a state government official played down the provisions of the Adopt a Heritage scheme. At a press conference on Wednesday, the official said that under the scheme, private firms would have no access to the core areas of the adopted sites. Their role would be limited to developing amenities like toilets, parking areas and eateries, the official said. In exchange, these firms would be allowed to carry out branding exercises in such areas.
Angry local communities
Yet, opposition to the scheme, particularly in the case of Kaziranga, a symbol of regional pride in the state, has run high and has been led by Assam’s many powerful nationalist student outfits. Indigenous communities have also questioned the rationale of allowing a private company to carry out construction on the periphery of the park, considering that the government has previously forcibly evicted people living there.
Among local communities, there are apprehensions that the implementation of the scheme may lead to their business opportunities waning. “Toilet, parking can be the first step to basically taking away the whole tourism potential from the local people,” said Pranab Doley, an indigenous activist from the area. “In any case, why have we not been consulted? What is the local community going to get out of this?”
Doley also pointed out that the term “adoption” was offensive. “By saying that Kaziranga is up for adoption, the government seems to be implying that it is currently an orphan,” he said. “Kaziranga is a part of our life and culture. By doing this they are undermining us.”
‘Insult to people of the forest’
Uttam Saikia, who grew up in Kaziranga and is now an honorary wildlife warden at the park, echoed Doley’s views. The details of the project in the absence of a formal memorandum of understanding were sketchy, he said, but roping in a private company in any capacity for maintenance of the park would amount to insulting and humiliating the people living on its fringes.
“People have an emotional attachment with Kaziranga,” said Saikia. “For over a century, they have nurtured it and made it into one of the most successful conservation models of the world. Now, getting a private company would be akin to telling them that they were not good enough.”
Farmer leader Akhil Gogoi was more scathing. He said that Kaziranga “was the pride of Assam” and “definitely no orphan that needs to be adopted by a private company”. “It is not just a tourist place, it is a biodiversity hotspot that needs to be under intensive care at all times,” said Gogoi. “If a private company with no expertise on environmental issues, and whose only motive is profit, is allowed to be associated with Kaziranga, it will be disastrous for the park’s future.”
Independent experts also seemed wary of the scheme, suggesting that it had many problems. Swathi Seshadri of Equations, a Bengaluru-based non-profit that advocates equitable and non-exploitative tourism, said it was “another attempt of the state to create incentives to privatise common spaces”.
Seshadri pointed out that similar Union government programmes in the past, such as the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spirituality Augmentation Drive and Swadesh Darshan, were designed to “suit the needs of the government and the industry”.
Seshadri and other experts also reiterated the concerns expressed by activists and local community leaders in Kaziranga. She said that the fine print of the Adopt a Heritage scheme does not make it clear how communities around the tourist sites would benefit. “While the objectives do talk about benefit to local communities, there seems to be no requirement for bidders to show how they would engage with the local communities causing one to question if the objectives of the scheme and its intention align with each other,” she said.
Seshadri agreed that the project could hurt the business prospects of people dependent on tourism around the reserve forest. “It is a clear attempt to suffocate the involvement of local communities in the tourism industry, while privileging the formal, high-end tourism industry,” she said.
Conservationist Prerna Bindra echoed concerns about the project potentially antagonising local communities. “One of the reasons Kaziranga is such a success story is because people of Assam take pride in the rhinos and the park,” she said. “Partnerships with private companies need to be knowledge partnerships, not to build new infrastructure with branding in mind.”
According to Seshadri, the four memorandums of understanding that the Union government has signed so far with private entities under the scheme, which includes one for Delhi’s Red Fort, did not inspire confidence. “All of them mention the same set of amenities to be provided,” she pointed out. “There is no site-specific nuance. Though sustainable tourism has been mentioned, sustainability itself has not been defined. World-class infrastructure is often land and water intensive.”
Bindra, a former member of National Board for Wildlife, also cautioned against too many constructions being allowed around the park, noting that they could be dangerous to the site’s fragile ecosystem. “Kaziranga is home to several critically-endangered species, so I have all sorts of reservations about this proposal, although, one needs to read the fine print of the final MoU [memorandum of understanding],” said Bindra. “Besides, with a private company there is little accountability and no consultation and involvement of stakeholders.”
Meanwhile, as the intensity of protests increased across Assam, Chandan Brahma, the state’s tourism minister, said on Thursday that he would write to the Centre to exclude the state from the scheme.