Eight kilometres west of Mussoorie, halfway down to the Yamuna River, lies Kempty Falls, which has been a tourist attraction for more than a century. It is an impressive natural phenomenon, where a sizeable stream plunges a hundred metres down the grooved flank of the ridge. These spring-fed waters have their source farther up in the forested valleys skirting Benog Tibba. During the monsoon, the flow is heaviest though the falls can be seen throughout the year, even in the driest months of summer. The motor road crosses a bridge at the upper end of the falls, overlooking a large pool at the bottom, which has been dammed for wading and swimming.
Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, only a couple of small restaurants stood next to this pool, serving snacks and cold drinks during the summer season. In a shallow cave beside the bridge, an elderly man sold cigarettes and brewed tea over a wood fire. Buses and taxis brought tourists from Mussoorie in May and June but for most of the year there was seldom a crowd. Rickshaws, pulled by four men, transported honeymoon couples to and from Kempty Falls and I remember watching them being dragged back up the hill as the newlyweds dozed in each others’ arms. A photographer, hired for the day, usually trudged behind with a Rolleiflex camera dangling around his neck.
Despite being a tourist attraction, featured on postcards and calendars, back then Kempty Falls was still relatively untouched by human activity. It was a long day’s hike from our home, but we occasionally walked there and back, just to be able to swim in the pools above the falls, which were deep enough to dive into from the rocks on either side. Once or twice, my friends and I camped overnight in a glade by the banks of the stream. In my admittedly nostalgic memories, it was a clean, unpolluted place where we enjoyed the solitude of nature.
Today, Kempty Falls has been destroyed by the kind of unplanned and unregulated tourist development that plagues much of the Himalaya. On both sides of the bridge are rows of cheap restaurants, video arcades and souvenir shops. Trash is scattered about on the road and down the sides of the hill, where open drains spill forth like waterfalls of filth. Music blares from loudspeakers, mostly Bollywood or Bhangra, as well as Garhwali pop. Traffic jams are a regular routine, especially during long weekends when buses and cars park bumper to bumper along the margins of the narrow road. At the base of the falls, a new water park has been constructed with fiberglass slides and paddleboats. From mid-morning until evening, Kempty Falls is no different from the Mall Road in Mussoorie, offering cut-rate amusements, greasy food and an oppressive ambience of noisy squalor.
Of course, part of the reason for this stems from India’s rapidly growing middle class who are now independently mobile with cars and motorcycles purchased on monthly installments, and jobs or businesses that give them the leisure to take holidays in the hills. The dramatic cascade at Kempty Falls continues to flow despite the surrounding clutter and pollution, but its presence has been supplanted by manmade attractions. Originally, the reason tourists visited this site was the natural beauty of a mountain landscape, all of which has now been lost beneath the ugly facade of characterless buildings and stalled lines of vehicles.
‘Eco-friendly’ and ‘eco-tourism’ are two of the most insidious expressions to enter the bureaucratic lexicon. They suggest a cozy relationship between man and nature that deludes us into thinking that our words and actions can create a happy compromise between human wastefulness and the limited resources of our natural environment. The problem is that “eco” is a truncated abbreviation both in spelling and in fact. Essentially, it reflects a gross over-simplification that trivialises so many complex issues like deforestation, climate change and pollution. For the most part, an ecological tourist is an oxymoron. Connecting the two words with a hyphen, we seem to believe that no contradiction exists. Again, this is not to suggest that creating opportunities and resources for trekking, whitewater rafting or bird-watching, is altogether a bad thing. The problem is that we must acknowledge the inevitable conflicts that will occur and try to minimise the impact of our human presence in ecologically sensitive zones.
Often, when it comes to environmental protection and preservation in the Himalaya, the less we do the better. More damage can be inflicted through ill-advised interventions and misguided methods of conservation than by simply leaving things alone. Under most circumstances, nature has a way of sorting out its own problems, as long as we don’t intrude any further or continue to make things worse. This doesn’t mean ignoring threats that exist, but our response must be calibrated against the Earth’s capacity for regeneration and those extended ecological timelines that do not always match our urgent human schedules. Planting trees, for example, may seem an obvious solution to denuded forests but putting fast growing species in the ground can upset the balance even further. Municipalities often engage in so called “beautification” which often means installing benches and ornate pavillions, none of which enhances the real beauty of the hills.
Every tourist engages in a transactional relationship with the environment that he or she visits. The itinerary itself constitutes a product that has been purchased, usually through a travel agent. Essentially, tourists pay money to go places and they expect something in exchange. The purposes of tourism differ widely, among which are a desire to escape the routines and stress of work, see religious and historic sites, enjoy a salubrious climate, observe and photograph an unfamiliar place and its people, or simply for rest and recreation. In each case, the value of the journey is calculated according to individual expectations and the extent to which it satisfies a desire to be somewhere other than home. Seldom in this cost-benefit analysis is there any assessment of the need to protect and preserve the destination itself.
The ethics of Himalayan tourism present a paradoxical dilemma. While visitors from outside the region and abroad are willing to spend money to visit “unspoiled” places, very little of the revenue goes into sustaining the environment. Even when a percentage is directed towards conservation, it is insufficient to protect a fragile eco-system from the pressures of exploitation. At a certain point, the volume of tourism exceeds the limited resilience of a mountain landscape.
Several years ago Mussoorie instituted an “eco-tax” on vehicles driving up to the hill station. Initially, it seemed like a good idea: the revenue could be used for things like waste management and restoring the town’s forest cover. The irony, however, is that for several kilometres on either side of the toll barrier, a number of illegal and shoddily constructed “Maggi Points” and cafes cropped up around the same time the tax was instituted. On most weekends there are traffic jams that sometimes extend from the foot of the hill all the way to Mussoorie. The road from Dehradun is now looking a lot like an extension of the commercial clutter at Kempty Falls. Fairly soon, I suspect, there will be no trees in sight, no view in any direction and instead of the clean air of the hills, sultry breezes will carry the fragrance of burning clutch plates, diesel exhaust and refried bread pakodas.
(Stephen Alter lives and writes in Mussoorie. His latest book is Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth, coming out this summer.)