A full-scale war is on between the tourism and forest departments in Kerala with officials working at cross purposes and ministers contradicting each other in a tourism versus conservation faceoff that threatens to paralyse the functioning of the state's premier wildlife sanctuary, the Periyar Tiger Reserve.
And walking into the war zone with both eyes open is the Taj group of hotels whose 'eco-friendly' project, the Garden Retreat, looms on the fringes of the tiger reserve. The construction is racing to keep its October deadline to coincide with the arrival of Queen Elizabeth in Kerala. The Queen is expected to be the four-star hotel's first celebrity guest.
It is a war with no winners. At stake is the enormous revenue from the tourist inflow which has turned the reserve into a money spinner for the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) which also runs three hotels within the sanctuary. Of these, the Lake Palace is its prized asset, offering luxury accommodation to an international clientele.
Today, the Lake Palace hotel's survival hangs in the balance. It was leased by the KTDC from the forest department 25 years ago. That lease expired last year. The forest department has reservations about renewing it on the grounds that a luxury hotel in the heart of the sanctuary is detrimental to wildlife preservation.
The government is in a quandary, caught between the conflicting compulsions of tourism and conservation. Consequently, it has been speaking in two voices, with the forest and tourism ministers making contradictory statements on the issue. Forest Minister P.R. Kurup vehemently denied any knowledge of the lease. "The matter has not come before me. I have never seen any file on the subject. I am not aware of any such lease," he said.
On the other hand, Tourism Minister E. Chandrasekharan Nair contradicted his cabinet colleague, pointing out that he had detailed discussions with the forest minister on renewing the lease. "A conference was held three months ago which was attended by the forest minister, the tourism minister, the tourism secretary, the forest secretary, the chief conservator of forests and other forest officials. At that meeting, it was decided the lease would be renewed and that additional boating facilities would be given to KTDC. The minutes of the meeting were approved by me and the forest minister," he said. On the basis of the decision taken at that meeting, KTDC forwarded an application to the forest department for the renewal of the Lake Palace lease. However, no action has been taken on the application so far.
If the two departments fail to reach an agreement, the matter will go up before the Cabinet. But any decision to renew the Lake Palace lease will attract the provisions of the Forest Protection Act of 1980 and the Wildlife Protection Act of 1991, which prohibit construction in the core area of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The tourism minister argues that the Central laws refer to fresh constructions and not existing ones. The 80-year-old Lake Palace had served as the hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Travancore before it was taken over by the forest department and later leased to the KTDC.
Says KTDC managing director Ashish Kumar Singh: "The forest department wants us to vacate the Lake Palace so that it can use it as a guest house for forest officials. The forest department already has a guest house just behind the Lake Palace which it rents out to the public for Rs 150 a night. The Lake Palace charges around Rs 7,000 a night which means only a small section of people can afford to stay there." Periyar, argues Singh, hadn't been declared a sanctuary when the Lake Palace lease was signed in 1971. So, all the activities that took place prior to the declaration should be allowed to continue. Moreover, the Lake Palace cannot be demolished because it is a heritage building.
Singh also confirmed that the lease renewal was discussed at the ministerial level. "The forest minister was positively disposed towards extending the lease. But the forest department wants to somehow take over the Lake Palace," he says. Even as the controversy rages with no clear solution in sight, the KTDC's joint venture with the Taj group is going ahead full steam. The KTDC has a 20 per cent stake in the tie-up while the Taj group owns 40 per cent of the equity. The remaining 40 per cent is earmarked as public equity, which is yet to be issued. The 12-member board of directors of the joint venture company has three Kerala government officials, six representatives of the Taj group and three other nominees.
The Taj Garden Retreat is intended as a four-star complex built on a 3.6-acre plot on the periphery of the tiger reserve. Comprising 16 cottages mounted on stilts, it boasts a novel sewage treatment system that keeps the hotel's effluent from being pumped into the Periyar river.
But the forest department is wary and not convinced. Explains one of its top officials: "The Taj hotel will have a negative impact on the sanctuary and its surroundings. The Taj group's political influence with the Central government, combined with the KTDC's clout with the state government, will be used to make an assertion in the management of the sanctuary. They will want to ply more boats on the lake and the forest department's objections will then be overruled."
There is concern that the hotel may have already overstepped its limits. Forest officials point out that Garden Retreat brochures advertise trekking trips to restricted areas such as the controversial Mangladevi Temple, which was locked to the public since both Tamil Nadu and Kerala lay claim it, charge corroborated by Taj representatives. At present, the temple gates are padlocked to keep off the public. Says a forest ranger: "Let the Taj hotel advertise what it wants. The decision to allow people anywhere near the temple rests with us."
THERE are also fears that the hotel might cause a stir among the local people. It is a stone's throw away from the Chekliya colony, known as the den of vices in Kumbli town. Chekliya colony is a congested slum where 3,000 families struggle to eke out a living through any means. The residents are mostly Tamil migrants who had come to Kumbli to escape poverty and caste oppression back home. The colony borders on the sanctuary and there are widespread instances of poaching and tree-felling. Apart from manual labour, they also resort to prostitution and drug-peddling.
Ultimately, it is the ongoing power struggle between the tourism and forest departments within the sanctuary that is the destabilising element. Forest officials are pitching for total control over all activities that take place within the reserve, and that includes the movement of tourists. The tourism department argues that marketing a destination, bringing in tourists and providing accommodation can best be handled by the tourism department. "Tourists and animals are not the same," says an indignant Singh.
But when animals end up as casualties inside the sanctuary, who is accountable? Over the years, nine elephants have been electrocuted by electric lines that supply power to the Lake Palace as well as the forest department's guest house behind it.
Forest officials blame the KTDC for the deaths. However, Singh denies the charge. "We did not put up the lines. The Electricity Board did. It is a tripartite problem, yet we are being singled out for the blame," he says.
Eco-tourism is the new buzz-phrase and, since the decline of Kovalam, Periyar has been a favourite destination in the tourism industry's gold rush. But for eco-tourism, it is imperative for tourism and conservation to coexist. Both are specialised activities vital to reserve management. It is politics that has no place in the sanctuary.