Sunday, 26 August 2012


I don’t have the figures, but I think there is no industry which generates employment per unit investment as much as the hospitality industry does. And I don’t need to have figures to prove that the biggest problem besetting our country, or at any rate my state of West Bengal, is unemployment – not Jungle-mahal, nor Darjeeling hills, nor the necessity to pay obeisance to our departed leaders and other prominent men and women on their birthdays. And two things generate hospitality: business and tourism.

So why don’t we develop tourism? This question has been asked by innumerable Indians visiting foreign tourists spots or even by Bengalis visiting spots in Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh? Why are our tourist spots (especially those in eastern India) so unpackaged, why is the infrastructure servicing them so inadequate and ramshackle, or even sometimes non-existent, why are we confronted by dour-faced babus stonewalling the most elementary enquiries, why aren’t there websites giving the necessary information? To give just two examples: once I asked a babu manning an enquiry desk at the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) office in Kolkata the location of Mandu (the famous capital of Raja Baz Bahadur and Rani Roopmati, in M.P.), and received the indifferent reply that he does not know! And at another time I was visiting a business acquaintance at the ITDC Pataliputra Hotel at Patna. My host ordered a cup of tea for me, and received a cup of a lukewarm treacly substance 45 minutes later. He was visibly embarrassed, but it was not the poor fellow’s fault – he worked for a PSU, and his employers had legislated that all their officers must put up at (and put up with) a sister PSU hotel, the sister being ITDC.

I personally love – absolutely love – to travel, and have just finished a trip of Southern Alaska (Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and a cruise on the Tracey Arm fjord and other parts of the Inside Passage) and the Canadian Rockies. I had earlier seen the Grand Canyon, the Muir Woods near San Francisco, the Swiss and Austrian Alps, the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York, the Cotswolds in England, the Black Forest of Germany; and I have also seen the Namdapha Tiger Reserve in the Changlang District of Arunachal Pradesh, the gorges between Laitlyngkot and Pynursla in Meghalaya, the wild rivers and greenery of the West Bengal Dooars, the incredible scenery of the Kumaon Himalayas and of the West Coast between Mangalore and Goa, the Sundarban delta. I am eager to see the Satkosia gorge and the mangroves of Bhitarkanika delta on the Mahanadi river, both in Orissa, but am told that all the last three are many times more interesting than the Florida Everglades. But people (including Indians) will visit and spend billions of dollars on visiting the Everglades or Adirondacks, but not Sundarban or Bhitarkanika, and they would not even have heard of Laitlyngkot and Pynursla. Why? Because they’ve never been told of them, don’t know how to reach them, where to live and eat there, how much it will cost to go there. And no wonder, because many of these places (such as Namdapha or Bhitarkanika) cannot be reached by ordinary means by ordinary citizens, and are far too dangerous (because of malaria, snakes or crocodiles). The celebrated Athabasca or Columbia glacier in the Alberta province of Canada, from which I just returned, and which I saw draws several thousands of tourists every day, is equaled or surpassed by the Amarnath glacier, and quite possibly many others. Amarnath is visited only during Shravani Purnima time for pilgrimage, and not at all at other times of the year.

Every major city, including Delhi and Mumbai have weekend getaways close by. You’d think Kolkata has none. In fact there are large water bodies called beels and fishing ponds called bheris north and east of the city which, properly developed, could serve as beautiful getaways and fetch money for the local population. On the road that leads from Kolkata to Bishnupur via Arambagh there is a jungle called Joypur which could serve the same purpose. Even existing getaways like Digha, Shankarpur, Mandarmoni or Bakkhali are miserable places compared even to the getaways out of Mumbai like Khandala or Lonavala, or those out of Delhi like Badkhal Lake or Suraj Kund.

Why are these getaways not developed? You ask the Bengali babu either in politics or in the bureaucracy, and you would be rewarded with the Bengali ingenuity for giving excuses for not doing things, like: (a) Developing these would displace existing users, especially cultivators (standard Mamata argument); (b) Such getaways would promote immorality and men would run there every weekend with their mod and meyechhele (liquor and women); (c) This is not a primary requirement – first we have to look to food and clothing for our poor, toiling masses; (d) Tourist traffic would spoil the environment and/or interfere with the pristine lifestyle of the locals. And so on, and so forth, ad nauseam.

And if places like Namdapha in Arunachal, or the gorges between Laitlyngkot and Pynursla, or the Mawsmai and Nohkalikai Falls in Meghalaya or the Sundarbans of West Bengal or Bhitarkanika of Orissa are properly packaged, served with infrastructure, rendered safe and advertised, they could attract thousands, even millions, of visitors from all over the world, bringing prosperity to these neglected and impoverished regions. Would we not all like that?
Interestingly, all would not. 

And to illustrate this point, I’ll finish this with a real-life anecdote. An ex-CPI(M) MP from West Bengal wanted to promote horticulture in his constituency by facilitating export to flowers to Europe and North America, especially during winter. His party colleagues retorted, “Has Comrade taken leave of his senses? If this is done there’ll be money in people’s pockets! Then who would care for the party (Tokhon party-ke ke patta debe)? Don’t even think of any such thing”.           

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