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Hills now and hills then: Changing faces of homestay tourism and Teesta river

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The homestay tourism business model and nature of the Teesta river in the Darjeeling hills region have witnessed a drastic change in the last few years. Overutilisation of capacities in the hills and building multiple dams on Teesta is impacting the environment and ecology in the region.

It used to be a nice hamlet amidst the lush green of the lower Himalayan region in Kalimpong district in the northern part of West Bengal. Seven years apart, the weekend retreat in the lap of the hills has changed into a bustling tourist spot. Once a habitat of merely 20 families, each having one house has transformed into a larger village where the number of houses has increased drastically to nearly 100, of course at the expense of the greenery and more land of the hill.

Icche Gaon or Echey Gaon is a small village, situated at a height of 5,800 feet. On a clear sunny day, one can have a nice view of Mount Kangchenjunga and nearby peaks from any point of this village. On the other side, you see the clouds strolling through the echelons of pine trees. The choruses of different species of birds are there to detox your ears that have been damned by the cacophony of urban life.

Life used to be slow, at its own pace seven years ago. But, as tourists and globalization started pouring into the veins of the village, the pace has been changing fast. With the growing number of houses, vehicles have increased. So are the number of tourists and something very inevitable from the urban army – garbage like plastics, wrappers, coke bottles, cigarette butts and what not?

With such a changing scenario, the tourism economy of hills too is changing in the Darjeeling and adjacent region. Homestays have gained prominence in the region in the last one and a half-decade. New generation tourists who want to explore the local region, culture, foods more closely; choose homestays over conventional hotels or resorts. This has become a popular form of hospitality and lodging where visitors share a residence with the locals of the region. This trend has certainly helped in boosting the local economy that majorly depends on tourism.

Overmilking tourism

It is basic human nature to ask for more. Be it money, be it comfort, be it love, or anything that soothes our lives. Homestay tourism being a key route for the locals in the region to earn money, the number of such homestays has increased exponentially.

For Icche Gaon, the place I am referring to, currently has a number of houses 5 times more than when I last visited the place in 2014. No wonder, people there found a profitable way to make money, which is basically a win-win for both homestay owners and tourists. But, such overmilking can bring more damage in the long run than any good. What’s the way out then?

Saibal Kar, Professor of Economics at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and Director at Eastern Regional Centre of ICSSR, who also happens to be the Managing Editor of South Asian Journal of Macroeconomics and Public Finance (SAGE), said that the only possible way is implementing stronger enforcement and penalties, which admittedly is the most problematic issue in developing countries owing to highly corruptible nature of the law enforcement agencies. “Higher taxes payable by business units to preserve environmental balance translate into higher charges for such facilities, and this might eventually attract lesser tourists – if that is admissible for the local authorities and policymakers,” he further added.

While conventional and bigger attractions such as Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Mirik have already witnessed oversaturation in terms of maximum carrying capacities and of course exploitation of resources, the attention of tourists and tourism aggregators have shifted to less traversed places, which are environmentally more sensitive.

Saibal Kar also points out that the growth in tourism to such places is likely to increase the number of hotels and homestays. Hence, the overcrowding and consequently over-provision of facilities, often violating government mandates about constructions, use of generators, landfilling, destruction of forest and common property resources and so will go on. This is a general problem because of a lack of awareness about environmental protection as a common goal, and far less about what sustainable development implies.

However, according to him, this cannot be stopped by law, because it involves the livelihood of many, but one can appeal to the authorities in order to implement higher establishment taxes for such locations so that the markets are segregated – one which is already overcrowded and cheaper and the other which is developing but quite expensive. “Many cities in Europe consistently charge a tax for an overnight stay, which the hotel has to pay, but obviously passed on to the tourist depending on the degree of competition in the industry,” he gave a use case for example.

Geographically too the impact of this overmilking tourism in the region can be catastrophic in the long term. The eastern Himalayan region, especially the Darjeeling Himalayan region is full of young fold mountains and witnesses a high volume of rainfall, making the region is prone to landslides and earthquakes, which have grown in the recent past. The forest land helps to prevent landslides. Hence, indiscriminate deforestation for the sake of building new houses to promote homestay tourism can impact the local geography. Take the example of Uttarakhand, which witnessed massively destructive floods in 2013 and 2021.

According to Suddhasattwa Bhattacharya, an eminent Geography teacher at Sodepur High School, indiscriminate deforestation, construction and incessant growth of tourism in the region can increase the plastic waste and pollution there. This plastic waste can block the water that could result in a higher risk of landslides. Overall, such unplanned growth of tourism can impact the geographical stability there.

Changing business model

Perched at an elevation of 7,887 feet on the hilltop above the quaint town of Sonada, there is a forest village called Chatakpur. Lately, many tourists flock to this village that is located 7 km away from Sonada town amidst the Senchal Reserve Forest. This sparsely populated and picturesque village gives a panoramic view of the snow-clad mountains of the Eastern Himalayas and also the lush green forest of alpine trees.

Tourists who visit this place mostly resort to the homestays run by the locals. In recent years, a Siliguri-based tour operator agency has partnered with all of these homestays, and the entire process of booking, reservation is done by this agency only. The same agency has partnered with several other homestays in other locations of Darjeeling hills, Dooars, and Sikkim.

For another example, a Kolkata-based tour operator agency handles the booking and reservation for the homestay where I stayed back in 2014 and this time as well, while it used to receive bookings directly before.

Clearly, the flourishing homestay tourism in the last few years has been significantly shifting its business model from direct businesses to agency dependency. Instead of receiving bookings directly, many homestay owners have partnered with tourism agencies. The business of tourist accommodation via homestays in the hills is fast changing from individualized units of operation into syndication via larger agencies, mostly those engaged with large-scale operations in the tourism industry. This could impact the other homestay operators in the region who plans to go solo.

According to Saibal Kar, from a typical business outlook, this is not unexpected when the flow of information and use of such are also increasingly consolidated by a few major players globally. “When a large number of hotels, restaurants, etc choose to be members of a common search portal, which dominates the source of information available to regular tourists, it becomes almost impossible for stand-alone operations to survive under the onslaught. It might be useful for readers to note that the slots under well-known search engines are regularly auctioned for best visibility. Consequently, most surfers of the internet tend to click on those choices available as the first few entries, or at best those featuring on the first page,” he said.

Smaller, low-profile and independent units generally have much less advertising ability to appear in such places, and therefore will have a low probability of getting chosen, unless the individual concerned knows exactly what he or she is trying to buy. “This, according to me is the primary reason for growing dependence on agencies that have the ability to appear in top searches. Other forms of advertising are visibly less effective these days,” said Kar.

The outcome of such a business model can be weighed in terms of benefit potential and costs of transition. The membership in the well-known and well-organised agencies should be able to offer a positive thrust to the business growth, as it might even turn the relatively less traversed, less known, and remote sites into popular tourist destinations. This results in direct economic gains in terms of investments, employment, and further development of the region.

However, business expansions come at a cost, which in this case could be largely environment-related. The growing popularity of remote places often leads to congestion, taxing the natural resources and habitats. This also disturbs the ecological balance of the place. Such things have been already witnessed at various tourism spots across India. In fact, it is a common thing in developing countries, where pollution control measures are weak and corruption in the administrative system is higher.

Teesta Low Dam IV Hydropower plant (Image: Martin Mergili)

And the Teesta doesn’t flow

When I last visited North Bengal, back in 2014, saw Teesta in its full glory as it should be, filled with monsoon water. However, seven years later, Teesta stands like a green lake of eternal sadness, no longer reflecting the blue sky in its feral madness. It is one of the main rivers in the Eastern Himalayan region. Once it used to be shaping pebbles, now rippled by a mere stone. All thanks go to the Teesta Low Dam III and IV, which have completely changed the river bed and the adjacent areas as well.

Teesta Low Dam III Hydropower Plant is a 132 MW run-of-the-river hydroelectric station built by NHPC at a cost of Rs 768.92 crore in Reang, Kalimpong district, a little above Rambi Bazar. It consists of a 32-metre high dam with 4 penstocks of 44-metre length and 7-metre diameter each. Teesta Low Dam – IV Hydropower Plant is another run-of-the-river 160 MW hydroelectric station built on the Teesta River, located in Kalimpong district, West Bengal, about 350 meters above the confluence of the Kalijora and Teesta River and in the 1.5-kilometre kiln of Teesta Bridge near Teesta Bazar village. Started operation in 2016, the power plant consists of a 45-metre high dam with 4 penstocks of 45-metre length and 7-metre diameter each.

The power generated at these two hydroelectric power plants benefits various parts of West Bengal. No wonder, in modern lives such development project is a necessity as the demand for energy has been increasing rapidly. However, the construction of these two plants has impacted the Teesta River adversely.

In the last 25 years, there have been several dams and hydropower projects built on the Teesta River. Several other projects too are under survey and construction phases. These certainly impacted the natural flow of the river. The reservoirs at the back of the dams have witnessed lesser depth due to higher alluvium deposits, while the river basin in front of the dams has become waterless and dry. The river ecosystem is under threat due to such indiscriminate constructions. Floras and faunas dependent on the river too are on the verge of extinction. The people in the lower Teesta Valley who are dependent on the river for their livelihoods too are facing difficulties.

According to Suddhasattwa Bhattacharya, due to the construction of dams upstream, the river in the plains is witnessing increased alluvium deposits, which is resulting in a higher risk of a flood as the shallow riverbed is unable to hold the additional water. Except for the monsoon, the dam reservoirs hold the water during other seasons of the year for power generation, resulting in water shortage downstream of the river. This leads to scarcity of water for the farmers during the Rabi crop harvest.

The bottom-line

There has been development in Darjeeling hills for sure. The quality of living for the locals has improved with time. The growth of tourism is bringing money to their hand and being channeled into the hill economy. But all of these are happening at the cost of the very nature that has been protecting the people of the region and its economy as well. If things go on like this, we might end up witnessing another Uttarakhand-like disaster in long term, which will not only devastate the people’s lives there but the economy at large in entire North-East India as well.

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