Tourism and tribal rights

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

Tourism has fetched some benefits to tribal areas, but its overall impact has been negative.

THE limestone caves with formations of stalactites and stalagmites, located in Borra panchayat of Visakhapatnam district, are among the world's largest. Dating back to the Paleolithic Age, the caves, spread over two square kilometres, have been sacred to the tribal people of the region ever since a shepherd chanced upon a stalagmite in the shape of a Siva `linga' deep inside the caves several years ago. Now, with the Andhra Pradesh government promoting tourism in the area, the caves themselves have become a major livelihood issue for the tribal people.

Since their discovery, the caves have been preserved and nurtured by the tribal people of Panasaputtu village in the panchayat. They worship the `linga' during Mahasivarathri. The other naturally sculpted splendours in the caves and the three cascading waterfalls deep within make them a major tourist attraction. Also, the tribal people earn some money acting as guides. In 1977, stairways were cut into the cave walls and the tribal people used kerosene lamps and torches to guide tourists.

In 1992-93, the Tourism Department took over the Borra Caves and, started to levy an entrance fee. The tribal guides petitioned the government and managed to get a 25 per cent share in the collections, invoking the "social responsibility" of the state. From the entrance fee of Rs.10 a person, Rs.2.50 was given to the guides and the rest went towards maintaining the caves. According to the 20-member Guide Union president S. Indore, on an average each of them used to get Rs.7,000 a month.

In 2002, the government, in order to "beautify and maintain" the caves, cemented the floor, lit up the interiors with 74 halogen lamps that burn throughout the day, and stopped giving the tribal people their share of the fee collections as it wished to "get back the money invested". The entrance fee was raised to Rs.25, and a fee of Rs.10 was collected from tourist using a still camera and Rs.100 for a video camera. The caves were also "rented out" for film shooting at Rs.10,000 a day. Twenty tribal people were "appointed" as guides on a contract, which expires this year, by the Tourism Department on a monthly salary of Rs.3,000, that is, at the rate of Rs.100 a day. As per the contract, the guides have to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and even a day's absence would entail a Rs.100 cut from the salary. The tribal people had no choice but to accept this offer although it meant a substantial drop in their income.

According to Ravi Rebbapragada, executive director of the non-governmental organisation Samata, the Tourism Department gets Rs.25 lakhs annually from entry fees. Had it continued the earlier arrangement of giving the guides 25 per cent of the entrance fee collected, they would have got an annual income of Rs.6.25 lakhs. Also, they would have been stakeholders and would not have felt alienated from the development of the area.

According to guide J. Pandu, during peak season (April to December) over 1,000 tourists visit the cave every day and some 150 during the lean season (January to March). Between mid-November and mid-December, during the Karthigai festival season, the numbers touch 2,000 a day. According to guide B.B. Ramachander, on some days duirng the peak season the collection touches Rs.1 lakh. Says guide P. Anand: "We have made representations to the Tourism Department about giving us a share in the earnings. Our panchayat has decided to launch a struggle if they do not relent by the year-end, when our contract ends." Says Indore: "Nothing works without a struggle."

The income from tourism seems particularly important to the tribal people, as their income from farming has fallen owing to intense film shooting in the area. According to K. Venkat Rao, secretary of Tribal Education Rural Development Society (Terd), one of the 10 community-based organisations under Samata, several popular films in Telugu and Tamil were shot in these locales. So much so that film shooting itself has become a major tourist attraction. In fact, the government did not want to dismantle the sets of the popular films hoping to attract tourists. The Tourism Department wanted to convert a `botanical garden' on 250 acres into a permanent structure but representations and dharnas forced it to give up the idea.

According to T. Hari of Panasaputtu village, film-shooting "has spoilt our land". In order to put up massive structures the topsoil is heavily disturbed. This prevents seepage of water and affects the water level. Disturbance of the topsoil leads to a substantial fall in productivity. According to G. Neelakandan of the village, this is a typical case where the local people are not only alienated from development but are a victim of it.

The tribal people are alienated from land directly as well, with the government refusing them land pattas.

THE 14 villages in Borra panchayat have always been in the eye of the storm. To begin with, as they are located in a reserve forest, there has always been an ambiguity about the land - whether they are revenue land or forests. The State government denied the tribal people land ownership saying they were forests, although it gave out mining leases to private companies. After the Supreme Court cancelled the mining leases in 1997, the State government turned to tourism, which is also alienating the people from their land and livelihood.

Under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, when land was divided between the Forest and Revenue Departments in Borra panchayat, 1,150 acres (460 hectares) came under the former and 426 acres were left out of the reserve forest area to be distributed to the tribal people. But overlooking the Land Transfer Regulation Act, no patta was given to the tribal people of Borra panchayat.

In 1998, another NGO, Adivasi Mitra, along with Terd filed a petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court. In 2003, the State government relented, and gave the tribal people temporary, or D-Form, pattas, which gave the government the option of taking back the land any time without giving any compensation. One such case is Punnasaputtu village, where all the tribal families have been given only temporary pattas for the 76 acres (30.2 hectares) they have been cultivating for generations. Although their farming is rain-dependent, they managed at least two crops a year of paddy, pulses and millets. Their orchards produced mangoes, jackfruits and gooseberry.

The tribal people have been protesting but are scared to take the struggle further as they do not hold permanent pattas. Says Hari: "We have been cheated by the government. Our lives are deteriorating with development. But without title deeds to our land we are helpless."

Sub-Collector Ch. Appalaswamy, reacting to the fears of the people, says: "We have made an amendment to the D-Form. Now we do provide them a compensation when we ask them to move, provided, of course, they have put up some structure on the land."

But what of the farmlands where there are no structures? And, where will the tribal people go with the Agency area already occupied? Appalaswamy has no answers.

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