On thin ice

Print edition : April 21, 2006

A proposal for a multi-million-dollar ski resort in Manali incurs the wrath of the people of the Kullu valley.

AMAN SETHI in Manali

Many fear that ski-tourism might take its toll on the Himalayas, one of the remaining untouched ecosystems in the world.-PHOTOS: AMAN SETHI

DEVOTEES at the Jamadagni temple at Batahar in Naggar village, in the Kullu valley, Himachal Pradesh, fidgeted nervously as the languid gur (temple oracle) suddenly sat bolt upright. The deity, Jamadagni, better known as Jamalu Rishi, had possessed the oracle. Silence pervaded even as the rhythmic chant of the pujari came to a halt and Jamalu Rishi's Thursday durbar began. Jamalu, who through his oracle, dispensed advice on matters ranging from childcare to apple-farming, had a far more important question to answer that day: "Should Alfred Brush Ford, great-grandson of American automobile pioneer Henry Ford, be given the rights to build a luxury ski resort in Kullu?" The oracle conveyed the deity's displeasure and said that Jamalu Rishi had called a meeting of the prominent deities of the valley to discuss the issue.

At a Jagati Puchch held on February 16 at Jagati in Naggar, the Council of the Gods unanimously vetoed the proposal for the $520-million Himalayan Ski Village (HSV) project, the largest foreign direct investment in the Indian tourism industry.

The Kulu valley, with temples for over 300 deities, is known as the Valley of the Gods. Each deity has a gur to communicate with the devotees. Jamalu Rishi, believed to be the chief among the gods of the valley, has now become the symbol of the apprehensions that the people of the valley have about the motives of corporate players and the Congress government in the State. While the decision of the Council of the Gods has attracted much interest in the local, national and even international media, neither the government nor the promoters plan to backtrack on the deal signed in October last year.

"The ski resort is essential for the survival of Manali," claims Himanshu Sharma, a manager for HSV. He says that the massive investment will rejuvenate Manali's tourism industry, extend the tourist season into the winter months, and set standards for sustainable eco-tourism. HSV promises to provide nearly 3,000 jobs to the local people and has already started training youth on the basics of adventure tourism, survival techniques and avalanche forecasting. It is also expected to improve infrastructure and transport services in the district. Sharma points out that Manali is famous for its winter sports. Hence, he says, the resort will help local skiers hone their skills. In a number of press reports, HSV has claimed that the project's ultimate aim is to host the Winter Olympics.

However, selling the project to the local people, who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the mountains, has not been easy. They believe that a ski-village will desecrate the mountain tops, traditionally seen as the abode of the gods. Environmental and ecological factors also go against the project.

While the youth seem upbeat about the employment opportunities the resort would generate, the elders have a strange foreboding. They point out that the promises made while acquiring land for the Allain Duhangan Hydroelectric Project in Manali have not been fulfilled. "Many sold their lands in the hope of a better future," says Kishen Singh Bodh, a farmer from Sethan village. "Two years have passed; the money has been spent. Now they have neither land nor money."

The project seems to be on thin ice even contractually. There are more than a few problems with the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between HSV and the Virbhadra Singh government. A copy of the document, made available to Frontline, reveals that the government has made major concessions such as help for HSV in acquiring approximately 65 hectares of land on a 99-year lease, 60 ha of which will be privately owned. While no specific areas have been mentioned in the MoU, HSV representatives told Frontline that for a start, Sethan, Prini and Shuru villages had been identified for development.

Since the resort will be built on the upper reaches of the mountain, villagers living on the slopes below fear that HSV will wrest control of the area's water resources. Moreover, there is the fear that the waste generated by the resort will pollute the area's pristine streams. Recent experiences in Plachimada in Kerala, and the Sheonath river in Chhattisgarh have shown that granting private entities exclusive rights over community resources, particularly water, is dangerous. Section VII of the MoU gives HSV "the water rights in the Project Area, including the tapping of unused nallas/ground water and for building retention ponds for snowmaking and supply to the resort village." The MoU also grants the company an "irrevocable licence for the use of ski trails and making of snow and ice on such trails for the duration of the [land] lease and for the construction of trail markers, retention ponds, underground water lines and water pumps..." A clause allowing HSV to make snow artificially has caused genuine concern.

SETHAN, OVER 3,000 metres above sea level, is one of three mountain villages that have been identified for the ski resort project.-

A recent study by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) titled "The Ecoregion Conservation Plan for the Alps" termed winter ski-tourism "the most ecologically devastating form of the leisure industry". The report states that ski-runs and ski-lifts cause "irreparable damage to landscapes" and snow cannons - essential for producing artificial snow - consume energy and water, and can cause damage to mountain vegetation in the long term and, at times, chemical pollution.

The WWF study also points out that for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Savoie, France, "one million cubic metres of rocks and soil were blasted and moved, 33 ha of forest were cleared and an area of 3,300 ha was built up. Forty-two water reservoirs were installed to supply drinking and snow cannon water; land use was changed on a total of 100 ha." Concerns about the ecological impact of the Manali ski-resort therefore seem justified.

But Himanshu Sharma reiterates that the resort shall neither make artificial snow nor take control of the region's water sources. He feels that labelling the project "an ecological disaster" on the basis of the MoU is premature, as the specifics of the deal will be spelt out only in the Detailed Project Report (DPR), which will be out soon. HSV has already submitted a preliminary project report.

The mobilisation of the gods has proved to be an effective subversive strategy for the Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Council of the Gods itself was organised by former BJP Member of Parliament and head of the Kulu royal family, Maheshwar Singh.

The villagers of Kullu are not alone in their fight against corporate interests. For decades, more than 13 native American tribes, including the Navajos and the Hopis, have fought to protect the sacred San Francisco Peaks in the U.S. from the tourist pressures of the Arizona Ski Bowl Area. The battle for San Francisco Peaks has raged since 1930, the most recent skirmish being about a proposal to extend the boundaries of the ski area.

For now, the Himachal Pradesh government has appointed a special board to look into the project. Meanwhile, Alfred Ford will have to find a way out to appease the gods of the Kullu valley.

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