On July 10 evening, a minor landslip left 18 tourists stranded for a whole day on the mountain road leading to the Kakkayam dam site. Local residents shrug it off as a minor inconvenience. For them, any bad publicity would affect their chances to convert Kakkayam — also called ‘Malabar’s Ooty’ — into an eco-tourism haven.
Kakkayam is nestled on the outskirts of the Western Ghats, a UNSECO world heritage site, and is immediate neighbour to the Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary, a sprawling 7421.5015-hectare abode of wild animals.
“Agriculture is declining. Wild animals like monkeys and elephants destroy our crops. Many of us have sent our children outside the State to study. They will not come back and settle here. Most of us are migrating to Karnataka. Tourism is the only thing that may hold us back, it means money and jobs for us,” says Salomi Thomas, a resident of Kakkayam.
The people are quick to point out how Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had come “all the way” to inaugurate the Rs.5-crore Kakkayam-Peruvannamuzhi tourism project exactly a year ago.
They describe how the project includes landscaping of 14 islands, construction of bungalows, cottages, boating services and even a comfort station-cum-cafeteria.
“As of now, Kakkayam does not boast even one restaurant to have a cup of tea. We need to have so much more infrastructure to attract tourists,” says E.K. Sebastian, a former panchayat member.
Kakkayam has no mechanism to deal with the natural outcomes of increased tourism, such as treatment of garbage, increased risk of fires, and intensive water demand.
But Mr. Sebastian is eager to add that the 225-MW Kuttiyadi hydel powerhouse is an ideal attraction to launch “hydel tourism.” After all, he says, “this is the only power house in Malabar and 95 per cent of the tourists come here to see this”.
The government has promised the residents a lot — Rs.10 lakh for a viewpoint from the panaromic vantage of the Kakkayam dam site; solar-powered boats; Rs.17 lakh for mini buses and trekking vehicles to ferry tourists around; four boat jetties; a children’s park at Peruvannamuzhi; and, lastly, a hanging bridge worth Rs.2.40 crore.
There is also promise of a road project all the way from Estate Mukku to Kakkayam dam site. Residents say work amounting to Rs.2.5 crore is already complete on the road.
When reminded about the landslip, E.T. Thomas, who is a partner in Kakkayam Resorts, a Rs.20-crore private project, is vociferous in his protests.
“The landslip that occurred is deep inside the forests. It is these landslips that have destroyed our rubber and crops. Besides, we have been cultivating this land for the past 60 years. Landslips occur almost every year. It is a common phenomenon. Right now, people have to live, get jobs. Tourism is the only way out of this fix,” Mr. Thomas says, ruing the delay in the government’s plans for Kakkayam.
But critics such as former Forest Minister and the chief architect of the Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary, Benoy Viswom, say what is happening in Kakkayam is plans for “blind tourism.”
“This kind of untrained activity in the name of eco-tourism is only a money-making exercise. It is a pity that some people with a handful of money come up with certain fantastic and funny ideas to misguide the local people and plunder nature. If this goes on, Kakkayam will be no more,” Mr. Viswom told The Hindu on Sunday.
In fact, Kakkayam may bear witness to every fear expressed about “untrained” eco-tourism by the Madhav Gadgil-led Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel set up by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.
“Despite ecotourism arising as a concept to promote nature conservation, it is found that the way ecotourism is practised in India, it is being perceived as becoming just another form of mass tourism. Increasingly, the Western Ghats areas are now being occupied by urban individuals / developers with land holdings ranging from 0.5 acres to 1000+ acres. These people are politicians, developers, the common man, corporates, and industrialists,” the Gadgil report says.
“This assurance of the tourism project by the State government without any foresight is pathetic. This is an ecologically sensitive area. This will be the death of Kakkayam,” Mr. Viswom says.