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Kumarakom: A Case Study of Sustainable Tourism Background Kumarakom is situated on the banks of the Vembanad Kayal (backwater), 10 km. west of the Kottayam District Head Quarters in Kerala. Located between 9o37’ N and 76o25’E, the Kumarakom panchayat is bounded by Kavanar and Aimanam panchayat in the north, Kottayam - Alappuzha Canal in the south, Thiruvarppu panchayat in East and Vembanad Kayal in the west. It has an area of 51.67 sq. km. of which 24.13 sq. km. is Vembanad Kayal, 15.04 sq. km. is land and 12.50 sq. km. is Paddy fields. Kumarakom has a bird sanctuary home to 91species of local and 50 species of migratory birds. Prof. K. K. Neelakandan, renowned ornithologist reported thousands of Night Herons, Darters and Cormorants breeding in the mangrove forests of Kumarakom in 1970s and early 80s. Kumarakom also has a number of mangrove species, of which three are reported only from Kumarakom. The mangrove forests are also the feeding and breeding grounds for numerous species of fish. Blessed with backwaters and pristine environs, Kumarakom is known for its Kayal, Kuil and Karimeen (Lake, Bird and Fish). Kumarakom, a backwater tourism hub is gaining strategic place in on the tourist map due to its natural charm and aesthetic beauty. Tourism development in Kumarakom started with the lease of KTDC land in the bird sanctuary area to Taj Kerala Resorts Limited in the 1989. Tourism has developed rapidly in the area hence Prime Minister A B Vajpayee’s visit in 2000 December and his popular ‘Musings from Kumarakom’ has created much hype among tourists in this otherwise calm village. Kumarakom panchayat at present has 8 big resorts contributing to 580 beds and creating direct employment opportunities for 740 people and indirect employment opportunities for 324 others. There are 7 small resorts and more than 20 lodges and home-stay facilities contributing to another 100 beds. The panchayat is earning 20 lakhs per year as tax from the industry and it claims that tourism industry’s revenue comes to around 30 crores per year in this small destination. The arrival of tourism industry was well received by the local people initially with the land value increasing many folds in the potential areas for tourism ventures. Local farmers offered their agricultural lands and paddy fields for tourism construction at exorbitant prices. Although the conversion of land reduced the agricultural yield and employment, the temporary employment opportunities in the construction sector and relatively higher wages earned, made the local workers happy. But all was not well in the years to come. Meagre employment gains The employment opportunity in the tourism sector was not favourable to the local community with 80% of the regular employees in big hotels appointed from outside Kumarakom. A study conducted by EQUATIONS in 2000, “Women’s participation in tourism development” revealed that most of the labourers lost their traditional occupations. Women and agricultural labourers displaced from the lands converted for tourism could not be compensated with alternative jobs. The contract labourers appointed by the tourism industry did not have job security and were terminated at any time without assigning any reason. Although these workers are eligible for minimum wages, they are paid at much lower rates. The clustering of the resorts on the banks of Vembanad Kayal denied access to local people involved in fishing and shell collection to the kayal. The increased number of speedboats, motor boats and house boats plying as part of the tourism development has resulted in the damage of fishing nets of the community bathe in the Vembanad kayal. Tourist resorts have even gone to the extent of privatising and appropriation of kayal and use it to promote their business without due regard to the regulations placed by the panchayat. The natural banks of kayal, once covered with thick mangrove forests are now replaced by granite walls to get an uninterrupted vision of kayal from their property. The felling of mangrove forests has completely destroyed the breeding grounds of fish resulting in the diminishing of number in fish. The fish species – Half beak (Hemir amphus) that were abundant in the lake have now reduced substantially threatening the livelihood of fishermen dependent on this catch. Hotel Waterscapes of the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) is situated very near the bird sanctuary and mangrove forests. The two mangrove swamps on the northwest corner of the KTDC complex were the only breeding ground for Night Herons in Kerala in the 80s. The clearance of trees in the entrance area of the complex has ensured the vanishing of one third of bird population in the last decade. The attack on the mangroves by KTDC still continues as the mangroves at the bird sanctuary have been drastically cut in February 2004 for easy visibility of birds for tourists. The Taj Group had placed bright lights in the hotel to avoid birds coming to their property. The flocks of migrant ducks and teals that came in thousands to the lakes have disappeared with the tourists enjoying their flight by chasing them in speedboats. The bird census conducted in the area periodically has clearly shown the impact of tourism development on bird population. The survey conducted in 10 selected areas of Kumarakom featured 36,498 birds in 1993, 22,195 birds in 2001 and 13,274 birds in 2002. The waste from hotels including human excreta from houseboats are dumped into the lake. The total coliform count in the lake is much higher than the maximum prescribed value. The number of coliform in 100 ml of lake water is 1500 to the permissible limit of 500 maximum/100 ml for ecologically sensitive and contact water sports. The irony is that tourism has contributed nothing in improving the infrastructure development or the development of service and productive sectors in Kumarakom. A socio-economic survey conducted by EQUATIONS in 2000 among 139 households of the village, 62 responded that tourism has had no contribution in improving road/transport, 87 responded ‘NO’ to the availability of water, 90 responded ‘NO’ to the availability of electricity, 80 responded ‘NO’ to the availability of Sewerage & Drainage and 99 responded ‘NO’ to the availability of employment for the question – “Has tourism contributed in improving of the following?”. The local groups and other civil society organisation raised concerns on the impacts of tourism through an innovative approach Kudumba Yogam (family meetings) with the discussions at the level on individuals in the community. The panchayat felt the increasing adverse effects of burgeoning tourism in their area and have decided to conduct periodic surveys and planned for a tourism development plan for Kumarakom in 1997. GIS Mapping of Kumarakom was done in 2000. As part of this project, a detail database was prepared on the biophysical and socio economic status of the panchayat. In addition, information related to the existing tourism infra-structure in the panchayat, perception and attitude of the people working in the traditional sector and details on tourism industry are collected and compiled. Attitude towards the present trend of tourism development in the region and how far this has fostered development of the region was also analysed. Also, an enquiry was done among the tourism industry people to know their opinion towards the way the tourism development is taking place in the region. As an outcome of the study, a Status Report on Kumarakom and maps on administrative boundary, land use pattern, assets/infrastructure, house distribution, settlement cluster, water resource, tourism infrastructure, facilities in the bird sanctuary of Kumarakom panchayat were prepared in July 2002. The maps effectively presented the clustering of resorts along the banks of Vembanad Kayal. Since the panchayat came across so many issues with the unplanned tourism development in the region, the panchayat felt the need for capping as well as regulating tourism development within the panchayat. A Technical Session on the Powers and Functions of the panchayat devolved as per the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act under the broad mandate of the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution that can be used for the proper regulation of tourism was conducted for the panchayat Members on 29th August 2002. Motivated by the knowledge on the Powers and Functions of the panchayat, the members came up with a People’s Charter and Draft Guidelines on Sustainable Tourism for Kumarakom. The People’s Charter and Draft Guidelines has demanded for the preparation of a Master Plan for tourism development within the panchayat and has put up regulations on new constructions tourism activities and utilisation of common resources. The Charter also insists the tourism industry to ensure direct and indirect employment opportunities for the local people and to contribute to the projects of priority for the well being of the community and conservation of the environment, in the backdrop of overall socio-economic development of the region. A thrust has been given to the concepts of social obligations of tourism industry and its corporate accountability. The Charter also demands the creation of an expert committee to look into the conceptualisation, planning, implementation and monitoring of tourism development within the Kumarakom panchayat. Developmental and conservation goals are the anchoring principles for the enforcement of Charter by all stakeholders concerned. On 23rd April 2003, the panchayat called for a meeting of the tourism industry and others concerned on tourism to initiate discussion on the People’s Charter and Draft Guidelines to make the process more democratic. The representatives of the tourism industry, who attended the meeting, generally have consented to the contents of the Charter. To engage in tourism development with a monitoring role and set future broad development paradigm, the panchayat created a Functional Committee on Tourism as per Section 163 (1) of the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, which allows the panchayat to form functional committees on different subjects. The Act also allows the panchayat to nominate expert members from different field who are interested in the public welfare. The Kumarakom Grama panchayat formulated the Functional Committee on Tourism in the subsequent meeting of the panchayat committee held on 22.04.2004. The Chairperson and Secretary of the Committee would be the President and Secretary of the Kumarakom Grama panchayat respectively. The other members of the Committee include all panchayat Members, Tourism Expert, District Town Planning Officer, Environmentalist, Economist, Local NGOs and representatives from the Tourism Industry. This committee would look into the implementation of Peoples Charter and community based tourism initiatives. The first meeting of the Functional Committee approved the Peoples Charter and had discussions on the preparations of Master Plan on land use for tourism purpose, the conservation of bird sanctuary, plastic waste disposal in Kayal by the tourists. The Committee also decided to function as a monitoring cell on tourism. The Functional Committee got dissolved with the new panchayat assuming office and the new committee is yet to be reconstituted. The most important development after that was the creation of a sustainable tourism forum outside the Functional Committee frame work to monitor and engage with issues on tourism development. This forum protested against the panchayat’s move to reclaim the backwaters for creating parking space for the tourist vehicles. The panchayat had to finally withdraw from its decision. The forum also took initiative to hold meetings with the Forest Department to declare the bird sanctuary area as a community conserve. The local panchayats have passed resolution on this and have sent the copies to the Forest Department for their consideration. There has been a notable change in the bird count in the Kumarakom region in the last two years. The surveys conducted in the 10 selected areas featured 24,326 birds in 2004 and 21,688 in 2003, compared to 13,274 birds in 2002. The forum could also mobilise the political parties by proactively raising the concerns on tourism with them. It is interesting to note that even the political parties and the grama panchayat have shown interests in taking up tourism issues after the formation of Functional Committee on Tourism. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) in its local conference in 2004 demanded for 30% reservation for jobs to the local people in tourism sector. The Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) was able to close down illegal massage parlours in the area. They also organised a human chain to create environmental awareness against various issues including the Vembanad lake encroachment and pollution, mechanical sand mining and filling of paddy fields. The grama panchayat issued stop memo to the resort group which violated the building rules norms and constructed a building few inches from the backwater There have been other developments on regulating tourism since. The Kerala Government has enacted the Kerala Tourism (Conservation and Preservation of Areas) Act, 2005 in February 2005. By the Act, the government can declare any area which have or likely to have the importance of tourism within the State as “Special Tourism Zone” (STZ) and form centralized committees that could decide on the tourism development within the STZ. Kumarakom has been already declared as a STZ and the act could be used as a tool to usurp the powers of panchayats and make the Functional Committees constituted as per the Kerala Panchayat Raj Act unfunctional. The grama panchayat has already voiced their concerns that the Act is violating the spirit of 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act and declared that they would not allow the state government to strip their powers that easily. The fight for democratization of tourism continues here.

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