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The Nilgiris Revisited: Convert Crisis to Opportunity
Revisiting the Nilgiris a decade and a half after I had launched the Save Nilgiris Campaign (SNC) evoked in me a mixed feeling. It was heartening to see that the campaign has had a catalytic effect in retrieving the lost balance between environment and development on the hills. At the same time, it was saddening that some of our worst predictions had come true plunging the district into an economic turmoil.
There was observable evidence that the environmental wounds of the blue mountains inflicted by decades of mindless development were healing. The forests seemed rejuvenated under the care of the Forest Department which was the focus of criticism from all quarters at the beginning of the campaign. The centrally sponsored Hill Area Development Programme (HADP) which was denounced at one time as Hill Area Destruction Programme appears to have got its priorities right and making an earnest effort in the direction of eco-development. The eucalyptus controversy has almost died down and the only major industry in the nearby plains, which has been depending on these trees for its raw material, I am told, has been advised to diversify. The real estate boom has abated leaving the landscape to recover. Even the urban areas, despite the pressures of a fast growing population, looked comparatively cleaner and orderly. However, newer crises of an economic nature were starting to brew.
The Nilgiris and its numerically largest native population, the Badagas, are now in the grip of a tea crisis. The price per kilo of tea leaves produced by these small tea growers has fallen to less than Rs. 5, below the production cost of Rs.6. The distressed farmers had taken to the streets, courting arrest and burning buses, to draw the attention of the government to their plight. The central government granted a price subsidy of Rs.5 to the small farmers for a period of six months, implying that the crisis may be temporary though evidence points to a protracted malady. Several committees constituted by the central and state governments to find a solution to the crisis have given their recommendations but to no avail. Meanwhile, with every political party trying to get a mileage from crisis, the issue predictably has becoming increasingly politicised.
We issued the first warning of this crisis as far back as 1986. The seminar on the 'Implications of a shift in cultivation from potato to tea in the Nilgiris, organised by us when the crop diversification was starting to spread rapidly across the district, spurred by government subsidy and propaganda, concluded that tea was not an unmixed blessing. Though the shift was favoured on economic grounds, the seminar warned of the risks associated with an indiscriminate promotion of tea and recommended for the first time even a minimum price for tea as a solution to long term price stability.
Later, in an approach paper prepared by SNC in 1988 for the Hill Area Development Programme for the Eighth Five Year Plan, we repeated the warning stating beyond a certain level, it is a scientific fact that any monoculture including tea is harmful for hill areas like the Nilgiris whatever be their immediate economic benefit. A similar mistake was committed in the 50's and 60's when eucalyptus was indiscriminately propagated all over the district. The harmful effects are felt now and the reversal of the situation has become extremely difficult. The same mistake should not be repeated with tea now.
Towards the end of 1988, we carried the message to the villages of the Nilgiris through a padayatra (foot march). We chanted in every village the warning that though the shift to tea had been largely dictated by the falling yield and uncertain market for vegetables, particularly potato, wholesale conversion to tea was ill-advised in the long term interest of the district. We urged the government to moderate its emphasis on extension of tea and instead encourage vegetable cultivation through provision of irrigation, storage, marketing, and soil conservation which could make vegetable and fruit cultivation as much attractive as that of tea.
We not only exposed the corruption in the disbursement of the subsidy given by the Horticulture Department to new plantations but also had the subsidy scheme cancelled through the good offices of Dr. P.C. Alexander, who was the governor then. (The state was then under president's rule). The subsidy was later restored after a delegation of small farmers met the state administration. While restoring the subsidy, the state government clearly warned the farmers it will not be responsible for the consequences of the mad rush to convert all agricultural lands in the Nilgiris into tea gardens.
The current tea crisis in the Nilgiris would not have impacted the small growers so badly had they paid heed to the warnings of the experts and well meaning groups like us. The Horticultural Department and tea promotion bodies like UPASI on their part should have warned the small growers of the risks associated with an export bubble which caused the tea boom in the 80s.
Instead, the farmers were led to believe a perennial crop like tea was a source of perennial income. The result was, extension of tea close to 80% of the cultivable area in the district, mushrooming of tea factories which number over 150 presently, decline in the quality of green leaves supplied by the growers and blatant adulteration in the made tea produced by some of the factories. The small farmers are now caught between a declining export market (both in terms of quantity as well as prices) and a buyers' cartel which hardly reflects the real demand for tea. The import of teas, following the WTO agreement has depressed the market outlook further.
The tea crisis had cast its shadow on the tourism industry too. The agitation by the small growers in 2000 had scared the tourists away leaving the main towns deserted during the peak season. The cancellation of that year's annual Flower Show, billed as a millennium fare, forced by the agitating growers, was a grim warning to the tourism business. The last two years have not been much better.
We have from the beginning been telling that the growth of tourism in the Nilgiris was lop-sided with the focus was mainly on building more and more hotels. Today the Nilgiris boasts of more hotels than all the hill stations in the country put together. One leading hotelier told me he lost count after the tally crossed a hundred in Ooty alone. Predictably, neither the occupancy rate nor the return on investment from these hotels are anywhere near expectation. The effect of this can be seen in poor quality of maintenance and service and under cutting of rates.
Tap tea & tourism
Notwithstanding their present woes, tea and tourism will continue to dominate the economy of the Nilgiris in the foreseeable future. Promoting the proper growth of the two will determine the economic as well as the environmental stability of the hills.
The tea industry in the Nilgiris is bound to face some consolidation in the wake of the emerging competition resulting from declining exports to traditional markets like Russia and CIF countries on the one side and import of tea from Sri Lanka, Kenya etc on the other. Raising the custom duty as a protection from imports cannot be a lasting solution under the present regime of trade liberalisation. By the same token, it is for the tea industry to take advantage of the free trade in tea to increase its exports through improvements in productivity, quality, value addition and marketing. In any case, despite imports and competition from substitutes, the domestic demand for tea is unlikely to slacken for years to come. The current crisis has hardly touched the retail price of tea which, in fact, has gone up for branded items.
This prescription holds good for the small growers also. However, the government and tea promotion agencies like the Tea Board and UPASI have an obligation to help the small growers through subsidies and long term loans to prepare them for meeting the competition from imports and domestic tea majors. One new possibility ideally suited to the small farmers is organic tea which commands a high value addition in the country and abroad.
One hope for the successful marketing of the small growers' teas was the Industrial Tea Co-operatives (Indco), which were originally conceived by the former president of India Shri. R. Venkataraman in the sixties. It's a pity the efficiency and profitability of these factories have declined in recent years- probably a victim of the tea boom! Even the idea of introducing a 'Ooty Tea' conceived by the state government is not able to make a dent owing to poor marketing. Indcoserve, which is the apex body of these co-operatives, must seriously explore ways of direct marketing of small growers' teas by setting up its own show rooms and retail outlets in major cities.
We had also written several times to the tea promotion bodies like UPASI and Tea Board to consider setting up a chain 'Nilgiri Tea Rooms' (on the model of Tea Rooms in UK and Europe) in places like Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Trivandrum to promote Nilgiri teas, particularly those of small growers. But no one seems to be listening.
Last but the least, as we have been repeatedly suggesting, the small growers should be encouraged to bring back at least one tenth of their land under horticultural crops which would not only protect them against fluctuations in market conditions but also provide for their sustenance assuredly.
Tea, as mentioned earlier, is only part of the answer to the Nilgiris' future welfare, the other being tourism. Having made huge investments in the Nilgiris, the tourism industry must seek to optimise its return by seriously taking up tourism promotion in a big way. Tourism in the Nilgiris can be made thriving, transforming the district into one of the leading tourist destinations in Asia. Here the Nilgiris can learn a few useful lessons from Hong Kong, however far-fetched the comparison may seem, where I had the opportunity to study the tourism industry between 1997 and 2002. Hong Kong is just about half the size of the Nilgiris but with ten times its population. But you hardly feel congested except in some central areas. The average altitude is about half that of the Nilgiris but the topographical features of the two have a strong resemblance. Hong Kong as a leading international tourist destination has almost fully tapped its natural potential. The Nilgiris as a leading national tourist destination has barely exploited its potentials.
Those concerned with tourism in the Nilgiris should realise that tourism has long ceased to be government sponsored cultural affair. Today it is a major organised business, an industry, in which the major stake holders are the numerous business enterprises from hotels and airlines to retail traders and hawkers. It is these entities, which directly stand to gain from the visitors, which should be the moving spirit behind tourism promotion. The government can at best play a facilitating role.
The task of keeping Hong Kong a top international tourist destination is given to the Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA), a quasi governmental body established in 1957 with presently over 1700 members comprising airlines, hotels, travel agents, tour operators, conference / exhibition organisers and retail, restaurant and other visitor service establishments. The HKTA directs and oversees tourism promotion including visitor facilities, overseas publicity besides co-ordinating the activities of the tourism industry. The association partly funded by the government raises the rest of the funds from membership dues, sale of publications and souvenirs and from organisation of commercial tours.
The Nilgiris badly needs to promote an association like the HKTA. Over 500 hotels and lodging houses, hundreds of restaurants and countless retailers depend on the tourist trade in the district. They must come together to form The Nilgiris Tourist Association (TNTA). The government can help with tourism friendly policies and improvements in civic infrastructure but the initiative and drive must come from the business interests. Together they can develop the Nilgiris as a leading convention centre, a place for recreation and amusement and a model eco-tourism zone.
As the bulk of the tourists come for amusement, recreation and relaxation the tourist attractions should be imaginative, professionally run, cost competitive and provide a choice to the visitors. Professional event managers should be engaged to design and organise them. The package must be got ready well in advance and widely publicised in and outside the country. The length of stay of the visitors would largely depend on the extent to which their interests are aroused and expectations raised. The accent should be more on enhancing value addition than on attracting mere numbers.
One must remember that Tourism thrived in the 1950s, 60s and 70s because the visitors came back year after year and stayed for months. Since then visitors come just for a day or two and those who come once hardly come again.
Days have gone when tourist attractions were meant for merely seeing. The preference now is for doing and the Nilgiris can provide them in plenty. Health related or recreational programmes of various duration can be promoted round the year. Sporting activities including road races, cross-country runs, cycling races and so on can be made regular annual events. Professionally conceived and organised music, variety entertainment programmes where the visitors can also participate can also be made regular features. A permanent fair or exhibition can be thought of in Ooty. Thematic summer camps can be arranged for students, business executives and various professional groups.
The Nilgiris can emerge a leading convention centre in the country hosting international and national seminars and conferences round the year. It is worthwhile to remember that Ooty was the summer capital of the Madras presidency and had hosted, among numerous national and international meets, the UN Economic Commission for Asia and Far East meet and the All India Congress Committee's planning meet in the 50s.
There is also abundant scope for nature tourism in the hills. Country parks, treks and a host of nature based facilities and activities can be developed on international standards which can draw a good number of foreign tourists. A high altitude zoo and an aviary are two attractions the Nilgiris should think of immediately.
Tourism need not necessarily be a threat to the environment and ecology of the Nilgiris. On the contrary, a well conceived and organised tourism promotion will be the best insurance against further degradation of the hills. Conservation, after all, is nothing but sensible development.
Late Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati, head of Sri Narayana Gurukula, who was one of the main inspirations behind the campaign wrote in his last correspondence to us, I am pleased, rather excited by the great service rendered by the Save Nilgiris Campaign. The campaign started when the astounding panorama was beginning to dwindle. The first phase of the campaign was to generate a conscience in the inhabitants of Nilgiris that this is a God given gift of natural resources and beauty and that the Blue Mountains will not remain blue of mountains for long. This is now properly inculcated in our thoughts. To hold our natural heritage in tact, we need to consciously turn every wasteland into a garden of exquisite beauty for which the Kew Garden of England can be our best model. The whole of Nilgiris can be declared as our National Park. May the Guru's wish come true.