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Discover India


    Discover India   

The Gobar Ganeshes travel to Rajasthan and Kerala and discover what tourists miss or never notice.

No water supply in your house today? Well come to Rajasthan. Why? Come and see how well this desert has done with so little water. They call it Maru pradesh or Marusthali (land of death), but the way they have used water, it is anything but that. And that’s how it’s been for centuries.

All the forts here have their own water systems. There have been times in the 15th and 16th centuries when the rulers of Udaipur and Jaisalmer have withstood decade-long sieges by  Mughal armies, with shortages of food but never of water. The intricate network of structures to store the seepage from surrounding hills and the scanty seasonal rains took very good care of that.

The forts that were built on hill-tops collected rainwater, while those in the plains were built near a river so its water could be harnessed for domestic and defence needs. Then there were talabs, kunds, bavdis (stepwells) and wells to take care of the water needs of one and all.


   World's Greatest water harvestors    

What the tourist guides won’t tell you about Chittor fort

At its peak it could harvesting three billion litres of water! There were 84 water bodies within the fort (only 22 exist today) 30,000 people lived in here in the past at any given time, along with their elephants, horses and cattle. The water bodies could take care of all of them for four years without rain. Super water management here. Upstream water bodies for drinking purposes and downstream for bathing. Cattle were not allowed to graze in catchment areas. Human waste from latrines was carried away by scavengers or flushed out from buildings with a gravity waste disposal system. The night soil was used as manure for trees and plants that grew in abundance. Said Sangram Singh, a tea stall inside the fort, "Rules of sanitation was a way of life for our ancestors. After all, they could not take the risk of water contamination, which would have meant the death of all the people." Jacuzzis, bathtubs and WCs in the desert anyone?


We found that Rajasthani food has been influenced by the war-like lifestyle of its inhabitants and the limited availability of ingredients and water. Food is cooked that can last for several days and be eaten without heating. In Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner, cooks use, instead of water, milk, buttermilk and clarified butter. 

But the plant that signifies drought is the “ker”. It is the food of survival. It is also found in Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq and Pakistan. Children are also fond of the ripe ker fruit called dhalu. The protein and mineral contents of the fruits are almost same as those of banana, grape, guava and the mango. Many vaids prescribe ker fruits for cardiac trouble. To take advantage of these benefits we need to conserve the plant, fast disappearing today from many parts of the Thar.

Meet the bishnois, who for centuries have militantly conserved their animals and plants. Chasing away gun-toting tourists and poachers is a matter of life and death for them.

Thanks to them, film star Salman Khan did not get away with the shooting of the blackbuck. It is said that in 1730, many Bishnois died fighting their then local king, who tried to cut trees.

While in Kerala, we saw a lot of so-called “eco-lodges”. There was a resort designed with ethnic materials using local craftsmen, local materials and indigenous techniques used by the early inhabitants. The tribal people were extensively involved with the construction and now with the maintenance. We were pleased to see that apart from solar energy, gobar gas was used instead of electricity. So no noisy generators and no fumes and air pollution. Panditayen was happy that the food was served on demand from the organic farm. She doesn’t understand why we put so many pesticides and fertilisers in the first place. Food was much tastier when she was small, she says. But what fascinated us most were the tourist tree houses in the rainforests of the Western Ghats. Room with a view, hundreds of feet up amongst in rainforest canopy — with an attached bath!

I so badly wanted to stay in these modern machaans , but Panditayen put her foot down as it was too expensive and we headed for the famed backwaters of Kerela. Now, the backwaters are a network of lakes, canals and estuaries and deltas of forty-four rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea. They are a self supporting ecosystem teeming with aquatic life. The canals also connect the villages together and are still used for local transport. Imagine a 900 km labyrinthine network of a navigable waterworld.

It’s a leisurely cruise and the thatched houseboat has all modern comforts. Our guide told us that innovation was done on the traditional kettuvallom boats plying in the backwaters of Kerala, converting them into houseboats made from local materials and skill. The idea was to offer tourists a non invasive and unique experience in a natural surrounding, while benefiting the local economy and reviving the age-old craft of boat building.

Before leaving, we ate rice that was cooked in a natural hot spring and served to us on a banana leaf. I also took a bath along with temple elephants in a brook nearby. That as better than any shower bath I have taken! A local woman said that it had curative powers, though I don’t know about that and thought that such medicinal springs existed only in Europe. We found that Kerala has many ecotourism projects. The Periyar Tiger Trail project includes 23 former poachers, who previously made a living by trading forest goods illegally! This is a joint collaboration between the Kerala forest department and the ex-vanaya-bark collectors ecodevelopment committee.

The former ex-cinnamon bark poachers turned tourist guides' intimate knowledge about plants and animals, and their survival instincts make them ideal guides for ecotourism activities. Besides taking small groups of tourists on foot into the forest, they also assist forest guards in patrolling. The intelligence network of the park authorities has improved tremendously. The guide told us that Periyar Sanctuary has a total area of 777 square km.

Most of this land is pristine. In fact, this is one of the rare places where the increasing number of lodges, hotels, shops and eating places in are not considered a threat to the sanctuary. Forest Guards are always on the prowl: hunting, fishing or other damage to the Sanctuary is strictly not allowed.

Tourists may not dramatically improve the habitat and lives of people they visit, the least they can do is to try and not be a burden and bear responsibility for their actions. Why feel self-congratualtory and hide behind a facade of ‘green’ or ‘eco’ label: All tourism should be “eco” and “sustainable”. Right no?


   Taken for a ride   

A camel ride in the desert is great fun indeed. But camels have been much more than fun to the people of Rajasthan.

They are robust pack animals and can walk for miles a day and provide meat, wool, milk and fuel (their dung, like gobar, can be burnt on a fire!).

There also have been nomads here. But camel pastoralism is on the decline. While conservationists have been trying to preserve so many wild species, nobody is concerned about the dwindling number of camels in the Thar desert. Over 70 per cent of the 1.5 million one-humped camels, bred primarily in western India, are in Rajasthan. But with lack of available pasture and veterinary care, economic hardships are forcing the keepers of the singlehumped camel to abandon their time-honoured occupation in search of alternative sources of livelihood. In fact, camels represent the only livestock in India whose population is showing a downward swing. In one village alone, the number of camels in the village from 1000 to a mere 50 in the last ten years. At this rate, the master animal of scarcity could soon be on the verge of extinction.

Hotel RunOff An 'ecohotel' is not just about reusing towels

Construction of hotels, recreation and other facilities often leads to increased sewage pollution. Wastewater has
polluted seas and lakes surrounding tourist attractions, damaging the flora and fauna. Sewage runoff causes serious damage to coral reefs because it stimulates the growth of algae, which cover the filter-feeding corals, hindering their ability to survive. Changes in salinity and siltation can have wide-ranging impacts on coastal environments. And sewage pollution can threaten the health of humans and animals.

(UNEP Report on Tourism)

The world’s golf courses guzzle a mind-boggling 10 billion litres of water a day. That’s enough drinking water for almost half of the world’s population!


Tourism is one of the world’s largest Industries. Yet few of the tourist's dollars remain in the local economy. In Kenya, it was found that only $7 million of the $300 million generated by parks was returned to them.

Kovalam, in Kerala, threw open it’s beaches to tourists all over the world in the early eighties. That resulted in an unprecedented boom and the dollars greatly boosted the local economy of the small fishing village.

However, within 20 years, the boom mysteriously went bust and tourists stopped coming to the palm-lined sandy beaches of Kovalam. Local tour operators were stumped. There were no obvious economic factors at play and neither were tourist tastes changing.

Soon, they zeroed in on the problem. Accumulating mounds of waste around the village centre were chasing the tourist away. While everyone was busy cleaning the beaches to attract more tourists, there were no waste management plans for the rest of the areas. So at the end of the great tourist boom, Kovalam was just left with a lot of rubbish.

    Increasing dependence on tourism   

And the rest of the developing world should take note of the Kovalam example. For, tourist desires are shifting and destinations like Europe and North America are becoming less dominant in the international market. Visits to Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in the developing world have increased dramatically in the last 25 years. One in every five international tourists now travels from an industrial country to a developing one, up from one in 13 in the mid-1970s.

So, all over the the developing world, governments are pumping money into tourism infrastructure projects like roads and hotels. They are offering promotional assistance as well as economic incentives. In fact, by luring tourist dollars, they want to diversify their economies and attract the foreign exchange needed to reduce heavy debt burdens, pay for imports, strengthen domestic infrastructure, and boost social services like education and health care. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are behind many of these efforts.

Developing countries are banking on the fact that tourism can be more lucrative and less resource-intensive than growing a single cash crop or pursuing traditional industries like mining, oil development, and manufacturing. A study found that tourism is significant or growing in all but one of the 12 countries that are home to 80 percent of the world’s poor — including Brazil, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Peru, and the Philippines. Many countries rely heavily on tourism to boost their economies. In fact, for the world’s 49 so-called least developed countries, most of which are in Africa or Asia, tourism is one of few ways to actually participate in the global economy.

    “Leakages” back to the West   

But the economics aren’t as simple as that. Already, around half of the tourism revenue that enters the developing world “leaks” back out — through profits earned by foreign-owned businesses, promotional spending abroad, or to pay for imported labor and goods. What this means that if an American tourist comes to India in an American plane, stays in an American-owned star hotel and only buys American products (like Pepsi and Coke for example), then it is but natural that the American economy will benefit more than the Indian one. For he is also leaving behind his huge ecological footprint on Indian soil.

It has been estimated that in the Caribbean countries, up to 70 percent of tourism earnings go toward acquiring imports — from skilled staff to food and consumer goods!

    Who really benefits?   

Also, tourism has an uneven impacts on indigenous cultures, of which there are so many in the developing and underdeveloped orld. On the plus side, tourism revenue can help to meet the basic needs and help sustain local communities. But more often than not, many indigenous communities end up as passive participants in ventures that are promoted and run from the outside, leaving them little say in the changes that tourism brings.

Another factor is that where do the tourist dollars actually end up? Do they help the habitats on which they are dependant or do they end up only in the pockets of local elites and multinationals.

It has been estimated that in the Caribbean countries, up to 70 per cent of tourism earnings go toward acquiring imports — from skilled staff to food and consumer goods!

For example, in Kenya, it was found that only $7 million of the $300 million generated by parks was returned to them. That was found to be woefully inadequate. The story is the same with most parks in developing countries. Further, they are grossly overcrowded and charge woefully inadequate entry fees to foreign visitors.

    What needs to be done?   

Industry groups, NGOs and the public have to be more aware and pro-active to promote sustainable tourism.

In the case of Kovalam, in February 2001, activists and local groups launched “Zero Waste Kovalam, a project that aims to convert the village into a zero-waste community by incorporating strategies of reduction, recycling, and reuse into the various waste streams.

Similarly, local groups convinced the Mexican government to revoke permits for five hotel companies to build resorts, golf courses, and other facilities at X’cacel, a 165-hectare stretch of beach south of Cancun that is home to 40 protected species.

Governments should ensure that foreign tourists follow strict visitor rules and regulations, buy local food and crafts and stay in lower-impact lodging. For the local economy and people to benefit tourism needs to be managed and operated by local communities as far as possible.







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