In the Seventies, long before terms like ‘climate change’ and ‘eco-friendly’ became common parlance, a movement in Kerala stopped the construction of a dam in a rainforest. Started as a small community protest, it went on to become the famous Silent Valley movement environmentalists would swear by. Three decades later, in the same Palakkad district, where people had transformed the Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project into the Silent Valley National Park, another water-related protest threw out the giant Coca-Cola company accused of depleting natural resources. Then, in the years that passed, Kerala forgot about its own struggles to save the planet.
Now, nearly half-a-century after the Silent Valley movement, the recent devastating floods in the nature-endowed state have brought the word ‘dam’ back into focus. Inundated in August with torrents of water from the sky and filled-to-capacity dams, Kerala is now paying attention to terms like ‘environment’ and ‘sustainability’ once again. And that’s because the state has decided to use tourism to start rebuilding itself. With one in 10 people in the state employed in the tourism sector, Kerala has pinned its hopes on its pristine destinations to provide the impetus required for its reconstruction. Tourism, which contributes 10% to the state’s gross domestic product, has strong links with the local community.
Even as the tourism industry gears up to the task of reconstruction, there is a deep focus on its role in the unsustainable development the state witnessed in the past two decades. More than a month after the deluge, Kerala has moved on from praise for relief and rescue operations by the government and community to asking tough questions on the reasons for the worst floods in a century. “The Kerala model of tourism in the mid-90s was small and indigenous,” says Kochi-based hospitality entrepreneur Jose Dominic. “But then the bigger capital flew in and built a model that was alien to the state,” adds Dominic, whose CGH Earth group is among the pioneers in environment-friendly resorts in Kerala. “The whole attitude towards development has to undergo a sea change. We must learn from tribal communities… Tread softly on land,” says Dominic.
There is a mountain of anger over the consequences of levelling paddy fields and slicing fragile hills to build hotels and resorts in the past one decade. Many people are eager to see the state taking a favourable view of the 2011 Gadgil report on protecting the state’s rich biodiversity by curbing construction and limiting the number of dams that alter the natural flow of rivers. While the floods of August are attributed to unprecedented rains and opening of dams, questions are also being raised on the manner in which development was managed, especially in relation to the tourism industry. “The floods should be seen as a wake-up call for the way tourism is practised in Kerala, particularly in fragile areas,” says state principal secretary (culture) Venu V, a senior civil servant and former state tourism secretary. “In Wayanad and Idukki districts, one sees numerous examples of irresponsible construction in the name of tourism. Taking advantage of lax regulatory regimes, resorts and tourist facilities have mushroomed, cutting into precarious mountain slopes and destroying natural heritage. This is the antithesis of what tourism in Kerala ought to be. If the floods and damage wrought by nature bring to the administration an urgency in putting in place strict regulations, we would have saved tourism for the future,” feels Venu.
Agrees New Delhi-based Suman Billa, joint secretary in the Union tourism ministry: “For Kerala, sustainable tourism is not an option. It should be the guiding principle. We have to give back to the environment as much as we take from it, if not more,” says Billa, who was the tourism secretary in Kerala when the state won the UN World Tourism Organisation’s Ullysses Prize for Responsible Tourism in Kumarakom in 2013.
“Maintaining ecological balance is important. Secondly, tourism should not be confined only to entrepreneurs and tourists. It should benefit local communities as well,” says Billa, who wants to see tourism become an instrument for change and betterment for the local community. “(It shouldn’t just) be the tourist who gets enriched from the community, the community should also get enriched from the tourist. Mutual respect and learning… that’s perhaps the only way to go forward.”
The recent signals from the government show that it’s willing to accept the criticism and take remedial steps. “Tourism in Kerala is essentially dependent on nature, so we are duty-bound to preserve and protect it. The recent floods also remind us of this inescapable fact,” said chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan while inaugurating Kerala Travel Mart, an international buyer-seller meet held in Kochi recently. “If we allow construction activities that harm the ecology and beauty of our destinations, they will cease to attract visitors. The floods also carried the message that it was time we put a stop to such activities,” Vijayan said.
The floods, which displaced nearly one million people, have wreaked havoc on the state’s economy. The losses have mounted to `40,000 crore from the initial estimate of `20,000 crore. The death toll from the disaster, which affected all the 14 districts of the state, is 483. Thousands of people still live in tin sheds pitched in places where their homes stood only a few weeks ago.
So it’s no wonder that Vijayan is rooting for a ‘responsible tourism model’, essentially a throwback to the 90s model that eco-warriors like Dominic support. The chief minister is pointing towards a coming together of entrepreneurs and the local community, wherein farmers, craftsmen and artists will benefit from the harmony. There is also an emphasis on empowerment of women through tie-ups between the hospitality sector and Kudumbashree, the biggest group of women workers in the state. “There is an awareness about the environment after the floods,” says Thiruvananthapuram-based Rupesh Kumar K, coordinator of the state’s Responsible Tourism Mission. “Unlike the 2004 tsunami that hit Kerala, the disaster this time made the industry think about the community,” adds Kumar.
Immediately after the floods started, the state tourism sector formed a Tourism Task Force for relief and rescue work. More than 200 houseboats were opened to families displaced by the floods in the backwaters around Alappuzha and Kumarakom. As many as 1,600 hotel rooms were converted into shelters, 1,000 truckloads of food and clothes were distributed, and even a helicopter (used for adventure tourism) was employed to rescue stranded families.
As the waters started receding, the Kerala tourism department commissioned a survey in 70 major destinations to find out the damage to facilities and connectivity. The Tourism Readyness Survey, conducted between September 5 and 15, found that most of the major destinations were ready to resume operations. The flooded international airport in Kochi resumed flights on August 29, a fortnight after the start of the floods. The tourism department also lost no time in launching new campaigns to draw visitors back to the state. One such campaign is called ‘The Sun is Out’. Another, ‘This Time For Kerala’, echoes the 2010 South Africa World Cup slogan in the football-crazy state.
The tourism industry in Kerala, which estimates a loss of business of `2,000 crore during August-September and material damage of another `500 crore, is confident that international travellers will return soon. “We are worried about domestic tourists,” says Thiruvananthapuram-based Baby Mathew, who owns the Somatheeram Ayurveda Group of resorts in Kerala. “We expect the business to become normal by December,” adds Mathew.
‘This Time For Kerala’ campaign has already reached major Indian cities like Delhi and Ahmedabad, with more roadshows planned in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad in the coming weeks.
The tourism department’s message seems to have worked for Kamesh Khaitan, who had a tough decision to make a fortnight back, one that could make or break his family’s planned trip to Kerala. “We had already made the bookings, but after the floods, the question was whether we should go,” says the 65-year-old family patriarch from Delhi. “We were thinking, ‘Do we really want to see destruction during our holiday?’ Then we thought we should be helping the state and we said, ‘Let’s go’,’’ recalls Khaitan, sitting in a luxury resort in Kochi a week ago. Khaitan’s decision to bring his large extended family of 82 people—who came together for a reunion from places like Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Kathmandu—to the state is exactly what Kerala needs to pick up the threads of revival.
The overwhelming show of support from the rest of the country and abroad has also given the state tremendous confidence in overcoming the disaster. Ordinary people in Kerala continue to extend a helping hand to flood-affected families, many of whom are directly or otherwise linked to the tourism sector. When the weavers’ village of Chendamangalam, about 30 km north of Kochi, came under eight-and-a-half feet of water, destroying all their stock for the busy Onam season, scores of people came forward to help. Under the Compassionate Kerala initiative, volunteers collected old saris and dhotis to make dolls out of them. ‘Chekutty’, as the doll is named, has become a beacon of hope for the distressed weavers. “We have already collected nearly `10 lakh by selling the dolls,” says Neenu Rathin, a volunteer from Kochi. The money will go to the weaving community to help them start working again.
In Chennamkary, 10 km from Alappuzha, the famed houseboats are readying themselves to receive visitors. Spice Routes, a houseboat operator with eight luxury vessels, saw its 120-year-old office building go underwater in August. “There was four feet of water inside the building,” says Jobin J Akkarakalam, director, Spice Routes. The company, which has bought new furniture and is restoring its majestic building to former glory, was at the centre of rescue and relief during the disaster. “I took two speedboats and rescued stranded villagers,” says Akkarakalam. “There were zero casualties in Kuttanadu,” he says, referring to the backwaters region of Alappuzha. The company supplied beds, pressure cookers, cooking stoves and utensils to affected employees and even accommodated two families in one of its houseboats.
Rajeela Sunil, who does the daily cleaning work at Spice Routes, lives with her 12-year-old son and 76-year-old mother in a metal shed after her three-room house was washed away in the floods. “We shifted from the house when there was five feet of water inside,” recalls Sunil, a widow. “The house fell five days later.” While her employer helped her during the floods, Sunil has yet to receive any assistance from the government. “We spent money to make the metal shed,” she says. “It’s like a furnace during the day when the sun is out,” adds Sunil.
Sunil’s wait for help to rebuild her home is similar to her employer’s and the tourism industry’s hope to hit the road of recovery. More and more families like Khaitan’s arriving in Kerala will definitely start the momentum for the tourism industry. But for people like Sunil, it would take much more. Only then would Kerala have returned to business, responsibly this time.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer