A spectacle to behold, the waterfall is just one of 25 in Chhattisgarh's picturesque Bastar region, viewed by many as a Naxal stronghold, and yet to make it to the bucket list of most tourists.
Tucked away in the dense forests of the Vindhyas in south Chhattisgarh, the Chitrakote waterfall, popularly known as the Niagara of India, is in full glory in the monsoon season, the sound of water crashing on the rocks travelling up to a kilometer.
A spectacle to behold, the waterfall is just one of 25 in Chhattisgarh’s picturesque Bastar region, viewed by many as a Naxal stronghold, and yet to make it to the bucket list of most tourists. But the administration is working to maximise the potential of the region that also has mountains, valleys, streams, caves, national parks and monuments.
Despite its natural riches and huge eco-tourism possibilities, the people of the region have been migrating to other states in search of work.
It made the administration think: Can a self-sustaining economic model be built around eco-tourism, with locals as owners, to create employment opportunities, arrest migration, and counter Naxalism?
For the last one-and-a-half years, the Bastar administration has been working on the idea, creating samitis (committees) at the village level with the power to operate tourism activities in their areas.
“Since the region is covered under the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, or PESA Act, which ensures self-governance through Gram Sabhas in scheduled areas, only the samitis can decide which tourism activities can be taken up in their areas, says Jeet Singh, a tour operator working with the Bastar district administration on the project.
According to the 2011 census, Scheduled Tribes account for 65.9 per cent of the total population in Bastar district.
Only the community has the power to manage any tourist destination, and a private player cannot build resorts or set up a camp until the locals permit it.
Private tour operators come into the picture where specialised skills are needed for activities such as trekking, rappelling, paramotoring, camping, etc. The idea is to create local employment opportunities for community members. They can operate parking facilities, work as tour guides, and organise nature trails and camps, a consultant working with the district administration says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the need for creating job opportunities locally. Sant Kumar, 19, had left Bastar to work in a factory in Hyderabad after completing senior secondary school, but returned after the pandemic forced the closure of the unit.
Now, he is part of the 16-member Bijakasa Pariyatan Samiti and works as a tour guide at the recently discovered Bijakasa waterfall, around 20 km from Jagdalpur, the headquarters of the Bastar district.
Kumar says he earns up to Rs 15,000 a month working as a tour guide against Rs 12,000 a month he would get at the factory.
The consultant says scores of youths have found work through such samitis at other tourist attractions in the district such as Tamda Ghumar waterfall, Kailash caves and Michnar rocks.
Bastar District Magistrate Rajat Bansal says the model was first adopted in Dhamtari district, 90 km from Raipur. The chief minister was keen on replicating it in Bastar to give a fillip to its image, he says. The forest land belongs to local communities. Our role is to train them to promote tourism. The tour operators working with us only get a commission (10 per cent to 20 per cent) and the ownership and decision-making power rests with the villagers, Bansal says.
The administration is also helping villagers create a network of homestays in the region to give tourists authentic experiences of the daily life of the local community, their culture, cuisine, and art.
The gram panchayat decides where the homestay will be set up. Only if the owner of the land agrees, the process is started. Setting up a homestay costs anything between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 3 lakh. Up to 90 per cent of the cost is borne by the administration, the rest comes from the local owner.
Of the 26 homestays sanctioned so far, 16 have been completed. Around 500 local residents have been engaged to operate them.
One such homestay has come upon the land owned by Lachhin Bhagel, who lost his job at a sawmill in Hyderabad due to the pandemic. He has so far hosted two groups of tourists from Delhi and Nagpur for a couple of nights and it fetched him Rs 1,400.
Bhagel says he won’t have to go to Hyderabad again if his homestay gets booked for even 10 to 12 days a month. At the sawmill, he earned Rs 6,000 a month. Tourists will be able to book these homestays through a portal — travelbastar.com — which also offers adventure treks and sports.
We have been working on the website for the last two months. These homestays can be combined with treks and adventure sports such as rappelling and rock climbing. A customized package will be available on the portal, Bansal says.
But the administration is cautious that the tourist influx doesn’t affect the fragile tribal culture. We do not want commercial interests to take precedence (over local environment and culture). We are trying to create an economic model where the locals see value in their culture, the DM says.
The tourists will be issued a pass and their itinerary details will be available to police and district authorities.
Officials say it is a carefully crafted model which can be replicated in all seven districts of the Bastar division — Bastar, Dantewada, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Sukma, Kondagaon and Kanker — to actually challenge the Naxal issue.
Private tour operator Shakeel Rizvi cites the example of Northeastern states which have “successfully” implemented the concept of homestays and eco-tourism and says it is unlikely to affect the tribal culture.
Rizvi, however, feels that though eco-tourism will generate employment, it alone cannot counter Naxalism. For that, the government has to recognise the rights of people and give them basic facilities, he says.