The Price of Tourism in India

We’re in Mamallapuram, a small former fishing village in Tamil Nadu, South India. In recent years it has become increasingly reliant on tourism. Visitors are attracted by the fantastic rock carvings illustrating Hindu mythology, seashore temples and temples carved from rock. It’s the middle of the four-month long tourist season now. Groups of foreigners styled by local tailors in lightweight silks and designer hippy chic mingle on the streets with sari-clad women and men in lunghies.

A couple of weeks ago the bulldozers moved in to the half kilometre stretch of road leading to one of the main monument sites: the five Rathas. Before the bulldozers embarked on their wholesale destruction, the street was shady and lined with statues. Stone carvers worked slabs of granite into Hindu deities, elephants, Buddha heads and dancing girls. Small shops sold the carvings to tourists on their way to visit the monument. Coconut sellers, chai shops and fruit-sellers plied their business under the shade of spreading neem trees.

Then the bulldozers came.

According to Kumar, the bulldozers are implementing a tourism development plan conceived over twenty years ago. Integral to this plan is the removal of most of the street trees, along with the small shops which had encroached on government land earmarked for the road development.

Cycling to see a friend, I came across a scene of apocalyptic destruction – the sharp end of ‘tourism development’. The length of Five Rathas Road was lined with uprooted trees, roots pointing like accusing fingers towards the sky. Small groups of people clambered over them, sawing branches into manageable sizes for firewood. The statues had been hoisted onto flatbed lorries and taken away.

The air was full of the acrid fragrance of neem.

A crowd had gathered around the last tree still standing. A majestic neem, the size of a mid-sized oak, with wide spreading foliage. Beside it, an earthmover was delivering a series of body blows to the trunk. Each impact sent shudders through the tree, shaking branches and scattering leaves down to join the green carpet on the tarmac.

The spectators were quiet, their faces intense. There was a sense of unease in the air, a feeling of subdued tension. One woman shook her fist and shouted. A couple of foreign tourists pleaded with the driver of the earthmover. One started to climb into the cabin and had to be pulled back by men from the crowd. Tears crept down more than one face.

It was a long time before the tree finally toppled. It was like watching murder.

Kumar saw it too. ‘These trees may be sixty years old. We can rebuild our business but who can replace the trees?’

According to Kumar, the Plan – only selected parts of which have been revealed to locals¬ – was conceived by the Indira Gandhi government as part of a grand vision to open up the sites of the ancient monuments to a lucrative paying public.

‘Before ASI (Archeological Survey of India) everything was open, free,’ says Kumar. In the last three years, under the guise of ‘protecting’ the ancient monuments and temples, massive tracts of formerly common ground have been fenced off. Now only fee-paying visitors can see monuments which used to be open to everyone…and free.

‘They just want to make money, that’s all,’ asserts Kumar, rubbing his forefinger and thumb together.

This scene of environment, social and developmental carnage in Mamallapuram is in no way special or unusual. It is being re-enacted globally on a massive scale and is typical of the way in which so-called ‘tourism development’ is carried out. Local communities are rarely consulted and even more rarely have a say in whether or not development takes place. The results?

In Mamallapuram, formerly shady tree-lined streets are on the way to becoming a three lane highway. Small shops and vendors have gone and the trees and the habitat they provided for birds and palm nut squirrels have been destroyed. And this is in the name of tourism development; more coaches, more sightseers and more income.

Protaganists of the plan assert that this is a means of managing increasing amounts of vehicle traffic, including coaches, which jam the narrow streets most weekends of the season. However, the lessons learned in traffic management in Europe – that the more space given to road traffic, the more traffic is generated, have apparently not been researched by the powerful vested interests of the local road-building lobby. Rather than developing genuinely innovative schemes for transporting people the three kilometres between monuments, untested assumptions have been put into practice. ‘They don’t want people – just visitors,’ says Kumar.

The new tourists who draw up along the new boulevards in air-conditioned coaches and 4x4s will be blissfully unaware of the destruction carried out in their name. For the locals, however, it’s a different story. ‘How will the people with no shoes walk?’ asks Kumar. ‘All the natural beauty has been destroyed.’

Unlike the tourists, the locals will have to live with the consequences of this development for generations.

This article was originally published in the New Internationalist:

New Internationalist is an award-winning magazine produced by an independent publishing cooperative with editorial offices in England, Canada and Australia. The NI has campaigned on issues of global justice, world poverty and inequality for more than 30 years.