SUBJECT :The New Year will see the beginning of a project in Himachal Pradesh to generate livelihoods while promoting eco-tourism 

Boatman Vijay Kumar takes tourists around the place Sarita Brara


January 9, 2019: The New Year will see the beginning of a project in Himachal Pradesh to generate livelihoods while promoting eco-tourism.

Sarita Brara, 2019 could bring good tidings for boatman Vijay Kumar and many others from the villages around the Pong Dam Wildlife Bird Sanctuary in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. An ambitious eco-tourism project is all set to take wing here, on New Year’s Day.

Apart from being a boatman, Kumar is an anti-poacher, guide and a birder — all rolled into one. Hailing from village Nagrota Surian, the multi-talented Kumar has been giving his services to the State Forest Department in the sanctuary for the past 7-8 years as a daily wager. Many other villagers too have been serving the department. Now, with the new project, all of them can look forward to stable incomes and a grassroots livelihood.

The Pong Lake area attracts over 1.20 lakh migratory birds from over 400 species every year, between November and March. Spread over 207 sq km, the sanctuary is a designated Ramsar site (status given to the wetland sites of international importance) and has vast potential to be developed into a major eco-tourism destination.

In fact, it is with the twin objectives of promoting eco-tourism and ensuring economic returns for the local inhabitants that a Pong Lake Biodiversity Conservation Society was set up in 2015.

According to the Divisional Forest Officer, Hamirpur, Krishan Kumar, a plan for generating funds was chalked out in July this year and that kick-started the project.

Facilities for tourists

Kumar says currently visitors only come for a few hours, watch the avian guests at the lake and leave after taking photographs. This is because the place lacks good facilities. But once the project is up and ready, they will be able to stay at the accommodation being readied close to the sanctuary. To start with, 15 tenting structures have been constructed and three huts of the Forest Department are on offer to visitors. A cycling track is also near completion. Kumar says the society’s boats will also start taking visitors to the Rancer island in the Pong reservoir, a paradise for bird watchers. “It is the biggest congregation point of bar-headed geese in the world.”

The Society, which has representation from all departments with direct or indirect stake in the Pong Lake, aims to create awareness amongst the local people on eco-tourism activities, build their capacities, and promote cooperatives amongst local artisans for production and sale of handicrafts.

Eco trails and eco parks in the area of operation will also be identified and infrastructure facilities developed along these trails. A nature interpretation centre, equipped with booklets and other media, will also be set up to spread information among interested visitors. “Locals in the nearby villages are going to get employment in the form of cooks, guards, housekeepers, bird ringers, guides, boatmen, cycle renters and repair persons,” says the forest officer.

Economic Avenue for artists

Sikander from Suknara village, a tourist guide who also works on a casual basis with the Forest Department, hopes to get stable employment along with other youth from his village. Neighbouring panchayats too have pinned their hopes on this project for employment.

Rajesh Kumar, who heads the Nandpur Bhatoli gram panchayat, is hopeful that the artistic talent in his village that has remained unknown to the outside world will finally get its due recognition.

“People in my village make beautiful artifacts such as bamboo fans and baskets and a variety of clay products which could be sold at outlets on the fringe of the sanctuary,” he says.

M R Sharma, an environment activist from Dhameta village and an enthusiastic ex-officio member of the Society, says there are several scenic spots around the sanctuary that have the potential to attract tourists but need to be developed.

He suggests that the society take a look at the Jakhara panchayat where the Buhal rivulet flows, as the place has the potential to be turned into a tortoise hub, along with a crocodile pond and a butterfly park.

There are apparently many more suggestions in the hat, but of course it will take time to realise the full potential of the project. But with New Year’s Day begins the new journey.