By: Dipak Kurmi
The cities of Gangtok and Shillong within the Northeastern region of India have become heavily reliant on the tourism industry. Gangtok, serving as the capital of Sikkim, emerges as a sought-after destination for both indigenous and global tourists. The urban landscape stands embellished with the majestic presence of mountains, verdant trees, blossoming flora, and traditional elements encompassing gastronomy, fruits, spices, and attire. A distinctive embellishment, generously funded by external sources, has transformed the central nucleus, Gandhi Marg, into a captivating enclave liberated from the clutches of commercial activities and vehicular congestion. Within this realm, visitors are privy to the exquisite experience of reclining on wooden benches during the evening, indulging in warm tea, and relishing musical melodies. The diligent local youth swiftly dispense pristine tea, while the prohibition of automobiles fosters an environment of pristine purity, evoking the sensation of wandering through an enchanting floral haven.
The divergence arises in Shillong, a mere bipartite-hour journey from Guwahati, as transformations unravel. Bhupen Hazarika’s Lien Maca and Monalisa Lingdo have relinquished their presence, leaving behind a landscape grappling with upheavals such as disorderly thoroughfares, unkempt marketplaces, and ceaseless gridlock. Cherrapunji, once an alluring magnet, now languishes amidst plastic detritus and an urban expanse of concrete. Roughly two decades earlier, wanderers were greeted by the redolence of pine trees and luxuriant foliage upon traversing Nangpo. The crimson soil was but a whisper, and apprehensions of landslides were meager. Today, however, the ambience is tainted by roadworks, mining ventures, and relentless vehicular activity, resulting in precariously perched lofty edifices perilously jutting from mountain precipices. With a certain seasonality, landslides now materialize as an annual catastrophe. Shillong’s epicentral domain primarily remains inhospitable for both vehicular transit and pedestrian passage, except for scant vestiges. Maladroit allocation of land, substandard traffic oversight, and superfluous market proliferation have collectively coalesced, rendering Shillong a less-than-ideal pause for travelers. Sanitary waste management endeavors remain conspicuously deficient. Nonetheless, Shailan Gabi steadfastly accommodates a continual influx of visitors, spanning the entire spectrum of seasons – be it summer, monsoon, winter, or spring – with a substantial proportion hailing from Assam, particularly Guwahati.
A short span prior, a widely recognized journalist hailing from Meghalaya vociferated concerns, ascribing the city’s predicaments to Assam’s tourists and their affinity for maggi noodles. He contended that these quandaries have been aggravated by a ceaseless influx of visitors journeying from Assam to Meghalaya. In Guwahati, these sojourners proceed to concoct and relish maggi by the thoroughfare, regrettably, without accruing benefits to the locals. The resultant escalation in vehicular movement further engenders vexations within the community. The journalist specifically imputed culpability onto the ‘immigrant’ populace originating from Assam. However, it seems to elude the journalist that the proprietors of Shillong’s lodgings would likely spearhead protests against any potential restrictions on tourists from Assam. Their commercial enterprises pivot on merchandise, textiles, footwear, and snug attire, hinging heavily on these visitors. Tourists themselves also encounter impediments arising from confined roadways, unclean pedestrian walkways, and petite, unhygienic food kiosks dotting the entirety of the state, with the exception of the Ward’s Lake locale. A recent sojourn to Gulmarg in Kashmir unveiled a starkly contrasting panorama: an environment untainted by plastic, untouched by pollution, and devoid of bustling markets, allowing solely tourist and military vehicles passage. The nearby denizens from neighbouring hamlets conveniently traverse on foot, fulfilling their roles as vendors. At present, Shillong finds itself grappling with an inflow of concrete constructs, reminiscent of the topographical settings prevailing in the northerly regions of India. This coincides with a proliferation of shops, intensifying the quandary of vehicular congestion. Unless this matter is addressed with alacrity, Shillong’s allure, akin to the hill towns nestled in the Himalayas up north, could languish perilously. The exigent adoption of judicious tourism policies, informed by the managerial paradigms of prominent national metropolises such as Darjeeling and Gangtok, stands as a pivotal imperative. The urgency for resolute action is paramount. In the contemporary milieu, to circumvent vehicular gridlocks, we consciously elect to ensconce ourselves within a lakeside resort enveloped by pine trees in Barapani, refraining from venturing into Shillong’s urban localities during our visits to Meghalaya.
Prominent scribe Patricia Mukhim may remain oblivious to the tribulations endured by the marginalized denizens of Meghalaya, who find themselves tethered to tourists for sustenance. Khasi women, proprietors of petite establishments lining the Guwahati-Shillong route, ingeniously eke out livelihoods by vending bamboo crafts and succulent pineapples to our populace. The mantle of responsibility falls squarely on the administration’s shoulders to furnish secure havens, facilitating the indulgence of Meghalaya’s local populace in weekend respites and leisure interludes. If warranted, a strategic maneuver might involve the designation of Sundays as a sanctuary from tourists’ footfalls across Meghalaya’s precincts, an initiative likely to garner widespread approval. Nonetheless, such an initiative could court backlash from a substantial majority of Shillong’s commercial operators, barring a select affluent clique. The journalist, in due course, voiced reservations pertaining to the erratic conduct exhibited by drivers from Assam. Nonetheless, visitors too shoulder accountability in this domain. Remedial actions to bridle such behavioral laxities stand as an indispensable requisite. The practice of preparing maggi over gas burners at roadside enclaves is undeniably intolerable, albeit the notion of responding with violence, an impetuous suggestion, cannot be sanctioned.
Tourism emerges as a domain interwoven with nature’s ethos, offering a wellspring of local fiscal augmentation through meticulously orchestrated stratagems. This trajectory, however, must sidestep ecologically deleterious pursuits, such as the arbitrary cleaving of mountains to facilitate road expanses or the issuance of novel edifice permits, particularly within Shillong’s confines. The imperatives of highway safety dictate the purging of precarious trees adorning pathways, erecting a bulwark against potential hazards for travellers. The reverberations of mountain truncation on slide phenomena spotlight the exigency for judiciousness. It’s worth highlighting Vietnam’s feat in constructing last year the world’s lengthiest bridge hinged to a mountainside, emblematic of a seamless accord between nature and technology, eschewing the need for invasive excavations or timber extractions, a striking display of boundless potentialities.
Meghalaya’s burgeoning tourism sector confronts an array of formidable impediments. The terrain brims with an opulent allure catering to the proclivities of nature aficionados, thrill-seekers, and trekking enthusiasts alike. It stands as an idyllic haven, beckoning not only to lens wielders but also to the quills of writers, the verses of poets, and the canvases of artists. To buttress the indigenous populace, the imperative lies in fostering avenues that facilitate the trade in postcards, mementos, pine arboreal specimens, and nascent orchid life within lodgings, eateries, and preeminent emporia. The resonance for customary Khasi garb, ornamental finery, bamboo artistry, and rattan wares resonates robustly. The province’s tourism apparatus could strategically embrace methodologies conducive to enticing footfall from varied corners of the nation, with particular emphasis on the panorama of West Bengal.
The quandary for Meghalaya’s tourism department stems from a paucity of erudite guides, a predicament that culminated in our befuddlement and tribulations. In proximity, merely a kilometer distant from Shillong’s epicenter, sprawls Laitlum Park, where a sinuous river meanders through serrated mountain ranges, forging a serpentine chasm betwixt verdant expanses, proffering vistas that seize the breath. Despite our initial intrigue kindled by an extensive video exposure, our fascination waned precipitously, dissipated within a scant half-hour of setting foot there. The labyrinthine labyrinth of mobile map’s directives, tethered to vertiginous inclines, labyrinthine bends, and precipitous gradients, added a layer of intricacy. Relying on the local populace for guidance along our trajectory proved a capricious endeavor. In stark contradistinction to foreign locales where brochures and maps shepherd voyagers, Shillong’s precincts languish bereft of such navigational aids, and the traffic constabulary seem bereft of vested engagement. Contrariwise, Thimphu, the metropolis of Bhutan, ushered us with streets pulsating in vibrancy, boutiques bedecked in resplendence, and viewpoints that beckoned with entrancing allure, while Shillong’s denizens settled for hawking expedient packs of instant noodles and crisps. Nurturing the province’s burgeoning tourism sector mandates rigorous attention, and my sanguine aspiration remains tethered to influential chroniclers casting illumination upon this perspective. (The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)