The Tourism Gandhi: Raj Basu
I am proud to call Raj Basu a friend. There are several people in Siliguri who are remarkable, both in their outlook as well as in the sort of work that they have done. Raj is one of them. He is one of the founders of Help Tourism, a Siliguri creation that has now spread wings and was the driving force behind the creation of village tourism and home stay tourism in India. He has been the architect of several innovative tourism products like the Mango festival. He is well known in tourism circles but in my opinion, he should be much better known still. I have written earlier about one of his creations. It is the turn now to tell you about Raj Basu himself.
To do so, I have used an interview format, again for the first time in Reflections. Raj talks about himself, his work and his plans for the future. I only hope that he will be able to complete the revolution that he has started in the tourism scene in North Bengal and NE India.
Raj, please tell me something about your background. Were you born and brought up and have your education in Siliguri itself?
My mother’s father, Santosh Paul was a quite well known personality from Jalpaiguri and was part of the Indian Independence movement. My father’s father, Souresh Chandra Bose was a planter and the tea estate was in the foothills of Bhutan Himalaya.
Born in Siliguri and initially studied in St.Josephs Siliguri and had to shift to Don Bosco as this became a girls school after Don Bosco was started.
Nursery to Class 6 in Siliguri, continuing Class 6 in Oak Grove School Mussoorie as the sessions are different, upto class 10.
11 and 12 at Bongaigaon in Assam and finally graduation with Zoology Honours from Siliguri College.
This was followed by a one year certificate course on wildlife in Kolkata.
Were you interested in ecology and travel from your schooldays and college days or is it a more recent interest? How did it develop?
Yes, childhood days in the forests and hills of North Bengal, Sikkim and Bhutan with my Mother side family, later as scouts in Mussoorie and then finally being educated in the field.
Can you tell me something about Help tourism and its origins?
I was then in the late 80s helping Sikkim with Tourism development, as you must be knowing that Sikkim started seeing tourism from 1985 onwards. In 1990, I realized that Sikkim cannot be developed in isolation in tourism and hence the field should include Darjeeling Hills and Dooars too. Three of us college classmates got together to form Help Tourism in 1991, 15th August. Everyone then laughed at us as they thought promoting tourism beyond Darjeeling-Kalimpong-Gangtok-Jaldapara was ridiculous. The International Youth Travel Confideration in later 1991 at Delhi was a eye opener and added to confidence that nature and adventure can be beyond clubs and used for creating livelihoods through tourism.
How did you come out with the concept of village tourism? As I know it, your team was the first to come out with this concept in North East India, and perhaps one of the first in India as well. Are you happy with how it has worked out?
Yes, we were the first to start with the village tourism movement in India. Firstly, we organized Nature Study and adventure camps in remote areas and then in 1993 September, we started with Pelling in West Sikkim as the first Help Tourism Destination, 1996 Gorumara and Lava and then on to 30 destinations today with more than 2500 stakeholders, growing in multiples based on the model and hence to include all ACT (Association for Conservation & Tourism), a non-profit NGO was created.
We are happy with the empowerment of local people and helping to bring them to a reasonable economical standard, where they have a better living.
We are worried that inspite of our repeated requests to the Central Government and state Governments for a rural tourism or ecotourism policy is being given a deaf ear. We have seen that pristine rural destinations that we have helped to create fall prey to conventional tourism hands and thereby may lose sustainability.
Siliguri and the Dooars are to some extent left behind when there is a flood of tourists to the Hills. Do you agree? If so, what do you feel needs to be done to improve the visibility of this area for domestic tourists and worldwide?
No, the Dooars have not been left out. It is only the way we have shown the trend. Most of the tourists (75% domestic from Kolkata and adjoining areas) look forward to the cold weather in the hills. The views of the snow-capped Khangchendzonga range is a major attraction. Dooars, though we have wonderful forests and several game animals, but we create least opportunity to see them or think for innovative programs beyond the accommodation, food and restricted entries. We need to nurture and create products to be made into easy packages combining with hills. We have seen the Nepal model, Kathmandu, Pokhra and Chitwan.
All that we need a careful thinking and sincerity by the Governments.
Do you think that mass tourism is a correct approach for fragile natural areas like the Dooars or other parts of North east India? Do you believe as some do that high value low volume tourism is the key? Mass Tourism cannot be the right approach as we already know that there is no sustainability and it exploits the local resources.
Even the Bhutan model for ‘High Value, low volume’ cannot be the model, as most of the time the high value product is only controlled by people who can invest highly in tourism and the rural stakeholders, ‘sometimes people below poverty line’ are not owners into the system.
Hence, a strong policy with proper carrying capacity analysis for every destination and a good monitoring system has to be in place. Rest all visitors with whatever economical capacity should be welcome, specially in India where traditions calls for ‘Guests as Gods’.
Tea tourism has a lot of potential, but somehow it has not really taken off. What do you think are the reasons?Again here it is the policy, the bureaucracy in land conversion for tourism from tea has been put in red tape. The present Government has however agreed to let the use of existing bungalows for the purpose of tourism.
Tea Tourism, like any other plantation tourism in the world is bound to be popular.
What are your prescriptions for the development of Siliguri as a tourism destination?
Siliguri is already the tourist transit hub for Northeast India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, only that we do not recognize the same.
Actions to attract the 08 Northeastern States and the 03 countries to have liaison offices here is a must to issue visas, permits and information.
Create an Inter- state and inter- country road transport network.
Complete Bagdogra Airport as a fully functional 24 hours civil airport.
Open Nathula immediately for tourism between Tibet (China) and India.
Multiple entry and exit to India to and from the 03 neighbouring countries.
Single SAARC visa and currency (Indian currency is already allowed in Nepal and Bhutan).
Can you tell me something about the festivals that you have organized recently, such as the mango festival, orange festival etc. Have they had the impact you had envisaged?
Yes, all the festivals that we have organized are people’s festival. This is mainly to introduce new tourism products, compliment the existing resources of the area, motivate local people to be tourism entrepreneurs and help awareness about the natural and cultural heritage which needs to be conserved.
The Dooars Frog and Toad Ecofest, Samsing-Jaldhaka Orange Festival, Gitanjali Mango Festival are some of the festivals of North Bengal which we help in organizing.
Several Northeast Festivals like the Namdapha Ecofest, Pangsau Pass Winter Festival, Rey Festival in Arunachal Pradesh are supported by Help Tourism.
Similarly several local festivals in Northeast India, time to time are supported by us to make them part of the tourism activity of the region.
Yes, I think by supporting these festivals and drawing global attention has given pride to the local people and realization of the rich local natural and cultural heritage they possess.
I know that you have a closely knit team at Help Tourism. Can you introduce some of them to us?
We have recently changed the partnership organization to Help Tourism Pvt.Ltd with Asit Biswas and Sanjib Saha as the founder Directors. Asit is a first class first Masters in Journalism and Sanjib a state level sportsman.
The coordinating offices at the distance of about 500 kms each, Kolkata, Siliguri, Guwahati and Dibrugarh is a line that controls tourism experiences both to the North and South from this line and often connects several neighbouring countries as a part of Cross-Border tourism circuits. As th Directors are field workers, these offices too are actively run by a strong team of 17 field workers like Animesh, Shishir, Taposhi, Dipankar, Snehashish, Paras, Sumitra and several members of the Help Tourism family.
Every village site has a coordinationg or community leader who can bring a positive change in the local society and also create good experiences for the visitors.
What are your dreams for Help Tourism in particular and tourism in North East India in general?
This part of the Indian subcontinent was once the richest economically, culturally and naturally. The political division has isolated India’s Northeast, finished the region economically, inspite of being the richest naturally and culturally in the whole of the country. 98% of its border is still shared internationally and only 02% with the country.
We need to open all land borders for tourism and make this a tourism entry to the country India (most of which is more of a water-locked peninsula) from the rest of Asia.
Make Northeast India through Myanmar the meeting ground for tourism with the Malayan Peninsula.
Can we end on a personal note? Tell me something about your family? Do you feel that your hectic travelling schedule causes difficulties in your family Life? How do you cope?
My mother has been my guiding force into being a part of nature, people and cultures. Most of my friends say that tourism is my first wife and you can well understand the problem you may have in the family in regard to giving time and attention. My wife Abhaya, a principal of one of the oldest schools of Siliguri with about 1000 students has however taken the responsibility of the family, which has given me the opportunity to dedicate myself for this work. All friends and relatives have been extremely cooperative in establishing the tourism movement in the East and Northeast India, which is often referred to by the local people as ‘Help Tourism movement’.
I often feel proud when several senior people in Northeast India call me the ‘tourism Gandhi’, I really feel that I have been able to make tourism a people’s movement.
I do not cope, it is like flowing water, I just put myself as it flows.