McLeodganj goes global sans basic facilities (Letter from McLeodganj)

June 5th, 2008 - 11:28 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Richard Gere
By Jaideep Sarin
McLeodganj, June 5 (IANS) The steep nine-kilometre drive from Dharamsala town of Himachal Pradesh to McLeodganj - the abode of Tibetan spiritual head the Dalai Lama - may be a motorist’s delight but that is no guarantee against a bumpy experience. Attracting thousands of visitors every year, the majority being foreigners from across the globe, McLeodganj is literally torn between its international image and the ground realities of a haphazardly made northern Indian small town.

The drive up to McLeodganj from Dharamsala is a pleasant one, mainly due to its upkeep by the military authorities who have a small military station en route. The green cover on the hill adds to the charm.

But once you reach here, the story is different. Stinking garbage dumps and open drains at practically every available corner, broken and congested roads, chaos and pollution of scores of vehicles and several other problems are part of the daily life in this town.

Despite all this, the town sees a near full house in its 200-odd hotels for most of the year - thanks to the global attraction of the Dalai Lama, who conducts his teachings at the main temple here at least two or three times every year.

“Hotels go full most of the time, especially in peak tourist seasons in summer (April-July) and winter (December-January). Guests, especially foreigners, make bookings for rooms at least six to eight months in advance whenever the Dalai Lama is scheduled to deliver his teachings,” hotelier Ram Sarup told IANS.

The Tibetan-dominated township gets several celebrity tourists every year. The likes of Hollywood actor Richard Gere, former James Bond Pierce Brosnan and Melinda Gates (wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates) have been here in recent years along with scores of other well-known people.

The state government had sanctioned Rs.30 million for development of the town in 2005 and to streamline the congestion here but nothing seems to have changed.

“Whatever we do, the flow of tourists keeps increasing every year and puts more burden on the existing infrastructure,” is the defence put up by a district official on the lack of basic facilities in this international tourist spot.

Foreign tourists come here from the United States, Israel, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Britain, Germany, Russia, Scandinavian countries and several other countries in Europe and elsewhere. Many of them stay here for several months.

At any given time, nearly 500 taxis - from Maruti vans to Toyota Innovas - and auto-rickshaws ply on the congested roads of the town, adding to the chaos and making walking difficult.

“We also don’t like the chaos that our taxis create. But these vehicles are the lifeline of this place,” says taxi driver Manoj Pathania.

An earlier move to have multi-storeyed parking lots at the two ends of the town and to make the main street - the Temple Road - vehicle-free and only for pedestrians seems to have been lost in government files.

Still, the main tourist attractions - the main temple and the palace of the Dalai Lama, monasteries in and around the town, the Bhagsu temple and its waterfall, the church of Saint John’s in the Wilderness, the small Dal lake and Naddi - continue to get hordes of tourists every day.

“Things have gone from bad to worse here but the flow of tourists, especially foreigners, does not stop. The state government should do something to enhance the beauty of this place so that visitors do not carry a bad image from here,” points out local activist Sumit Jaswal.

The Dalai Lama heads the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala. He came here after fleeing Chinese occupation in 1959.

(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at jaideep.s@ians.in)

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