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Maharashtra government to boost eco-tourism in buffer areas of woodlands

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Maharashtra government to boost eco-tourism in buffer areas of woodlands
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The Maharashtra state government has decided to boost eco-tourism in the buffer areas of woodlands to improve the deteriorating condition of forests as well as generate a source of income for the state exchequer, according to a CMO official.

The state government hopes to generate an annual income of Rs 10000 crore by enhancing inflow of international tourists near Tadoba and Pench in the Vidarbha region. "We will develop the entire region around Tadoba and Pench into an eco-tourim zone so that we can attract international tourists there. It has been calculated that around eight million people visit India every year," Principal secretary in the Chief Minister's Office Praveen Pardeshi told PTI.

"If we could attract only 10% of tourists to the forests of Vidarbha, we would have about eight lakh people visiting us yearly. Say if they spend about $200 a day for only around four days, the state would earn an annual income of Rs 10,000 crore," he said. The IAS officer said that until now, the government's focus was on core forest areas, but focus would now be shifted towards buffer zones. "By focusing on buffer zones, that is areas around the forests, and developing them into eco-tourism zones, the entire livelihood of people living in jungles and around sanctuaries can be transformed. Then, instead of people thinking of cutting wood to earn a livelihood, they will look at tourists as a source of livelihood. That way they will themselves ensure that trees are protected," he said.

Ruling out industrialisation at the cost of forests, Pardeshi said that conserving forests is of utmost importance in new government's the vision. "When the government says it is committed towards Maharashtra's development, it does not mean forests will be neglected. In fact, forests are being given utmost importance even in the vision of the new government. Wildlife conservation, rehabilitation of villages from wildlife sanctuaries and ensuring that there is reduced man-animal conflict will be of prime importance," he said.

"We see a lot of animals straying out of forests and attacking people who collect fuel wood. The target is to make all these families stop using wood as a fuel. This will be done by providing them alternatives like cooking gas, biogas and solar energy so that they don't have to cut trees for their fuel wood requirement and therefore also not get into conflicts with wild animals," he said.

He said that Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is keen to ensure that special critical habitats like mangroves as well as wildlife corridors between Tadoba and Nagzira, besides Pench and Bor sanctuaries are protected, so that wildlife movement in these areas continues uninterrupted.

Maharashtra state forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said that forest staff has long been neglected. "In order to make working in forests a lucrative job, the government would balance pay scales of officials and ensure periodical promotions and incentives," he said. "Forest guards have been saying that their pay scales are roughly 25% below talathis, though they live and work in dense jungles. I have held a meeting in this regard and their proposal is under consideration," Mungantiwar said. "Those who stay in interior areas and are doing good work will get periodical promotions. This is to give financial incentives to forest staff staying in interior forest areas," Mungantiwar added.

Pardeshi said that two new special tiger protection forces, one for Melghat and the other for Nagzira would also be established, with each force comprising about 85 people to prevent poaching of tigers. "We want to ensure livelihood to locals living around forests as guides and home state tourists. They can be trained to do labour intensive activities like cycling, boating on lakes and not just going around the wildlife parks in a vehicle. Ensuring adventure tourism activities like valley crossing and rappling down hillsides will also boost tourism around Melghat," Pardeshi said.

Wildlife activists have welcomed the government's plans to focus on ensuring employment to those living on the periphery of forests. Well known conservationist Debi Goenka said that the government initiative ought to focus on eliminating the role of middlemen to guarantee employment to locals.

"This is an excellent initiative on part of the Chief Minister and he must ensure that benefits of wildlife tourism actually reach locals, and do not flow to resort owners as well as vehicle operators," Goenka, who is also an Executive Trustee and founder of the NGO called Conservation Action Trust said. "If eco-tourism concepts are to be followed, it would be necessary to stop new constructions and instead encourage locals to upgrade their homes as well as provide bed and breakfast kind of services to tourists. It is also essential to train and motivate field staff to promote these kind of activities in close co-operation with local villagers," he said.

The CM must ensure that there are no new construction of resorts and forest department guest houses around forest sanctuaries and national parks, because if this is allowed, it would completely defeat the purpose of this exercise, Goenka added.

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