Last week I visited Matheran, an Indian hill station a few hours' drive from Mumbai. Guidebooks and friends had described it as a car-free mountain retreat -- a good place to get a few days' break from the city. And it was.
To get to Matheran, we took a taxi to the transit point of Dasturi Naka and then walked three kilometers. Emerging from the woods, we stumbled onto Matheran's lively main street. Horses loaded with supplies pounded red clay paths; monkeys hopped along the roofs of small stores, and cobblers hawked leather sandals from blankets laid out on the ground. The town was bustling, but in a quaint, peaceful way. I imagined I was seeing what the villages surrounding Mumbai looked like before rising incomes brought exploding car sales to India.
Things quieted down within a short walk from Matheran's main street.
We stayed in a simple guesthouse with a spectacular view. Just beyond the door was a network of hiking trails. Best of all, the air was clean.
Matheran has always been car-free. In the late 1800s, when Mumbaikers and colonists started spending their summers in the town's hillside guesthouses, cars were not an option. Later, a road was not feasible; already the route to Dasturi Naka charted hairpin turns. By the time cars became popular, it seemed that the town realized the value of prohibiting them and began promoting itself as a green destination.
I was struck by the simplicity of this approach. From the surface, it looked like a kind of tourism leapfrogging. After talking with a few people, however, I learned that the decision to stay car-free was actually a very contentious one.
In 1996, populist politicians devised a development plan for Matheran. Along with the introduction of cars, the proposal included clearing forests for parking lot construction, converting an additional 11,700 square meters of woods into amusement parks, and building a helipad. Most of the town's six thousand residents depend on tourism for their livelihood -- cooking in guesthouses, leading horse rides, or laboring as porters -- and the proposal appealed to their interest in increasing the number of tourists who came to the town. It gained the backing of the Matheran municipal council, which had previously opposed allowing cars, road construction, and tall buildings.
Several alarmed townspeople got together to fight the proposal. They pointed out that Matheran already handled 250,000 tourists a year (that number has since swelled to 600,000), largely wealthy Mumbaikers and foreigners drawn to the area's clean air. If the town introduced cars, they argued, these tourists would take their money elsewhere and Matheran would be besieged with low-income tour groups. "European cities are talking about banning cars to increase tourism," points out Shiavax Lord, owner of Lord's Central guesthouse and one of the townspeople who opposed the plan. The proposal authors "want to go the other way." And that's the challenge: India is not Europe. Middle-class Indians are striving to buy cars, not to minimize their carbon footprints.
The dissenters formed Matheran Bachao Samiti and banded together with the Bombay Environmental Action Group. As the town council supported the development proposal, the groups took the issue to the courts. In 2001, India's Supreme Court declared Matheran an eco-sensitive zone. The Ministry of Environment and Forests backed up the decision with a declaration the next year.
Since then, Matheran Bachao Samiti has spearheaded a series of clean-up initiatives. To address the plastic garbage littering the forest, the group consulted Bisleri, the area's principal supplier of bottled water. The company helped Matheran Bachao Samiti install compactors. The group also established collective composting stations throughout the town and encouraged large business owners to set up their own. And it added signs explaining local wildlife to the hiking trails. Using the sort of community-based approach that works elsewhere in India, the activists have gained limited support from the municipal council.
But the battle isn't over. Some interest groups now want to build an electric cable car to Matheran -- a greener approach than allowing motor vehicle traffic, but also a potential strain on the town's environment. In the meantime, however, the anti-car activists set an important precedent.
The case should offer hope to other overtaxed hill stations in India that they can develop sustainably and still attract tourists. And for now, at least, Matheran is still beautiful.
Images: Lord's Central Hotel
We are ecotourism promoters & houseboat cruise charters in Kerala in India. Visit our web site www.ecotourskerala.com for details.
We also help & support community development programmes in the Village sector to help the poor people.
You forgot to mention the little hill train to Matheran form Neral on the Mumbai-Pune route. It is the best way to get there.