Bhubaneswar: The Odisha government’s decision to start day cruise services at five selected water bodies at Chilika Lake, Mahanadi, Bhitarkanika, Satkosia Gorge and Hirakud reservoir has raised the hackles of environmentalists and green activists. To be operated in PPP mode, the tourism department has invited proposals from prospective applicants within a deadline on one month.

According to Biswajit Mohanty, noted environmentalist  and Chairman of Greenpeace India, ” the Tourism Department’s plans to run river/lake cruises in Odisha need to be thoroughly reviewed since the plans are for highly biodiverse and rich wildlife areas.  The 22 kms long Satkosia Gorge is the core area of a Tiger Reserve. Tourism is banned in core areas of Tiger Reserves as per the SC orders . Secondly Chilika is also an important birding and dolphin area. Nine lakh birds arrive here every winter, the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins are highly stressed due to 500 motorised boats chasing them for dolphin tourism.  Most parts of the lake are shallow with less than 5 feet of water. How will large cruise boats navigate? Bhitarkanika is a Ramsar site and a National Park. It is a highly eco-fragile area with mangroves, estuarine crocodiles, monitors lizards, fishing cats, otters and nesting birds. Motorized boat cruises should never be permitted there. Four existing catamarans bought at a cost of Rs.3 crores by Forest Dept. are lying idle since the last  five years for want of tourists who can afford them. 

He further quipped that “ if they are planning to do the Mahanadi cruise, I wonder on which stretch, since most parts of the river are not navigable in winter having  a draft of less than 3 to 4 feet. A small stretch upstream of Mundali can be feasible but that too is  a prime birding area of migratory water fowl and has nesting populations of Indian Skimmers on the islands which will be affected.

According to Anil Dhir, the Project Coordinator of INTACH Odisha, cruise boats are large, intrusive and dangerous vessels which have negative impacts on marine wildlife. Dolphins, turtles, otters and other big fish cannot avoid speedy water-crafts, and collisions with hulls or scrapes by propellers often do fatal harm. Many of the Dolphin carcasses found in Satapada had been killed by boat propellers.

Dhir has cited the example of such activity that was stopped Bhopal’s Upper Lake when the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation planned cruise boat trips. The Bhopal Municipal Corporation had accused the tourism corporation of polluting the lake by the over 10 motor boats and the 100 paddleboats of the Bhopal boat club. “Let them have cruises in the Hirakud reservoir and the Mahanadi, but not at the three protected sites”, said Dhir.

Panchami Manoo Ukil, noted ornithologist and writer,  is of the opinion that Eco Tourism by its very nature must address the delicate inter-connectedness in the natural ecosystems. Any attempt to disrupt these habitats by encouraging intrusions through man or machine would lead to complete destruction of these vulnerable zones and threaten the existence of species that are dependent on the eco-system. Odisha best kept secrets need to be zealously guarded by our administrators and policy makers instead of exposing them to threats in the name of eco-tourism.

Dhir said that a tooth and nail opposition will be put up against such stupid and destructive schemes. If need be, the matter will be taken to the Green Tribunal.  The Tourism department operated highly disturbing eco-tourism ventures next to Balukhand WLS on the sea turtle nesting beach with high  mast lighting that disturbs local wildlife at night. Similarly, they organized a stupid Bhitarkanika Festival inside the WLS and right next to the National Park which was basically a song and dance Mela for locals promoted by some ruling party politicians.

With a long coast line measuring approximately 482 km, major rivers, reservoirs and water bodies, including Chilika, the revised Odisha Tourism Policy 2016 offers many fiscal incentives to projects like water sports, adventure sports, house boats, cruise tourism and aqua-parks by way of investment and interest subsidy. Earlier too, the Centre had envisaged setting up sea-plane services in Chilika, which had to be scraped due to environmental factors.