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Sustainability through rural tourism

The Rann of Kutch, one of the largest seasonal wetlands of the world, would have been more in the news in the coming days for its decreasing bird species (from 273 to less than 50) than a famous village resort had it not been for local standards of hygiene, solar energy, soak pits and mud/thatch walls plastered with lime that gave rural tourism an altogether different meaning. For, situated on an expanse of 2500sqkm area at village Hodka on the Banni grasslands in the Rann, Gujarat, is Shaam-e-Sarhad (Sunset on the Border) – a village resort that has come to acquire a distinct place in rural tourism in the country.

Conceived by the Ministry of Tourism and initiated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2004-05, a rural tourism project saw 31 villages being identified as rural tourism sites. Hodka village, with its pastoral community, was one. Its residents, Maldharis (cattle-breeders), are mostly Muslims with a few families having Iranian and Afghan ancestry.

After detailed discussions among local community leaders, district administration, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) like Hunnarshala and Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), state department officials, local artisans and a special Paryatan (Tourism) Committee comprising representatives of 11 villages set up for the purpose, a definite plan emerged for Shaam-e-Sarhad. This being a project on sustainable development for low income families, it was decided to promote local culture, craft and artisanship. The resort was to be run by the villagers themselves with no middleman in between. NGOs Hunnarshala and KMVS, working for years with the locals at the Banni grasslands, took over the mantle of putting the pieces together.

Hodka, near Pakistan border, had 12 hamlets. A 13th was created for Shaam-e-Sarhad. “The software was run by the NGOs and the hardware (finance) came from the UNDP,” says Sandeep Virmani, Managing Director, Hunnarshala. But, the UNDP is not in the picture any more. The self sustenance project now comes directly under the Ministry for Tourism.

Instead of the square structures, it was decided to have local structures, i.e., bhungas for the resort. “The square structures with corners had fallen during the Bhuj earthquake while the round shaped bhungas withstood the seismic activity,” says Virmani.

So, true to traditional style of architecture, the corner-less bhungas are made of locally available material like mud, water, wood and sun block using adobe and cob technology. Their thick mud walls prove cooler during summer. The floors are made of clay and the mud/thatch roofs are conical. Artisans from the entire area helped. Lacquer metal workers, wood carvers, wall painters and brick makers put their expertise together in bringing up the resort which has beautifully decorated bhungas and tents with traditional Kutchi craftsmanship and mud-mirror work. “The mud/thatch walls need maintenance. Hence, they are plastered with lime for protection,” informs Virmani. The view of the resort is enhanced with lattice-like fences and benches. The courtyards have folk motifs. Around 30 people can stay at the resort at a time and over 50 can dine at it.

The water chain, admits Virmani, is “not so good”. There are soak-pits in the kitchens and toilets for water supply which comes to the resort by government pipelines in collaboration with district administration from a distance of over 100km.

“We grow a few trees around the soak pits which are eight feet deep and are lined with bricks. The treatment of water is a natural process as is followed in villages anywhere else in the country. The heavy material settles down and the clean water remains at the top of these covered pits,” he says. The composting process is good for the trees around the pits.

“There is no special technology adopted for the treatment of water. There is no special water management here,” agrees Virmani. But he hopes that in the coming years “something will be done for water management” as water coming from a distance of 100km cannot be a feasible aspect over a long time. “Hopefully, we will be able to put a technology for recycling and management in place then. We would want to bring in a lot of water efficiency here,” he avers.

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