The unusual rush of tourists and trekkers to the Dudhsagar waterfall on Sunday (July 16, 2023) in Goa made front-page news the next day, bringing to the fore a reality that went unchecked – or rather ignored – all these years.
The Dudhsagar waterfall is located inside the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in the biodiverse region of the Western Ghats.
What happened on Sunday is akin to terrorism against nature, to say the least. I call it terrorism because people's enthusiasm to be inside a wildlife sanctuary infringes on the space and peace of animals.
Now, the excuse put forward by visitors or trekkers that they were not aware of the ban on the visit to the waterfall doesn't hold water when social media was abuzz about the same.
It was also the duty of the government to publicise the ban in the national media because Dudhsagar is a well-known tourist attraction in the country, especially for those from the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Whatever happened on Sunday was an eye-opener and, from here on, it is time to set things right at this tourism spot. For that to happen, there will have to be a firm and unanimous resolution because the situation at the Dudhsagar is a complex one.
The Dudhsagar waterfall lies inside a sanctuary, so those going there without a forest permit are doing so illegally. On Sunday, too, the majority who had gathered to go to the waterfall had no forest permits. This has been happening for years.
The law is clear – anyone entering a wildlife sanctuary needs to have a forest permit.
However, the Forest Department has been helpless in stopping those entering the sanctuary without the said permits. That task is best left to the penalising authorities like the police and Railway Protection Force.
Besides entering the sanctuary by train from Collem in Goa and Castle Rock in Karnataka, there are other ways one can reach Dudhsagar. There are some who go by train from Collem and get down either at Sonauli or Dudhsagar stations and trek downhill.
With so many routes to reach Dudhsagar, it becomes very difficult to stop visitors to the waterfall. The Goa government and the stakeholders will have to deliberate and mull over a solution to this.
Now, the around 100 forest guides in the area claim that the ban on the waterfall visit is robbing them of their livelihood. It is learnt that most of these guides lack knowledge of basic first aid and safety measures.
Whereas many of the organised group leaders from other states are expert trekkers. Some are even certified mountaineering guides, but untrained local guides insist they take their services.
That's fine. But the local guides charge exorbitant fees. Those in the know say the fee is as high as Rs 10,000 for just one trek. This is probably the reason every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to become a certified forest guide.
According to some of the locals, there is a mafia that operates in the area. No one talks about this openly out of fear. Some of the local boys have a setting with the local and railway police, train engine driver, station staff and forest guards.
They charge on average Rs 800 per person and distribute Rs 500 to the above authorities and earn only about 300 per person. This works well for them when the group is big, say about 50 or 100 people.
The tourism pie seems to be big and everyone wants a share of it. Corruption is the name of the game, and the consequence – nature bears the brunt. And, is the government not aware of this?
So, did it take drowning deaths for the government to ban people at waterfalls? Has it banned two-wheeler riders from riding because of the high number of accidents in Goa?
If the Dudhsagar waterfall is a tourist attraction, then by all means people should go there and enjoy nature's beauty and bounty. But from what we are seeing in this monsoon season, everything seems to be on the wrong track.
The government will need to regulate tourism in this area, especially in the rainy season when the beauty of this waterfall comes alive.
It will have to work in tandem with local stakeholders and authorities concerned in the area and empower them. Or else over-tourism will lead to more disastrous consequences.
The government will do well to have an online portal where registrations can be done for waterfall trekking. This way it will be able to regulate the number of trekkers and groups going to the waterfall.
We all love nature and want to bestow our compliments on it. But, frankly, more than our compliments nature desires our respect.
So, before you plan your next unregulated trip to the Dudhsagar waterfall, realise that you are only becoming part of the problem and not the solution.