It was our Sunday morning face-palm moment. As we scanned through a national daily, we spotted a story related to tourism data on Maharashtra that was released by MTDC (Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation). It included future plans that officials had spelt out for Mumbai. There was a mention to introduce shopping arenas and a cafeteria on the Elephanta Island, home to Elephanta Caves, which is UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the past, this newspaper and this column has reported extensively on the lack of basic tourist facilities (starting with clean toilets) and a stricter environment policy as well as continuous ruin of the cave sites on the island. But this announcement seems to have sidestepped these issues, once again.
We’ve visited the island on countless occasions, and each time we step off the boat onto the ill-kept jetty, the neglect gets increasingly obvious. Despite it being pegged as a must-visit destination on national and international tourist itineraries, the ignorance over the lack of important amenities is appalling. From litter-strewn walkways, and aggressive guides out to fleece unsuspecting tourists to unhygienic restaurants and unchecked commercialisation and construction, the list of woes would run into pages. The ‘museum’ near the entry/exit point of the site needs to be seen to be believed. With disinterested staff (often bordering on rude) and the lack of an informed help desk, it’s anyone’s guess what impression it leaves for the first-time tourist.
There needs to be an understanding between the Archaeological Survey of India and the state tourism to ensure that this invaluable man-made treasure undergoes a 360-degree re-look, sensitively and taking the island’s residents into confidence. As we write this, chances are that some visitor would have vandalised a stone carving or etched his love for his partner in graffiti on a thousand-plus-old pillar that may have taken a gifted artisan a week to perfect. We’ve seen it with our own eyes crowds, which quadruple over the weekend, running amok on the site or heavy-duty drilling (as a result of construction) that is less than 100 metres away from this historic treasure, causing unspeakable disturbance to its foundation. One wonders how many more such episodes and reminders need to be pointed out to the authorities, to curb this slow degradation of Mumbai’s ‘pride’. We need solutions to stabilise the current scenario instead of introducing grandiose plans that might worsen it.
Or else, we might lose out on another treasure, one chink at a time. Never mind the price tag.
The writer is Features Editor of mid-day