‘CARPET SAHIB’ COMES BACK

The great legacy of Jim Corbett is being restored in a brilliant project in his own village in Choti Haldwani. There's a magical new ecological story unfolding at the Corbett National Park
Akash Bisht Delhi 

During my childhood days, and the ten years I spent at school, and again while I was working in Bengal, and later between the two world wars, I spent all my holidays and leave in the jungles in and around Kaladhungi. If during those years I did not absorb as much jungle lore as I must have done, the fault is mine, for I had ample opportunities of doing so.- Jim Corbett, The Second Jim Corbett Omnibus

Jim Corbett's rendezvous with Indian forests finds a frequent mention of Kaladhungi- - a cluster of small villages in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand in north India. It was in these forests that Corbett spent most of his childhood. These forests opened a whole new world to him and it was here that he saw his first tiger, began to identify birds and butterflies, nuances and shades of biodiversity, flora and fauna, rivers, rocks and streams, the sounds, smells, landmarks, tell-tale signs of the forest. Here he learnt how to imitate animal calls and overcome his fear of wild animals. His frequent escapades into the forests soon turned him into an expert tracker and hunter. Gradually, he became a virtual encyclopaedia of these Garhwal-Kumaon forests of Uttarakhand, reflected so intrinsically and beautifully in his writings.

Later in his life, Corbett hunted several ferocious man-eating tigers and leopards in the forests of Kumaon and Garhwal. By putting his life in danger, he saved the lives of many, mostly the simple hill-folk he loved. However, inspired by his friend FW Champion - wildlife photographer and conservationist - Corbett took up photography in the 1920s and started to shoot tigers with a camera. He then decided never to kill a tiger or leopard unless they had turned maneaters or started to prey on cattle. 

Unabated hunting of tigers for gaming made him concerned about this great predator and its habitat. Later, Corbett and Champion helped in setting up India's first national park - the Hailey National Park - that was later renamed after Corbett in 1957. Today, the park boasts of preserving one of the healthiest densities of tigers in the wild and is one of the treasured eco-hotspots of India. Tragically, while the park has become a favourite destination for thousands of nature lovers, the man the park is named after is slowly dying from public memory. 

Next year, 2011, commemorates the park's platinum jubilee. To mark this occasion, recently, the forest department inaugurated the heritage map of Choti Haldwani. The mountain village was home to Corbett for most part of his life. With passage of time, the village lost its relevance and the legend of 'Carpet Sahib' became a part of village folklore. 

Corbett settled 10-15 tenants and built houses for them in this small hamlet of 221 acres that he had bought for Rs 1,500 in 1915. He developed irrigation systems for agriculture and built a wall around the village to protect the crops from wild animals. He planted various fruit-bearing trees across the hamlet and encouraged farmers to experiment with crops. He introduced disease- resistant strains of wheat and barley. His most successful introduction was the large-kernelled maize from East Africa. His quest to create a model village was fulfilled. Over the years, the village lost its relevance and disappeared in history books. 

Armed with the mandate to revive the epical memories of this great hunter and conservationist, a research study conducted by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) on Jim Corbett's legacy and the Jim Corbett National Park came to the conclusion that there are several landmarks in Corbett's village that could be used as interpretations for promoting his legacy. The Centre for Ecotourism, an Uttarakhand Forest Department programme, decided to experiment with three eco-tourism models - trails, camps and home stays. Choti Haldwani was chosen for the heritage trail. 

In 2003, the renovation of landmarks in the village was undertaken. In 2005, the trail was inaugurated by United Kingdom's Minister of Environment and Climate Change. The heritage trail is managed and interpreted by the villagers under the Corbett Gram Vikas Samiti (CGVS). The Samiti offers guide services, souvenir shops and home-stay facilities.
 "The other fallout of the research was the community-based tourism programme that would help in interpreting Jim's legacy," says Rajeev Bhartari, former WII professor and the brain behind Choti Haldwani's resurgence on the tourist map. In 2004, near the Jim Corbett Museum, a shop was allotted to the Samiti to involve locals in the eco-tourism process. Villagers, who form an integral part of the initiative, are given an insight into the life of the famous hunter and conservationist. A few of them have turned into guides and help visitors in learning more about 'Carpet Sahib'  and his village. Despite the fading of memory, the legacy runs in oral traditions and undercurrents. Also, among the millions who have read his fascinating tales.

The trail runs through the village providing snippets of Corbett's life and stories on signboards. "In the year 2007, five people were sent to Bangalore to be trained as guides and home stays were introduced," says Rajesh Panwar, Executive Director, CGVS. Since then, many more tourists started to trickle in, and today the village is among one of the developed ones in the area. In 2009, four new huts and a common dining room were built to attract tourists. 
"These steps help in making villagers an integral part of sustainable development and even reducing their dependency on the forest. Even the average income of the villagers has increased phenomenally," says Panwar. Today more families are joining the initiative and earning up to Rs 8,000 every month. "We had 530 visitors out of which 200 stayed for the night. Last year, the total turnover of the Samiti was close to Rs 2 lakh," Panwar mentions. He believes that the programme has helped villagers in being self-sustainable and preserving their culture, biodiversity, food habits, folk music and dance, which were on the verge of vanishing from the memory of the locals. 

"The process has also helped in checking migration. People have started to come back and involve themselves with the conservation programme," says Panwar. The programme has helped in the protection of the local forest area and put a stop on all illegal activities. The presence of 'outsiders' is effectively communicated among villagers. 

Later, the forest department approached Archi, a non-profit, non-commercial group of alternative, ecologically sensitive architects, to design a heritage map of Choti Haldwani. The motive behind the project was to create awareness and educate people from all walks of life about different facets of eco-tourism with a peek into the life of Jim Corbett. The meticulously designed and attractive map provides detailed information about the village and shares interesting details about Corbett's life. "We, city dwellers, don't know much about forests and their rich biodiversity. This map was aimed for creating awareness about this pristine village. This will help people in getting closer to nature and know more about the legend of Jim Corbett," says Tanvi Maheshwari, a young architect with Archi. 

The 'green map' covers vivid details like the various trees planted by Corbett in his village, the Sher Singh Chaupal made by him for collective meetings of villagers, the bathing area near a canal where Corbett and his sisters bathed, the Jim Corbett museum, the wall that surrounds the village, the water flour mill, the Arundel location, iron foundry, home stays named after different birds, shops selling indigenous products et al. The enticing map has interesting details that make a great read. At the back of the map, one half has pictures of Corbett at various junctures of his life, while the other half has pictures denoting local culture and the flora and fauna which dominate the landscape. "The map is not only a promotional tool but also an educational tool with universal value," says Bhartari. 

However, today, 55 years after the legend's death, his backyard - Corbett National Park - is battling a different enemy that threatens its existence. Mindless commercial lobbies with vulgar and expensive tourist resorts, crass tourists with no love for nature, and the cold-blooded real estate mafia with powerful connections, are openly subverting and ravaging the pristine jungle's unwritten contract and the laws of the land. A recent ministry of tourism report has highlighted how 'new age tourism' is taking its toll on the park. Besides, by blocking 'animal corridors', these resorts are making it hard for wild animals to move around their natural habitat, gravely threatening their existence.

That is why, away from the hustle bustle of 'resort tourism' engulfing the park, this small village, with locals as stakeholders, is a sublime and visionary model that maintains a perfect harmony between tourism and sustainable eco-development. If the national parks of this country are to be saved from real estate sharks, many more Choti Haldwanis need to  blossom under the supervision and support of the government. This will not only stop the forests and its adjoining areas from degradation but also stem the human-animal conflict that is taking its toll on wild animals across most national parks in India. "It took us 10 years to turn this dream into reality and if we have been successful in protecting his legacy and promoting it, I would call myself a happy man," says Bhartari. 

Surely, all the collective efforts, and the extraordinary 'Archi' map, will go a long way in creating and conserving the precious old and new history of the Corbett National Park. This will mark a new mapping.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2011