Twenty-eight-year-old farmer Kanthhamma dreads the onset of winter. As temperatures drop, tourists descend onto the small tribal hamlet of Lambasingi in Andhra Pradesh’s Eastern Ghats, which is often described as the Kashmir of South India. But they leave behind the detritus of city life.
Kanthhamma’s pristine green field is filled with plastic waste, alcohol bottles and discarded food. At night, the symphony of crickets chirping is drowned out by the loud, thumping music that revellers play. “From October to January, I spend the mornings taking stock of the crops campers have destroyed and cleaning up plastic, discarded food and other trash,” says Kanthhhama, who rues the day her village—barely 130 kilometres from Vizag city—was ‘discovered’ by the rest of India.
The tiny village made headlines in December 2012 when it recorded temperatures as low as 0℃. About 1,025 metres above sea level, Lambasingi or Lammasingi experiences one of the lowest temperatures among other hill stations in South India, with winter temperatures as low as 2℃. The village is flanked by hills and dense green forests that are magical in the winter fog.
Winter is a nightmare
As word of its beauty, unmarred by the trappings of ‘development’ spread, more people started visiting Lambasingi. In the last 10 years, the number of tourists has ballooned from a handful to as many as 4,000 per week in winter. However, lack of awareness among visitors, coupled with poor infrastructure and plumbing, has made winter a living nightmare for the 680 people who live there.
It’s not so black and white, though. The use of tribal land for commercial purposes has further muddied the waters. While acknowledging that unchecked tourism is a problem, government officials say that the tribal people brought it upon themselves by entering into illegal deals with private entrepreneurs.
For villagers, a majority of whom hail from the Kond and Bagata tribes, this influx of tourists is more a bane than a boom.
Balakrishna, 30, who grows coffee, insists that the villagers are not against tourism. “All we’re asking is that visitors respect our ways, keep our village clean, and not destroy our crops,” he says. However, tourists cutting across their fields or racing their bikes at night are a recurring problem.
Another farmer, Mulvvalu Raja Rao, is convinced that three of his 20 cows died due to eating discarded plastic. But in winter, he has no option but to let them graze in fields ridden with waste.
Women, too, have started fearing for their safety.
With people setting up camps in their fields, women are afraid to leave their homes at night. “A male family member has to accompany us when we want to use the bathroom (usually outside their houses) or defecate in the fields. Most of us prefer to stay indoors to avoid drunk tourist men,” says Kanthamma.
Nights have become unbearable. Most villagers are in bed by 7:30 pm, but revellers keep them awake in winter. “They play loud music even at midnight and drink and dance,” she added.
Though Lambasingi’s appeal as a tourist spot or weekend getaway grew organically, local authorities have done little to provide the necessary infrastructure or create awareness among visitors. According to environmentalist Sohan Hatangadi, the government even ran a few promotional advertisements in 2017.
Eateries and camping sites have sprung up to meet growing demand, but most are basic and remain active only in winter. In addition, there are at least 20 signboards with temporarily abandoned structures, an eyesore in a once pristine village.
Plastic is the biggest bane, and it makes its presence felt even before you arrive. The seven-kilometre stretch of Lambasingi is lined with plastic. At the junction, where a signboard announces that you have reached Lambasingi, there are mounds of discarded waste.
Hatangadi blames the local government for failing to implement the plastic ban or even chalk out a framework to promote eco-tourism.
In an internal note dated March 2022, the Project Officer and District Collector’s office agreed on the increased use of plastic in the area and called for its ban. Instructions accordingly were given to Mandal and gram level teams. “One cannot simply issue a note and say plastic should be banned or hold one rally. That will not help,” said Hatangadi, who attributes the rise in plastic to the growing trend of ‘santes’ or local markets in the hill areas.
He fears that Lambasingi could become the next Araku Valley, a popular tourist destination in the same district battling commercialisation and environmental pollution on a large scale.
Boom in businesses, but no benefit to residents
The problem is compounded by the fact that many tribals illegally lease out their fertile lands to private commercial players during winter months. This directly violates Andhra Pradesh’s Land Transfer Regulation Act 1 of 1970, which keeps a tab on the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. The law bans any land transaction, including leasing of land between tribals and non-tribals. The intent is to protect tribal people from exploitation by outsiders.
“All these people who run businesses here come with the pre-approval of the tribal people. They agree because they see better profit by leasing their land for commercial purposes than for agricultural purposes,” said an official who did not want to be named. The Integrated Tribal Development Agency says it is investigating LTR complaints.
The villagers may have hoped for better employment opportunities, but most businesses catering to tourists do not hire them. Growing tourism led to a boom in businesses in the village- but mainly for outsiders. “They feel we cannot cook the food that tourists want and don’t have the skills to work in the hospitality sector,” said Chetti Shankar Rao, a resident of the village. At best, the villagers are employed as cleaners.
Rao, a former lecturer at Vizag’s Government Institute of Chemical Engineering, moved back to Lambasingi and runs an adventure camp. He employs around 20 local youth to run the facility.
When contacted, the government claimed that it was taking measures to address these problems. “Meetings are being held with private hotel management to work out a revenue sharing option. Will set up check posts to monitor plastic items being brought into the hills by outsiders, and are also planning to purchase plastic crushing machines,” Gopala Krishna, Integrated Tribal Development Agency Project Officer (Paderu division), said.
Many tribal people are not convinced and hold the government responsible for allowing the situation to deteriorate to such an extent. What were the authorities doing for so many years, they ask.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)