A new ropeway and a new roadway are in the works to bring up the declining number of tourists who flock to Matheran, the hill station that lost its charm with the famous toy train going out of whack
The most popular tourist destination in Maharashtra and the only pedestrian hill station in all of Asia looks like a ghost town. That too, in peak holiday season. Ghodawalas or horse riders, who do brisk business of ferrying tourists, especially kids, on horses during their summer vacations, sit idle. Rickshaw-pullers, restaurant owners, shopkeepers and even hotel owners talk endlessly about this year being the worst they have seen in decades. If collections at the main gate of Matheran, where every individual has to pay entry fee, are to be believed, tourism has been hit by 50 per cent.
The numbers are dwindling despite the fact that this is a destination with 38 breathtaking tourist spots.
On weekends, there are barely a few hundred people making their way up to Matheran. On weekdays, Asia’s only pedestrian hill station sees little or no crowd. In better times, the hill station, spread over seven square kilometres, saw at least seven lakh tourists every year, the peak season being summer holidays and a few days in winter. A majority of those visiting are day tourists.
Almost everyone blames the steep decline of tourists on the Matheran heritage train or the mini train, which has not been operational since May last year. Maria Vaz, owner of Hope Hall hotel explained that the suspension of mini train services has impacted business in a big way. “Most hotel owners are unable to sustain themselves in this market. With steep decline in tourists, most hotels are unable to pay staff salaries and pay their monthly bills. These are trying times for all of us. It is time that the Railway officials brought the train back,” she said.
After two derailments that occurred within a week in 2016, the railway administration shut down the shuttle service from Neral station to Matheran. A year later, the service is yet to be resumed. The train was started back in 1907 and has been the main attraction for tourists. The two-hour journey to the hill station from Neral is something that several tourists look forward to. During peak season, trips back from Matheran are fully booked, too.
Janardan Parte, a local activist who has obtained information pertaining to the operations under RTI and also filed several complaints in the past few years, shares that between October 2010 and April 2016, the mini train was supposed to have done 14,019 trips. However, information obtained under RTI from Central Railway revealed that 3,534 trips were cancelled citing “technical glitches”. “It is about time railway officials take this train seriously. It impacts our day to day life. The service between Aman Lodge and Matheran station (2 km) is essential for locals. The one from Neral brings tourists and supports the whole of Matheran. The train is like a step child for railway officials who couldn’t care less about the service,” said Parte.
In January this year, the Central Railway obtained funds to the tune of Rs 7 crore from the Rail Ministry to overhaul the entire system, starting from the engine, design of the compartments, braking system, tracks and safety wall along the tracks among others. The locals were told that the train service might partially resume from June 1 between Aman Lodge and Matheran station. This would have helped the locals a great deal as they largely depend on it to bring essential supplies into the hill station from the entry point. However, senior Central Railway officials visited Matheran to inspect the trial runs on Tuesday (May 30) and are yet to give a nod to the partial resumption of services. The chief public relations officer of CR told Mirror that they have been conducting test runs for a while now, even have obtained safety clearances, but are unsure when services will resume.
Ropeway coming up
The locals are now exploring other means of getting tourists back to Matheran. Ropeway, a project that has been in the pipeline for almost two decades, has suddenly grabbed the interest of locals. This week, district officials, along with Matheran Ropeway Pvt Ltd, a company run by Dilip Kothari, gave a detailed presentation to locals and made note of their objections and suggestions.
The project, which costs Rs 50 crore, has been in the pipeline since 2001. On Wednesday, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) held a public hearing, inviting objections and suggestions from locals. Barring taxi unions, which feared being hugely hit, all the other stakeholders gave the project a heads up with some suggestions. Some sought concessions for children and senior citizens, some wanted the owners to give 25 per cent of profits to local body for getting land free of cost, while a few wanted better safety measures to be in place. “Back in 2008, we even got environmental clearance, which lapsed in five years. In 2016, we once again applied for fresh permissions. The Ministry of Environment sought objections and suggestions from locals. This week, the exercise got over. If all goes well on the permissions and land acquisition front, we should be able to start work by October this year and end within 18 months after that,” said Kothari, who is optimistic that the project will go a long way in helping Matheran as a tourist destination.
A new road
Early this week, the general body of Matheran Municipal Council sanctioned a proposal to develop the route starting from the chowk near Karjat. Nitin Sawant, a local activist who proposed the route, told Mirror that major portion of the route already has a tarred road. “Only 6-8 km of the stretch between Borgaon, Pokharwad, Rambaug and Matheran needs to be developed. This is the route Malet took when he came up the first time. He used the route to build properties back in 1850s. It is only used by trekkers. Once developed it will help the hill station a lot,” said Nitin Sawant, who has been able to get a no objection from local gram panchayats along the route and also support from all political parties.
This route was originally taken in 1850 by Hugh Poyntz Malet, then collector of Thane, employed in the service of the East India Company, when he accidentally discovered a jungle atop the hill and work on development of the hill station commenced. “We will now take it up with the state Public Works Department and ensure that the work begins soon,” said Prasad Sawant, a Shiv Sena corporator, whose wife Prerna Sawant is president of the Matheran Municipal Council.
Simultaneously, another group of locals under the banner of Panvel Matheran Rasta Sangharsha Samiti has written to the state government to develop another route other than the existing one from Neral. “The road from Panvel is the easiest to develop. It was approved by the first chief minister of Maharashtra. We have now resumed the battle to get it done,” said activist Parte, who heads the Samiti.
There are those in Matheran who have been demanding that electric rickshaws replace the handcarts. Sunil Shinde, a teacher by profession, has taken it upon himself to get them into Matheran. “The rickshaw-pullers here toil through the day and earn peanuts. Their health is constantly deteriorating. Not to mention that they can ferry only so many people,” said Shinde, who has taken up the issue with state ministers and MLAs, many of whom are supporting his cause. He points out how school-going children have to walk several kilometres everyday, carrying heavy bags for want of proper transport within the hill station. “Prices of essential commodities are higher than MRP because of high cost of transportation. Our LPG cylinder also costs Rs 40 more as mules need to be hired to carry them. E-rickshaws will change all that,” said Shinde. The only hurdles are Matheran rules of 1959 and the Centre’s notification of 2003, which clearly state that no vehicles, including cycles, are permitted in the pedestrian hill station. For now, Matheran has no option but to depend on 400 odd horses and 95 hand-pulled rickshaws.
Hotels at a loss
While locals are grappling with lack of tourists and income, hotel owners, whose properties have more than 20 rooms, have started receiving notices from MPCB, asking them to set up sewage treatment plants (STP), else their power supply would be cut off. The hotel association has been lobbying with the local body, asking them to set up a common STP, where all major players can dump and treat their effluents. With the civic body still to act and several hotel owners unable to build their own STPs, MPCB has cut off power supply of a few properties. Left with no alternative, these players have now moved to diesel generators. “These generators cause a whole lot of pollution. I wonder why authorities can’t come up with logical solutions,” said Hope Hall hotel’s Vaz.
Lack of planning
One of the main setbacks that the hill station faces is the lack of planning. As per the notification issued by the Centre declaring Matheran an eco-sensitive zone, the hill station was to have a master plan which would decide the scope of infrastructure development. In 2016, Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG) moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT), seeking a stay on all constructions till the master plan was sanctioned. “Our main concerns have been rampant encroachment in forest areas, unlicensed hotels, rise in illegal constructions, among others,” explained Hema Ramani of BEAG, adding, “We do not believe in litigation and we waited patiently for 13 years, hoping that the authorities would come up with a master plan. But, when we realised that there was no movement at all, we approached NGT.” BEAG’s lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay has been able to convince the NGT western bench to grant a stay on all constructions. Moreover, with the state and Matheran Monitoring Committee failing to send the master plan to the Ministry of Environment and Forest for approval within a stipulated time frame, on May 24, NGT issued a show cause notice to chief secretary of Maharashtra state and also summoned the Raigad district collector for the next hearing on July 6.