At a time when third world countries are going through a transitional phase switching to tourism-oriented development goals that are inclusive and sustainable, India’s Assam is still branded as an ‘unexplored paradise’ in terms of tourism. The state has had its share of sluggish growth and dark times. Whether the state owes this misfortune to – an uncaring government at the Centre or an incompetent one in the State, is debatable. There is no point in mulling over the past but it is imperative to remember that there is no greater duty for a government than serving its people.
With decreasing insurgency and increasing connectivity with the outer world, Assam witnessed a footfall of 55 lakh tourists in 2014-15, of which only 24,720 were foreign tourist arrivals (FTA). In 2000-01, the figure was 16 lakh of which 5,959 were FTAS. Tamil Nadu tops the list of Indian states and in 2000-01, the State had observed a footfall of 2.3 crore tourists. Now the pertinent question is: how a state with limited resources for tourism based development can reach the top of the ladder whilst another state richly endowed with the same can barely manage to make the lower rungs of the ladder?
Assam is a land of exquisite greenery, rare animals, tribes, a rich cultural heritage, biodiversity hotspots, diverse anthropological as well as geological aspects that are ideal for tourism development. The main issue is identification of specific grounds and paving a feasible way accordingly. Tourism has several subsets or speciality forms which are gradually being taken into account by the developed as well as developing countries like cultural tourism, medical tourism, agritourism, geotourism, heritage tourism, religious tourism, ecotourism, etc.
Assam can clearly align itself with most of the forms of tourism that developed countries use to their advantage. Moreover, when we talk about sustainable tourism development, it implies that the natural, cultural and other resources of tourism are conserved for continuous use in the future, while still bringing benefit to the present society. This is important because a lot of the tourism development would depend on attractions and activities related to the natural environment, historic heritage and cultural patterns of areas. If these resources are degraded or destroyed, then the areas cannot attract tourists. Most tourists seek destinations that are attractive, clean and neither polluted nor congested. Sustainable tourism development also emphasizes on community-based tourism and quality tourism which focuses on community-involvement. Having said that, for a government to develop tourism, it not only has to create new avenues but also needs to support and aid individuals and organisations whose ventures have been successful in attracting tourists from all over the world.
Treasured Wheels’ founder Pickloo Deka is one such person who deserves said support and attention. It is an establishment that proudly exhibits an array of vintage cars, bicycles, motorcycles, musical instruments, electrical appliances, clocks, and watches, including World War remnants. Pickloo Deka points out that Treasured Wheels showcases objects that ‘remind us of the heritage our ancestors have left for us and how grossly we ignore its value.’
He has single-handedly given life to his dream of accumulating vintage pieces that he considers to be a part of the heritage of Assam. Deka has around 54 cars and 30 bikes. His collection ranges from a 1921 Chevrolet and a 1922 Austin-7 to a 1936 Fiat Topolino and a 1944 Volkswagen. He also owns a Citroen, a model of the world’s first front-wheel drive car along with a Morris, a convertible Sunbeam, a 1945 model Buick, a Volkswagen Type 2 also known as the Hippie van, a couple of Fords from the 1930s and 1940s and a Volkswagen Beetle.
His bike collection includes seven wonders from the World War II era – 1938 BSA 500, 1940 Royal Enfield, 1942 Sunbeam 500, 1934 Triumph 350 and US made 1933 Paradrop Scooter which weighs only about 20 kg, occupying pride of place among the exhibits. You can also find rare models of a 1978 Austin Mini 1000, the same model used by Rowan Atkinson in his popular sitcom Mr Bean; a 1984 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, Arnold Schwarzenegger had driven the same model in the movie Terminator; and a 1932 Norton 650 cc motorbike, the same model was used by Che Guevara and was featured in the movie Motorcycle Diaries.
Surprisingly all his vehicles are in perfect running condition and have been attracting customers from all over the world. However, Deka believes that selling a few cars and earning a couple of million dollars is futile, instead he wants this heritage museum to be one-of-a-kind in the entire world. ‘My bank balance, as of today, is a mere 75 paisa. Whatever I get as salary, I spend it here. There is no way I would sell off one of these vehicles that belongs to our people for some money.’
Sadly, he hasn’t received much attention. This is evident from the crude infrastructure that he has to keep his vehicles in, as the only funding he has is his own money. With a small bridge built over a trench decorated by World War II helmets, Treasured Wheels explores areas of heritage and eco tourism, the latter due to the place it is situated in. A mere 30 kilometres from Guwahati, located in the hillocks of Pathalipani, Sonapur, it is an example of what a passionate man can achieve.
The feats of Padma Shri Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng planting trees on a Brahmaputra sandbar for decades and turning it into a forest reserve and Joynal Abedin, the poacher turned hunter, who has dedicated his life to the conservation of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, is an inspiration among the locals, and are instances of those who have devoted their lives to conserve and enhance the beauty that Assam boasts of.
It is imperative to establish tourism as a high priority sector for the future development of the State, as well as achieving cooperation within the public sector and with the various stakeholders (private sector, communities and civil society) to facilitate investment and promote tourism. This will lead to a significant increase in the contribution of tourism to the State’s economy in terms of increased employment and income, de-centralized investment and foreign exchange income. It is also important to develop an effective marketing strategy linked with regional initiatives through a collaborative process to project a positive identity of Assam to the international tourism markets. Better roads, local heritage exhibition centres, developing soft skills of the workers engaged in regional hotels and improved and revised information handbooks are key. This will require, amongst other things, genuine community participation, greater technical and financial assistance, human resources development, and institutional capacity building in the State. Achieving these will ensure Assam’s place amongst the top rungs of the ladder that it rightly deserves.
By Unmilan Kalita