MANJEET SEHGAL WARRIOR
Shimla, Feb. 19: Hurtling down mountain slopes can be a risky business even with the gods on your side. Himachal Pradesh’s Congress government, however, is ready for its high-stakes Himalayan adventure even in the face of divine wrath.
The gods of Kullu — some 400 of them — are against the Rs 5,000-crore Himalyan Ski Village being built by a Ford scion at Manali, 265 km from here. At least, so say the official interpreters of the gods’ will: the temple oracles of the region. Some 400 oracles — priests believed to possess the mystical power of communicating with the deities — on Thursday said a resounding “no” to the project at a congregation organised by the Opposition BJP in Kullu.
But the state government is determined to make a success of the project that promises a “world-class” ski village on the lines of Switzerland’s St Moritz, god willing or not.
“We’re living in the 21st century, and today gods cannot change government decisions. If someone feels the decision is wrong, he can move court,” chief minister Virbhadra Singh said. “The BJP is trying to politicise the issue.”
The project, the largest proposed foreign direct investment in the Indian tourism industry, was sucked into controversy as soon as the state signed an MoU with Alfred Ford’s Himalayan Ski Village Project Private Limited last October.
The BJP alleges the terms of the pact favour the US company.
“The MoU has many flaws. The government put the state’s interests at risk by hurrying the agreement through. The company is to pay the government a 3 per cent royalty, but that figure was not market-tested (for competitiveness) as global tenders were never floated,” said former BJP chief minister P.K. Dhumal.
The project, to be completed by 2009, is likely to start towards the end of this year. Alfred Ford, the great grandson of Henry Ford, will get the ski slopes — stretching 14 km between Kothi and Jagatsukh in Manali — designed by experts from Vail, Colorado.
The village will have a 600-room five-star hotel, 300 chalets, food courts, a handicraft village, theatre complex, convention centre and a sanatorium.
“We also object to a clause that allows the company to sell or sublet the residential and other buildings or sites to anyone,” Dhumal added.
“The BJP is unnecessarily raising a hue and cry…. The MoU can be scrapped at any time,” state tourism and transport minister G.S. Bali countered. He added that the project would create 3,000 jobs.
The BJP is planning a series of protests, with the oracles in tow, in the valley whose Hindu population has a tradition of letting the gods decide difficult matters for them.
“We’ll not allow this project in the valley at any cost,” said Maheshwar Singh, a former BJP MP and head of the Kullu royal family.
The industry fears the political heat might scare Ford into shifting the project to Kashmir, whose government is believed to have sent feelers.
The project’s local representative, Iqbal Sharma, however, said: “We’ll go ahead with the project.”