Will exemption of service tax on forest visits dampen conservation efforts?
March, 05th 2015
The finance ministry's latest move to exempt service tax on visits made to national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, tiger reserves and zoos seems to have evoked a mixed response, with many environmentalists debating whether the exemption may harm conservation efforts in the long run. "As it is, only a nominal fee is being charged by tourists to stay in the forest area," said Akash Verma, divisional forest official of Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary (KWLS). "Camping in KWLS for three days for instance costs merely Rs 150. If a portion of this is cut further, the forest communities which are participating in the conservation programmes on a revenue sharing basis will feel disheartened and disillusioned."
In addition, Verma added, a portion of the revenue goes to the state government which then carries out development activities in these protected forests. "Any reduction would also have an impact on development work inside the forests," he said.
However, not everyone feels that the exemption might have an adverse impact. "The move to cut service tax should actually boost tourism," said SS Sharma, principal chief conservator of forests. "For instance, many tourists who were unable to pay the hefty service tax levied by vehicle owners conducting jungle safaris, would now be able to visit more forest areas, which is a good thing."
Saket Badola, deputy director of Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR), too, favored the step saying that the additional service tax pinched a lot of tourists. "Jeep owners for instance charge a fee of Rs 1000 as well as 12% extra as service tax on one visit to the CTR. Seeing that many tourists resented this tax being levied on them, CTR had also recommended to the National Tiger Conservation Authority that this tax be done away with," he said. Interestingly, according to Badola, the 12% service tax does not go into the kitty of the state government nor does it go to the forest department. "It goes to the Centre directly," he said. "So exempting it will not affect development activities. Instead, it should help in conservation as more and more people will connect with forests."