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Educating and Motivating The Common Public For Effective Participatio In Geoconservation

Published:Mar 03,2008


Manjit Kumar Mazumdar 1, Niranjan Kumar Das 2,
Dayananda Pathak 3, Paramananda Majumdar 4.

1Lecturer (Senior Scale), Department of Geology;
2Former Head, Department of Geology;
3Principal and Chief Coordinator, Post-graduate Department of  Tourism Studies;
4Lecturer (Selection Grade), Department of Geography;
Pragjyotish College, Guwahati - 781 009, Assam, INDIA.

Keywords: Caves, geoconservation, education, sustainable development.

The State of Meghalaya, located in the Northeastern region of India possesses a rich array of million year old limestone and sandstone caves. At a time when some of these caves have managed to acquire international recognition and status, systematic destruction is being initiated at certain places, posing a grave threat to their very existence.  Although caves are found in all the four districts of Meghalaya, the Jaintia Hills district has the highest concentration of caves in the entire Indian subcontinent. Apart from their awe-inspiring magnitude and dimensions, the caves are a treasure trove of an exotic biodiversity pattern. Recently, it has become a matter of great concern that these exotic caves, with great-attached geoheritage values, are on the verge of extinction, because of the fact that large-scale limestone mining has been started by certain cement factories in the immediate vicinity of the caves. A further aggravating matter of concern is that, the local people of the Jaintia Hills district have supported the setting up of these cement factories, on the justification that the local people will be benefited by recruitment in these factories and there will be more concentration of trading and business activities in the area. 

The Meghalaya caves have all the potentiality for being converted into a full-fledged geopark. Tremendous scope exists for augmenting geotourism in a sustainable manner and also for popularizing geosciences through these million year caves. Scope also exists for imparting basics of environmental science education through the setting up of such a cave geopark. The need of the hour is to ensure properly educating and motivating public at all societal levels for ensuring crystallization of an effective public-participatory geoconservation strategy. With such a strategy and consequent governmental policy in the proper place, tourism shall flourish and the education perspective of the geopark shall become effective. The Meghalaya Adventurer's Association (MAA), a non-profit organization, established in 1990, have been rendering yeoman's service for protecting and promoting these caves, by acting as a pressure group against the various detrimental activities and also through various promotional mechanisms like exploration and public sensitization programmes. Every year, speleologists of international repute hailing from various countries undertake caving expeditions in search of newer and unmapped cave passages, with active initiation of MAA.  

The present paper discusses on the various aspects of these caves in the light of the geoparks context and the current status of the catalytic initiatives at different levels, which is contributing towards a prospective geopark developmental process in the region. Special reference has been made on public-participatory mechanisms in the geopark developmental process with special reference to a conceptual Meghalaya Cave Geopark.

 The State of Meghalaya, located in the Northeastern part of India, has literally hundreds of ancient and historic caves and caverns, most of which are yet to be explored and more, still to be discovered. Legends are weaved around many of these caves, while many others are regarded to be sacred by Hindu devotees. To some they are abodes of ghosts and evil spirits. Some of these caves have managed to earn international fame and recognition.  Till date, a total of over 1050 caves have been identified, out of which over 600 have been surveyed, raising the total cave passages mapped, to over 300 kilometers. The potential for discovery of many more caves is enormous. Pioneering efforts towards regular discovery of new international standard caves and bringing global interest into the caves of Meghalaya, has been initiated by the Meghalaya Adventurer's Association (MAA), which was set up in 1990. MAA works in close collaboration with foreign cavers and every year a Cave Exploration Programme is carried out. Apart from possessing enormous tourism potentialities, the caves also offer educational opportunities in respect of the biodiversity and geodiversity that exists within these subterranean meandering passages. There thus exist all potentialities of transforming the entire cave-manifested areas into a prospective geopark. However, a geoconservation strategy has to be first worked out and implemented in the area, due to the fact that the caves have in the recent times, have come under threat, due to limestone mining by cement factories, and enjoying patronage of the government and support of the local inhabitants. Educating and motivating the cave-site locals on sustainable developmental principles and strategies should form the primary ingredient of any geoconservation strategy aimed towards setting up of any future geopark in this region.

2.01. Geographical Distribution. In Meghalaya, caves are developed in an almost 300 kilometers long belt of diverse rocks, along the southern and south-eastern borders of the State as well as Mikir Hills. The caves are spread all throughout the Jaintia Hills in the east, Khasi Hills in the central part of the State and Garo Hills in the west. Out of these, the Jaintia Hills has the highest concentration of caves in the Indian subcontinent. These caves exist from Syndai (in the west), all along the southern border to Lakadong, Lumshnong, Khaddum, into the Litein Valley and right up to Garampani (in the east and northeast). The major caves in the Khasi Hills are located in the areas of Cherrapunjee, Shella, Pynursla, Nongjri, Mawsynram and Langrin. Caves in Garo Hills are mostly confined to the South Garo Hills District, Balpakram, Chokpot, Asakgre, Siju and also in the area of Tura.

2.02. Geodiversity in the Caves. Most of the caves found in the state have impressive river pathways, canyon passages, phreatic passages, stream passages, trunk passages, key-hole passages, bedding plane passages, mixed with huge fossil passages, and comparable in size and beauty to any other found elsewhere in the world. The caves range in size from small hillside openings to vast interconnected subterranean systems of many chambers and galleries. Some cave systems extend for miles underground and may have many outlets. A wide array of diverse geomorphological/ physiographical diversity patterns have been recorded in the labyrinth cave systems of Meghalaya. Some of these features include alcoves, avens, botryoidal stals, boulder chokes, calcite curtains, canyons, cave pearls, chambers, columns, conduits, disk formations, dolines, excentriques, flowstones, gours, grottoes, gypsum flowers, lakes, maze areas, mooliehs, potholes, rift passages, popcorns, sandbanks, sinkholes, sinter pools, stalactites, stalagmites, sumps, travertine, tufas, waterfalls, etc. The caves are also of various types, viz. dendritic river caves, fossil caves, phreatic caves, resurgence caves, temple caves, tunnel caves, vadose caves, etc.

2.03. Biodiversity in the Caves. During cave exploration and mapping expeditions, a wide variety of life forms have been recorded in the Meghalaya caves. The common species observed include spiders, harvestmen, pseudoscorpion, millipedes, crickets, cockroaches, beetles, flies, woodlice, crabs, shrimps, crayfish, etc. Many of these animals are depigmented or totally white with reduced eyes. Birds like swiftlets, shrews, bats and oilbirds, which roost and nest inside the caves, use 'echolocation' technique to navigate inside the dark caves. The Siju Dobakhal cave, on the banks of the Simsang River, is the home of tens of thousands of bats; it is the biospeleologically best researched cave in India. In the subterranean waters of some of the caves, cavefishes are found, which are a variety having no eyes or rather rudimentary ones. Another significant discovery during one of the expeditions was a fossilized bone, surmised to be of a dinosaur, and embedded on a rock. In addition, the caves are also a treasure trove of certain exotic plants like orchids and the pitcher plants.
2.04. Some remarkable Caves.
• Krem Liat Prah-Um Im-Labit system: Longest cave in India (22,203 meters in length).
• Krem Kotsati-Umlawan system: Second longest cave in India (21,530 meters in length); third deepest cave in India (215 meters in depth).
• Synrang Pamiang: Deepest cave in India (317 meters in depth); third longest cave in India (14,157 meters in length).
• Krem Synrang Ngap: Second deepest cave in India (222 meters in depth).
• Krem Lashing: India's most voluminous cave, measuring some 50 meters wide and 40 meters high at certain places.
• Krem Mawkynthiang: India's longest sandstone cave (more than 3 kilometers), located at Nongnah, West Khasi Hills District.
• Nongkhlieh Ridge: The richest area in the number of caves and the length of cave passage mapped. Over 125 kilometers of cave passage have been mapped in the area, making it one of the world's greatest caving regions in terms of cave density.

There exist tremendous potentialities for the designation and creation of a Cave Geopark in Meghalaya, in view of the wide touristic and educational implications. However, geoconservation efforts are required to be first undertaken in the designated area, for protecting the caves from unwanted anthropogenic interferences that are currently prevalent in the area.
3.01. Touristic potentialities. In the Meghalaya caves, Nature has carved a delightful world of subterranean passages and chambers, resplendent with all the glories that only Nature can bestow. Most of the caves provide superb caving trips, with pitches, aquatic crawls, tight squeezes and lots of magnificent natural tunnels. Apart from adventure trips, some caves also have the potentiality to promote spiritual tourism. For example, the Krem Mawjymbuin has become a sacred shrine for Hindu believers; the Krem Jynniaw 2 is regarded as sacred by Hindu devotees; etc. The caves have also the potential to be included within the existing eco-tourism circuit of the State, which includes numerous eco-spots like waterfalls, hot springs, trekking routes, lakes, and other scenic spots located beside numerous mountainous streams, rivers, rock exposures, plateaus, peaks, gorges, cliffs, etc.  

3.02. Educational potentialities. The Meghalaya caves are a paradise for speleologists and scientists alike. During exploration and mapping expeditions, a wide variety of 'cave life' has been documented inside the caves. The troglobitic animals that exist inside the Meghalaya caves have the potentiality to address questions relating to evolutionary pattern and biogeography of the Meghalaya Plateau as a whole. The cave localities being part of one of the few biodiversity hot-spots of the world, do offer tremendous opportunities to undertake research activities by anyone having a life-sciences background. Research focus on the caves is increasing over the years and international recognition has also accumulated in the recent years. An instance can be cited of a NASA - funded research project on cave-forming bacteria, which is currently continuing. In the annual Cave Exploration Programmes undertaken by MAA, cavers from several developed countries participate. The numerous fossil passages inside the caves also offer opportunities to both stratigraphers and paleontologists alike for carrying out respective studies. Over and above, the students at varying learning levels and hailing from the Northeastern region also have the proud advantage to visit these caves on educational tours to gain insights of the rich array of natural wealth buried hundreds of feet below the ground.   

4. GEOCONSERVATION THREATS.                    
The large-scale indiscriminate limestone mining by cement manufacturing plants in the vicinity of the million years old caves in the recent times has become a matter of great concern. Examples include the Cement Manufacturing Company Limited (CMCL), Meghalaya Cements Limited (MCL), Barak Valley Cement Limited (BVCL), Lafarge, etc. This has posed a hidden threat to cave habitats and has caused changes in hydrologic parameters in the region. A glaring example is the Mawmluh Cherra Cements Limited (MCCL) in Cherrapunjee, which today stands in a deforested area, with not even a spike of grass growing around a 10 - kilometer radius from the plant. The State's single window clearance system has facilitated the setting up of such plants, without having to obtain environmental impact assessment clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).  A further point of concern arose due to the fact that the local people in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills District have supported the setting up of cement factories, on the justification that the local people will be benefited by recruitment in various posts in the cement plants, and there will be more concentration of trading and business activities in the area. Meghalaya has a Land Transfer Act (LTA) which does not allow non-tribals to purchase land in the State. But the Act has a clause, which states that land can be alienated in favour of a non-tribal if it is in the interest of the tribals. Several companies have circumvented the Act by claiming that they would provide jobs to unemployed tribals. But after the plants start functioning, all companies imports cheap manpower from outside the State, including neighbouring Bangladesh.

The other non-governmental agencies active in the State are also reluctant in supporting the geoconservation activities of MAA due to certain vested interests linked with the cement companies.             

Other instances of geovandalism also exists; the natural precipitates of dissolved lime carbonate, popularly known as stalactite and stalagmite, along with dripstone, flowstone and rare formations called helictites (a flower like variety of stalactite), are easily broken by unscrupulous cave explorers and tourists, and taken away as momentoes.

Changing land use pattern and deforestation in the cave localities, is bringing about changes in the flood regimes and nutrient inputs to the caves. Especially damaging is the erosion of top soil which is deposited as mud in the caves. These processes have serious effects on the cave ecosystems and over a period of time, can lead to the destruction of the unique 'cave life'.

The MAA have sent representation to the Union Forest and Environment Ministry, as well as the Meghalaya State Government, drawing their attention to the destruction of the precious caves in the area, caused due to limestone mining. But this has not yielded any fruitful results. The MAA has now sought intervention of the Supreme Court of India in the matter of validation of limestone mining by the cement companies in the cave localities, and the matter is pending for hearing. Although legal relief is highly welcome as an immediate relief measure, a long term strategy needs to be chalked out for protecting and promoting the caves in the right perspective, and thereby augmenting protective mechanisms for the fragile and unique cave ecosystems. Geotourism in the form of cave tourism needs to be promoted fully in these localities, so that the local people start realizing the potential of tourism as a local economy booster. Such tourism measures shall include setting up of hotels, restaurants, good telecommunication network, trained tourist guides, tour operators, and the like, besides a policy for educating and creating awareness among the people about the principles and practices of sustainable development through geotourism. Only through large scale awareness and motivation amongst the common masses, such scientific repositories of climatological, biological and geomorphological importance can be expected to be conserved for sustainable development of the region and its inhabitants. There is enormous scope for the local tribes to set up various stalls nearby the cave sites for exhibiting local and traditional artifacts as also eateries serving modern and indigenous delicacies. Once the local populace starts reaping the benefits of tourism boom, their mindset is bound to change, and they shall actively contribute towards all such geoconservation measures, aimed towards protecting the caves. Setting up of geoconservation NGO's, like MAA, in all the eight northeastern states, and close coordination between all these can also be another option for acting as a pressure group for the government to enhance the cause of sustainable development through cave tourism and other forms of geotourism. Awareness raising or sensitization amongst the local populace can be achieved by first instilling confidence amongst the local tribal leaders/ chiefs or village head-mans or student leaders. These people should be exposed to various instances of international level developments by taking recourse to audio-visual media. They should be apprised of various success stories of geoparks from all around the globe and how geotourism bears the potentiality to transform the economy and lifestyles of various regions and its inhabitants. The geoconservation NGOs should also try to induct members from the aforesaid categories in the various working portfolios.


The amazing cave systems have all the potentiality to be promoted as Meghalaya Cave Geopark. The need of the hour is to formulate a geoconservation strategy, involving both the policy makers and the cave site locals, for augmenting global tourism and increasing local livelihoods in the cave vicinities, instead of being sacrificed to feed the cement industry. The role of geoconservation NGO's like MAA cannot be sidetracked, as these shall definitely act as nodal pressure groups for the government, besides acting as awareness-generation foci for the common public in general. Any geoconservation strategy, aimed towards protecting and promoting the caves should include within its fold an awareness cum motivation aspect for the cave site locals, because unless this cross-section of stakeholders gets properly oriented in principles of sustainable development, the desired developmental targets shall not be attained with ease. Over and above, setting up of a national network of geoparks and subsequent affiliation to some international level networks like the UNESCO's Global Geoparks Network or the proposed Asian-Pacific Network can also lead to certain strong collaborative efforts towards geoconservation activities, in threatened areas like the Meghalaya caves.  


Booklet/ Brochure/ Pamphlet, etc References:
• Meghalaya: Published by the Director of Tourism, Govt. of Meghalaya, Shillong.

Book References:
• Nature's Exotic Gift - The Caves of Meghalaya: Published by he Directorate of Information and Public Relations, Government of Meghalaya, Shillong.

Newspaper References:
• In the Caveland: The Assam Tribune, 17 May 1997.
• Secrets of the caves: The Assam Tribune, 31 August 2003.
• Cave site locals support cement projects: The Assam Tribune, 13 February 2005.
• Meghalaya-cave tourism destination: The Assam Tribune, 21 May 2005.
• Subcontinent's largest cave in Meghalaya: The Assam Tribune, 04 March 2006.
• Subcontinent's longest cave found in Meghalaya: The Telegraph, 04 March 2006.
• Meghalaya mine dealers to oppose Adventurer's move: The Assam Tribune, 09 August, 2006.

Personal Communication:
• Brian Dermot Kharpran Daly: General Secretary, Meghalaya Adventurers' Association, Shillong.

Research Paper References:
• Das, N.K. & Mazumdar, M.K. (2006). Cave tourism in Meghalaya, Northeast India - a prospective geotourism initiative for geoheritage conservation: An extended abstract of a paper, published in the Proceedings Volume of the "5th European Congress on Regional Geoscientific Cartography and Information Systems", held at Barcelona, Spain, from 13-16 June 2006.

Web References: