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Corruption in Hampi - India's Bouldering Paradise

© Nick Brown - UKC

On the 3rd of March 2020, 21 restaurants and guest houses in Virupapur Gaddi, or Hampi 'Hippy' Island, were demolished. The destruction came a month after several of the owners, some of whom had lived and worked on the island for over 20 years, lost a four-year-long legal battle with the State of Karnataka over the legality of their businesses.

The Rishimuk Plateau where a lot of the bouldering and businesses were clustered  © Nick Brown - UKC
The Rishimuk Plateau where a lot of the bouldering and businesses were clustered
© Nick Brown - UKC

In front of the Supreme Court of India, the owners argued that whilst many other businesses owners had neglected to purchase commercial licenses from the panchayat (the local authority) to build on Virupapur Gaddi, they themselves had acted lawfully and should be exempt from the demolitions. The owners were appalled to learn that the panchayat had in fact granted and renewed these licenses illegally, and regardless of whether they had acted lawfully at the time, they had a month to clear out their belongings before their homes and businesses were demolished.

When Hampi became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, it was intended to be a 'living' World Heritage Site (WHS), similar to England's Lake District. A living heritage site is much more complicated to manage, as the socio-economic development and local interests of the community are as much a part of its cultural value as are its archaeological resources. The Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority (HWHAMA), the organisation responsible for protecting Hampi's WHS tag, has been criticised for focussing too heavily on preserving the ancient monuments located in Hampi and neglecting the needs of its residents. The result, to quote HWHAMA, in their Master Plan for Hampi, is that Hampi is becoming 'the world's largest open-air museum'—in other words, a low-risk, clean tourist attraction, with a wide and lucrative market.

The situation began in 1999 when Hampi became a part of UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger. Tourism boomed, both due to Hampi's WHS status and the increasing popularity of climbing. Locals—mostly poor farmers—and non-locals built restaurants, guest-houses, shops, and homes around the Virupaksha Temple, Hampi Bazaar mandapas, and over the river in Virupapur Gaddi, to supply the demand. Hampi's gram panchayats had granted commercial licenses to some of these businesses, but on the whole, the growth was unregulated, threatening the preservation of Hampi's ancient monuments and its traditional cultural heritage.

In 2002, the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority Act (Hampi Act) decreed that the panchayats not renew any licenses and not grant permission for commercial activities within Hampi and Virupapur Gaddi. (Virupapur Gaddi has no ancient monuments, though it is considered archaeologically significant because of its connection to the Indian myth of Ramayana.) However, HWHAMA's failure to include the panchayats, as well as the residents of Hampi and Virupapur Gaddi, in their discussions led to licenses being granted and renewed until as late as 2006.

Hampi became a 'living' UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986  © Nick Brown - UKC
Hampi became a 'living' UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986
© Nick Brown - UKC

Five years later, following pressure from UNESCO to control the illegal 'encroachments' combined with the failure to enact any real mitigation measures, the Deputy Commissioner of Bellary District decided to take the matter into his own hands.

At around 7:30 pm on the 28th of July 2011, the Deputy Commissioner of Bellary District told over 200 families living, some for as long as 80 years, in the Virupaksha Temple and the Hampi Bazaar mandapas that their homes and businesses would be demolished the next day. He cited a court order for the removal of the illegal encroachments in the Hampi Bazaar, but no such order existed. And, because the notice was given after 5 pm, the residents could not make a claim against the order. It's a forced eviction that's been condemned as inhumane and illegal, yet justice is yet to be served.

In April of 2015, the same year that more demolitions took place in the Virupaksha Temple and Hampi Bazaar mandapas, the owners of the businesses in Virupapur Gaddi were given notice that all of their restaurants and guest houses would be demolished within a month. The demolition was delayed only because several of the owners were wealthy enough to take the matter to the Supreme Court of India.

When the trial was finally held almost five years later, the Supreme Court of India's final decision found that 'HWHAMA had the authority to proceed with the demolition of such illegal constructions', and that 'the Appellants cannot use the absence of regulation of Virupapura Gaddi as a ground to justify the illegal construction on their land.' HWHAMA's failures were overlooked; the best intentions of the owners ignored. Demolition would begin in a month.

In this article, I interview one of the owners to hear their side of the story. They also shed some light on the rumours of corruption in Hampi, and so they are referred to by the gender-neutral third-person pronoun 'they' or simply 'the owner'. Parts of the interview have also been removed in order to protect their identity. I also speak to Thimma, a local climbing guide who grew up in Virupapur Gaddi. Thimma sheds some light on the future of climbing in Hampi and how Coronavirus has affected the village and the rest of India. Both believe that climbing is not finished in Hampi—it will simply be different.

Climbing will probably still be possible but the details are vague at the moment  © Nick Brown - UKC
Climbing will probably still be possible but the details are vague at the moment
© Nick Brown - UKC

THE OWNER

What happened last March?

They just threw us on the road with nothing. Forget money. They didn't even give us time to find money for ourselves. They said that the business was illegal. The supreme court gave an order saying to stop the commercial activity places, and the supreme court in the last sentence said to 'take out all illegal constructions', so he considered our house illegal. The last two sentences are terrible. They gave us sixteen hours to just take a life's worth of things out of our house, bastards, then just threw us on the road.

There are at least 3,000 people homeless and jobless, and they've left 22 families homeless. They're terrible.

Can you tell me a bit more about the rumoured corruption?

It was this big minister, and he wanted to buy the whole village. He was the tourism minister back then. He wanted to put a big tourist charter international airport in Baladi, that's about 60 kilometres from Hampi. He was filthy rich, and he was terrible. Then he wanted to put a five-star hotel in our village, and we refused to sell it to him, so the bastard just sat down and changed the Master Plan. The architect who was doing the master plan, she was called Nalini Thakur, she didn't even finish the Master Plan, they kicked her out. She was the architect, and when they were doing the UNESCO thing they told us that we were stakeholders and all kinds of shit and crap, and they wanted to get into the place. The minister kicked her out, she was a conservationist archaeologist, so she was doing the Master Plan for Hampi and she said whatever exists, exists, but don't make any permits for anything new.

What happened with the first demolition?

So in 2011, they broke the other side of the river. They were living in the monuments for 60 or 70 years. There's also the humane side of it: build new places, relocate them. Don't just throw them on the road! 360 families and they're poor people. To throw 360 families on the road is not a simple thing. They gave them a notice at 6 o'clock in the evening and at 6 o'clock in the morning, they were demolished. They didn't want them to go to court and waste time.

There were 360 families stuck on the road, and after three months or four months, they gave them 20 feet by 20 feet places for staying. 20 feet by 20 feet! 400 square feet. Places for building a house, government places, and they told them that if they don't build within a certain timeframe, they will take the land back. They sanctioned loans for them from the bank, and then they gave them, they sold them for very cheap to make a plot for guest houses or businesses, for commercial activity. This was in the same year when they broke them down—2011. When they gave them permission to build the guest houses they gave them all the proper legal permissions, but there were one or two people in charge of distributing that land, for the families who were displaced, families who owned businesses in that place before. The commercial side was supposed to be for them.

But this government person, if there were 300 families out of the 360 who had businesses, he sold it to like 20 or 30 outsiders, who didn't have anything to do with Hampi. That was eight years since they broke them. Still today they are getting a court case for the commercial land. They haven't got any business, so now they have to pay the loan to the bank for their houses, which the government has foreclosed and they've taken all their houses back. So they don't have a house to stay again. They've got back to ground zero, again. It's terrible. How can you put 360 families on the road?

The temples seen from the island  © Nick Brown - UKC
The temples seen from the island
© Nick Brown - UKC

How does building new businesses work in Hampi?

So when you build a business you have to convert it from agricultural land to non-agricultural land, you have to call it NA for non-agricultural. And there were three people in our village out of the 21 who had the conversion done. They went to court with us, but he said to them, 'Your conversion is invalid because you have no permission from the ASI, that's the highest body for monuments.' So we said how did you give it to us? He said you need to contact the District Commissioner who gave you the NA and put a case against him, but in the meantime we're demolishing. So even the people with legal permissions were demolished. How can he break our homes for some mistake that the District Commissioner has done? He should have fired the DC, not us. If I apply for an NA and I am given an NA then I think I've got an NA.

At that time the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority didn't exist. It came to act only in 2006 or something, and the NA's were only given in 2000. So what did we know what was going to happen? They had no rights at all. So all 21 of us were just demolished and thrown on the road.

What happened to the tourism minister?

So he went to jail and he had nothing more to do with it. But what he did was he set the ball rolling, and everyone in Hospet took advantage of it. The people in Hospet, they had hotels in Hospet but no one would stay in Hospet because it's a terrible, horrible city. They had the advantage of kicking us out and they used it. There's no law, no justice in this country, it's all bloody money. I know in England there's bribery, but it's so horrible over here. They could have regulated us and said, before the Hampi Authority came into power, whatever hotels existed, we'll regularise you.

We didn't even have a first floor. We had thatched roofs all over the house with cow dung on the walls, so it was just blending. It's one month left in tents, but the temperature is like 40 degrees and I can't take it anymore. Whenever I think of my house I start screaming, crying.

What year did the tourism minister offer to buy your business?

2005, the tourism minister of Karnataka. He changed the whole Master Plan. He wanted to offer us peanuts, we didn't want to sell it. We were doing fantastic, phenomenally in business, and we didn't want to sell it. Why would I sell? We said if you give us a good price we will sell, but he didn't want to give us a good price. That's what you do in India, it's a trick. If you want to buy my land and I don't sell, I cut off your source of income if I'm powerful enough.

It even says in the verdict that you cannot build anything, only if the government gives you permission, so the government can give you permission. It's not that it's not allowed. The government can give you permission, that's what it says.

Did the state give any reasons for the demolition?

The reason they said they wanted to break our village was because we were selling drugs. I've never sold drugs in my life. Let's suppose you are selling drugs, and I tell you to stop. Will you? Who should stop them? The police, it's their jobs. There were kids on the road selling drugs, like 18 or 20 year old kids. The police knew about it, the police would arrest them, take money from them, then leave them. Then they would go back on the street and start doing the same thing again. Why were they scared? Of whom were they scared? Of nobody. But that's not my fault that someone was selling drugs. It's not my fault.

Hampi  © Nick Brown - UKC
The temple side of Hampi where homes were demolished in 2011. Across the river is 'Hippy Island'

THIMMA

How long have you climbed for?

I've been climbing for 12 years. Now I've been teaching for 7 or 8 years. I had a shop, but it's all demolished now. It's all gone.

Where are you from?

I'm from Hampi Island—Virupapur Gaddi. Now I'm living like four kilometres away, just like, ya know, I have an apartment like this for the climbers and everything. But now Corona is coming, so all is lockdown. I think climbing is still happening on the island. It's just for the tourism, you know.

When did you have to move?

Five years ago in 2015, actually we had a house there, then four years ago they destroyed our house and homestay, the Shiva Cafe, we had. There was like 70 houses. They destroyed our house and we didn't get any compensation.

Did every business have permits?

Some people wanted to make a commercial business. Tourists came and they just started on the agricultural land you know, so this is also tricky with the government and these people. Before they started all this tourism, they should take all the papers you know, like non-agricultural land. But they didn't do it, now tourism becomes higher, and the government wants to see their papers.

Have any boulders been closed off since the demolitions happened?

Nah, there is no closure. There are some in Hampi Bazaar actually, so they closed up because it's near the temple. But this island is okay for climbing, you know, you can go climb, but not for living there you know. There's no temple or stuff like this, it's just forest.

A hazy Hampi sunrise  © Nick Brown - UKC
A hazy Hampi sunrise
© Nick Brown - UKC

Will climbing be stopped?

Climbing is going to be fine. The UNESCO site mentions that the climbing is there, you know. So before they demolish all the buildings on Hampi island, they give news to other people like we are demolishing but climbing will still be there. Climbing will be going on because actually it's one of the best in the world, you know.

Do you think you'll be able to continue your business, albeit in a different location?

Yeah, just a different location from there, like five or six kilometres. It can be like going and coming, it's okay. Let's see how this goes after Corona and lockdown.

What's happening with the Coronavirus?

So actually in Hampi on this side, not Hampi actually but Hampi island, they don't have any Corona patient until now. So we cannot go from our region into Hampi, you know. We are other side, in Balari region. So in the Balari region they have a lot of Corona patients, so we cannot cross other side into Hampi. From yesterday we can go with bike, but because we are Saint John we cannot go to other districts.

In India, big cities in India you know, they're not allowed to go outside or whatever, whereas we are a village you know, a very small village you know. So we can go outside get grocery, don't meet so many people.

In [one of the big cities] a few days ago a big fight happen because of Corona, maybe 150 people went to the police and their doctors. Crazy things happen. I don't know how this goes, because in Karnataka everyone's stuck because in India everyone's working outdoor, everybody has to do outdoor you know, not like indoor.

Actually I'm working with the tourists, but there are no tourists here, so I don't have any work. Because tourism is my business, there's no tourism, there's no work.

What about the rest of India?

It's really getting very, very worse in India. They say it will be until 3 of May that it's open, or maybe this situation can be taken more days, you know, be extended.

Thimmi climbing the classic 'Cosmic Crimp'  © @thimmaclimb
Thimmi climbing the classic 'Cosmic Crimp'
© @thimmaclimb

Will you be alright for the next few months?

I think so, man. I hope so.

Will the hostels be set up in one new location?

I think it will be spread out, not one location, maybe like around north, south, east, west. Not everything will be in one place anymore.

On a lighter note, do you have any projects on the go?

It's good, there are a lot of projects and a lot of new places to explore with bouldering. It's endless in Hampi. Everywhere you go there are boulders, so you just find yourself and climb. I really like to have, to share the boulder problems. To share my place, share my bouldering problems with people, for the climbing community, actually.

I've met a lot of people from Europe and the whole world you know. It's cool.

Surely they can work with climbing?

The island will be I'm thinking like maybe you need to take a ticket to go to the island to climb, you know. Like 10 rupees, one per person. Like a park, you know. You go climb and visit the island. Not for cafe, not for sleeping, but for sure you can go visit for a day you know.

Bouldering on Hampi 'Hippy' Island  © Nick Brown - UKC
Bouldering on Hampi 'Hippy' Island
© Nick Brown - UKC



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Thanks for writing this piece Jake, I was in Hampi until the evening of the 4th March and slept my last two nights at Cosmic Cave, listening to the noises of the people of Gaddi working to salvage the materials of their places before the bulldozing resumed. I flew back to the UK on the 5th, heartbroken by what I witnessed. I am so grateful to you for writing this... somehow a little cathartic to read.

Everything you wrote rings true from my years of following the tribulations of the people of Virapaur Gaddi.

Going to say it though... Although I know that it is true that the guesthouse owners that you interviewed never sold or condoned the selling of drugs, there is no doubt that drugs was a defining issue both in the supreme court in Delhi and , especially, in Bangalore. One of only two guesthouse owners to be present at all the hearings over the years told me that drugs was the government's ''go to'' argument whenever their case looked weak. The very term ''Hippy Island'', which itself only appeared in the last couple of years, was something the government lawyers would use subtly but regularly to undermine the owners' lawyers.

I love Thimma's optimism for the future of climbing in Hampi. Worst case is that we will need to travel in from Gangavathi or Hooligi rather than Hospet; live in villages further away than Sanapur and Hanumanali; climb off the island... Ek number, Junglee, Paraport etc. Whenever, that is, Covid lets us return.

That all said, the real issue is the injustice visited by the government of Karnataka on the people of Virapapur Gaddi and nearby villages. Thank you so much for the quality and comprehensiveness of your piece.

11 May

Thanks for the update, we were there in 2016 and the high court case was ongoing but they knew they'd lose eventually. Did the Baba Cafe and that side of the island get torn down too? Or just the main strip?

I also know exactly who the owner is from their mannerisms! I hope she's ok

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