Endowed with pristine beauty of verdant forest canopies on hilltops and lush green spreading endlessly at foothills, Sreemangal casts a magic spell on visitors to the land. Its natural gift has further been accentuated by the man-made sloping carpets of tea plantation. Home to the largest tea garden in the world, the place has proved that an industry can be developed in harmony with Nature.
On this count, the tea industry in Sylhet and Sreemangal is one of the early eco industries in the world. There has been a happy marriage between Nature and commerce. Even the crops such as pineapple, banana, jackfruit, lemon, papaya grown there have an agro-industrial character but still the farming hardly proves to be an affront to environmental and ecological rules.
No wonder, to people of plain lands the unique natural setting of forest hills and acres of picturesque tea gardens are highly attractive. To people from cities tired of traffic congestions and consequent worries and frustration, this place offers a paradise-like sanctuary. It would have embraced the most dreaded fate of Madhupur Gahr or some of the forests in Chittagong, had tea plantation not been introduced there.
The workers brought as indentured labourers, as was done for Assam tea gardens, from Odisha, Jharkhand, Telengana, Chhatisgarh, and then West Bengal by the British still lead a miserable and, therefore, simple life. The local tribal people like Khasias and Tripuras also prefer a life away from the madding crowd. They have also traditionally developed through generations a system of their own not to encroach upon Nature. Their way of life too is simple. The government decision to grant the Lawachhara the status of a reserve forest has certainly helped the cause. Still the forest had suffered a lot when not enough was done to protect forest resources from timber thieves and hunters of animals and birds. Subsequently, the Unesco and the World Wildlife Fund helped in implementing community-based participatory conservation programmes. This has not only raised awareness among people of the need to protect the forest from pillage but also made arrangement for alternative livelihoods for people most affected by the measure.
Today, the Khasias have greatly improved their living standard in the Lawachhara forest. Of the 60 or so families living in the forest, quite a few have houses of brick walls. That they are well-to-do is evident from the look their homes offer. Clean and spacious, although still on hilltops, the houses have most of the modern gadgets in them. However, education has not greatly appealed to them. A youth in his early 20s, informed that most young people of his age did not pursue college or higher education. It so happened that his brother is the only one among them to study Honours course in Sreemangal College. He himself studied up to class VII. A few others also disclosed they could not pursue education beyond class VII.
If the Khasias are economically well-off, the workers of the tea plantations are certainly not. They live in huts in a slum-like condition. The only differences are that they enjoy a better environment free from the squalor of urban space constraint and stifling environment. If people's health is a reflection of their economic and living condition, they are certainly the best advertisement of the wretched life they lead. It appears, time has stayed where it was when the indentured labourers were brought from faraway lands for the job.
For people who visit Sreemangal, these people matter little because the visitors are busy making the most of their time in the tourist spots, tea gardens included. A closer look, however, would have revealed that the tea gardens' beauty and prosperity depend mostly on these skimpily framed people. Otherwise, Sreemangal offers an enjoyable stay for visitors. People are friendly, simple and above all good hosts. Even the attendants, men at the counters of hotels and restaurants, drivers of jeeps and three-wheelers have not developed rigid professionalism. They greet visitors like their neighbours or some relatives.
Maybe, the most luxurious resorts like the Grand Sultan have a professional ambience cut for tastes of foreign visitors but below that level professionalism in its strict sense is missing. In its place warmth of heart and a sense of human bond runs like a quiet stream. The land of two leaves and a bud may mean many things to many people but that the place has a quaint homeliness is unmistakable.
Unlike Sylhet proper, though, Srimangal has one more strong plus point. It is food. If Sylheti foods fail to appeal the taste buds of people from plain lands, Srimangal's will certainly not disappoint them. What is particularly relishing are the fresh fish from the marshes and natural water bodies for which Sylhet is particularly famous. Admittedly, the cooking process in Srimangal is different from that of Dhaka, Comilla or Barisal but some of the foods they prepare quite well. The use of coconut milk may have done the trick.
Thus Srimangal has its unrivalled attractions but tourism has not developed much. If it is organised better, the selfie-addict visitors will feel more drawn towards Nature. Clearly, visitors need some education to be close to Nature and appreciate its beauty. Eco-tourism has to be developed or else the rampaging tourists will spoil Srimangal's primal forests.