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Above: A trekkers’ camp on a bugyal. The HC ban will hit this activity which is part of the state’s tourism economy/Photo: aquaterra.in

A High Court order has hit the thriving tourism industry in Uttarakhand as it bans night camping on these beautiful meadows. Why can’t lessons be learnt from Sikkim and Nepal?

~By Govind Pant Raju

Ever since Uttarakhand attained statehood, it has been pitched under different development models by various political powers. Some wanted to drive home the message of an energy state, while others had grand tourism plans. What became clear, though, was that all these grand plans existed only as proposals or hollow election speeches. The state remains hamstrung by an inefficient bureaucracy and a judiciary which pronounces unexpected judgments.

As if the state government’s ambiguous tourism policies were not enough, an Uttarakhand High Court order temporarily suspending adventure sports, including a ban on river rafting, and night stay curbs in the Jim Corbett National Park have crippled the economy. These activities employed a large number of youth. It has recently lifted the ban on whitewater rafting, paragliding and other sports, but has enforced stringent restrictions.

And now comes a High Court ban on night camping in the beautiful Himalayan bugyals (alpine meadows). In 2014, the Auli Bedni Bagji Bugyal Preservation Committee filed a PIL to preserve the bugyals of Auli, Bedni and Bagji which are liable to environmental damage during the Roopkund and Nanda Devi Raj Jat treks. This PIL was triggered by commercial trekking and indiscriminate pasture-grazing.

Due to lacklustre lobbying by the state government and the forest department, a clear policy regarding trekking in such a fragile ecosystem was never made. This resulted in the Court ordering a ban on night stay in the bugyals. After the order was issued on August 21, 2018, more than 600 tourists from different parts of India were banned from entering the area. Commercial grazing here is also prohibited now.

The Court has issued a six-week deadline for the formation of eco-development committees in all eco-sensitive areas. It has also banned existing and future construction projects, whether public or private. All district magistrates have been ordered to get rid of plastic waste from the bugyals and prepare a manual containing all information regarding the flora of their respective areas within six months. Forest officers have been ordered to develop herbariums in their respective jurisdictions. The Court has also commissioned these bugyals to be converted into national parks or sanctuaries in six more months.

On August 27, six days after the verdict, the chief forest conservator, wildlife, of Uttarakhand issued a letter restricting night camping in the alpine and sub-alpine meadows. Subsequently, divisional forest officers of Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Gangotri National Park, Govind Wildlife Sanctuary and Pithoragarh, Chamoli and Uttarkashi National Parks have all prohibited night camps.

For tourists who have arrived post weeks of advance planning from all over India and abroad, it has been a chaotic time. Any trek to be undertaken needs the approval of the forest officer. This entails submission of medical certificates, a no-objection certificate from the weather department, Aadhaar photo copies, contact numbers and signatures of all trekkers, a Rs 5,000 bank draft and an undertaking transferring the liability for the safety of all trekkers to the organising agency.

There is an additional undertaking, according to which if the party is caught camping in the area, a fine of up to Rs 1.5 lakh would be imposed. However, the official mandate requires no imposition of such procedural bottlenecks. The chief forest officer has also instructed subordinates to find alternative camping sites for trekkers. Though the trekking season is closing, no such action has taken place. Most tourists who had already arrived have moved to places which could offer a hotel stay.

Dr Sunil Kanthola, an expert in adventure sports, told India Legal: “This is not a case of just following the High Court order. It shows how in the name of the Court order, the DFOs have issued their own mandates and single-handedly decided to cripple the state’s tourism economy.” The way the Court’s order is implemented by forest officials may greatly impact the state’s economy as the peak season is between September and October.

The Garhwal Himalaya is home to some good trekking peaks which makes Uttarakhand a hotspot for expeditions. The state has an average footfall of 5,000 trekkers. From each trekker, the state earns around Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000. An army unit of 20-25 will give it Rs 30-40 lakh.

Kiran Bhatt Todariya, president of the Indian Association of Professional Rafting Outfitters, and managing director of Rishikesh-based Indo-Ganga Holidays Pvt Ltd, said: “A ban on camping in bugyals will also affect locals who use them to move from one village to another. But it is totally fair to regulate tourist camps in these eco-sensitive areas.”

There is another unnoticed side to this whole crisis. Trek organisers affected by the order are also of two types—there are small, local operators who have built up considerable goodwill and clientele over the years, and large-scale, standardised players who have sensed appropriate business opportunities in the area. With this order, these smaller operators have lost most of their business, while the bigger players have re-routed their disgruntled clients to Himachal Pradesh and other regions, thus driving profits out of the state.

It has resulted in considerable animosity amongst the large and small players. Organisers like India Hikes (a premium player), while voicing their opinion against the Court order, also blame the smaller players. According to them, they take larger parties which clean the site and are involved in various awareness campaigns. However, the smaller players believe that these large parties spoil the fragile eco-system. These organisations have permanent camps with kitchens and other services. “Thousands will lose their livelihoods. It is against the fundamental rights of the local people,” Jayendra Singh Rana of the Garhwal Himalayan Trekking and Mountaineering Association said.

Continuous human presence in the Himalayan bugyals is detrimental to this fragile ecosystem. The Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra in 2014 was branded as the Kumbh of the Uttarakhand Himalaya and led to permanent constructions and gargantuan plastic waste. Also, while the Court has ordered the ban on night stay in bugyals, it has ignored noise pollution generated by helicopters run by large tourist companies, especially in Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Valley of Flowers and Gangotri National Park. It reflects the callous attitude of a state government that has always put economic gains before larger issues. Money talks in Uttarakhand.

If the Uttarakhand government had come to the High Court armed with research, both trekking operations and the ecosystem could have gone hand-in-hand. In Sikkim, the Kanchenjunga Conservation Committee regulates all trekking. They do proper checks and guidelines are strictly followed. This ensures that despite a large footfall, the the environment is not damaged. In Nepal, along the Everest Base Camp route, all hotels follow a tea house policy. These tea houses are not so much houses that serve tea, but small bed-and-breakfast joints that provide all basic amenities for comfortable trekking in the Himalaya—a single bed, a hot meal, hot shower and electricity.

Such a model can be implemented in Uttarakhand, too. The tourism industry requests the government to appeal the Court order. And no conservation effort can succeed unless it mobilises the local people. They consider the bugyals holy and their participation is vital.

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