It’s my all-time favourite summer activity. There’s no better way to experience the sheer energy of the Ganga as you are tossed around the rapids with the ice-cold water hitting you hard in the face, sending you into raptures of an adrenaline high. And then to sleep under the stars on the white sandy beaches as the waters of the Ganga gush past, bringing an end to the adventure-filled day. But a boom in campsites, and fly-by-night operators have rendered even this harmless adventure sport ecologically damaging to the river. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is now asking—are the activities of the rafting industry adversely impacting the ecology of the Ganga and surrounding forests?
Ecologists have raised the red flag, creating a sharp chasm with the tourism industry. The country’s premier Wildlife Institute of India (WII), in a site inspection report in June 2010, came down heavily on the rafting companies; of the 34 operators, at least 13 were causing harm either by their sheer location or by irresponsible disposal of solid waste. All this came to the forefront when a non-governmental organization called SAFE (Social Action for Forest and Environment) filed a petition before NGT in March 2015, asking for removal of camps along the Ganga that were damaging local ecology in the 36km section from Kaudiyala to Rishikesh. This stretch of the river is a reserve forest, rich in wildlife and biodiversity. It’s also the stretch that has over 17 rapids of different grades, thus becoming a lucrative spot for the adventure sports industry to set up camp.
Although white-water rafting on the Ganga in Uttarakhand is now booming, it had a low-key beginning 15 years ago when the first permits were given by (the then Uttar Pradesh) government. From just two camps in 1994 to 34 in 2010, white-water rafting has become a popular sport, with hundreds of tourists making their way to Uttarakhand from September to June every year. While rafting per se is not the problem—in fact, it helps generate goodwill for the river and livelihoods for local people—it’s the number of camps, their location and activities like playing loud music that are problems. The WII report acknowledges other impacts such as “vegetation disturbance, compositional change and loss of cover; loss of organic litter and exposure; compaction and erosion of soil; damage and loss of shrubs and trees; pollution of water resources; and disturbance to wildlife".
Some camps got a clean chit from WII, others are mentioned either as blocking key wildlife corridors or managing their resources badly. The petition filed by SAFE notes several bad practices and violation of rules. It was observed that toilets that were permitted in the form of dry pit tanks, situated 60m away from the sand bank so as to prevent water pollution, were in some camps not more than 10m from the sand banks and within submergence levels of the Ganga. An RTI (Right to Information) application filed on 28 May 2015 with the conservator of forests, Bhagirathi Circle, showed over 2,441 tents across 37 river rafting beach camps in a 210,043.05 sq. m area for 2014-2015 in Narendra Nagar wildlife division alone. Displacement of wildlife, blocking of their routes for water, the bright colours of tents, loud music and lights are some of the deleterious impacts of these camps. Local residents say wild animals like goral, black bear and langur that used to come down to the river to drink water are no longer to be seen. This fact is also corroborated by WII in its study.
Keeping all this in mind, SAFE has asked NGT to direct “that a carrying capacity study be undertaken within a specified time frame in order to arrive at a sustainable number of rafting camps which can be allowed, including the possibility of centralized rafting camps". It has also urged the tribunal to “direct those camps which are located in non-ecologically sensitive areas...to strictly comply with the conditions given for approval".
The petition has made the adventure sports industry nervous; the latter insists its activities are done responsibly. I noted this was true for some camps, not all, the few times I have gone rafting. The solution then is not in banning the sport, but insisting on adherence to rules. Rafting per se may not be harmful to the Ganga or its ecology. The question here is how much is too much.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars: Dispatches From A Vanishing World.