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Ganga Rafting Camps - Final Solution

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Respected Hon'ble Mr. Justice Swatanter Kumar,  Hon'ble Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Hon'ble Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand,

River rafting on the Ganga brings scores of adventure & nature enthusiasts and  each year closer to the outdoors, and nature pursuits. This is now an endangered activity. The river rafting section on the Ganga is the only eco-tourism activity being conducted amidst the hydro-project centric engineering activity that dots the State of Uttarakhand.

Recent public interest litigation against indiscriminate licensing and pollution of the Ganga by rafting camps, has been in the news lately. However, this tells only half the story. 

Our industry has stood for upholding the safety and environmental fabric of  Ganga rafting & camping, since its inception in the 1980's.  Lack of policy and regulation has contributed a fair measure, towards product-transformation and deterioration. from what was conceived as a premier wold class experience.   River Rafting & camping on the Ganga made Rishikesh the river running capital of the country and India, a river running nation. 

Please read our story. We appeal to you to catalyze policy, implement guidelines and change so we may revive this premier experience.

THE BACKGROUND

White water rafting in India and the subsequent beach camping component of the rafting package started much before eco-tourism became the catch phrase. Eco-Tourism was a fringe concept when rafting first started.

Unlike other ecotourism activities which is community based – the white water rafting / camping model is based on adventure import sport from the USA. It is geared towards wilderness areas and is practiced by outdoors-man and sportsman.  The nature and ethos of the model is “back to nature” and its success lies in its “simplicity”.  As with any start up enterprise we faced our fair share of hiccups and continue to do so. The resistance was both from Govt. / Forest Dept. As well as the local villages in the area for whom this was all a new and foreign activity.

The rafting industry took on political, cultural and religious hues as we faced resistance…..Most often the resistance came because of ignorance and fear of the unknown. It took us many years / many familiarisation rafting trips and inviting villagers to the camps and finally training some of the locals in the sport in order to dispel a lot of unfounded fears.

From a fringe concept in the 1980’s & 1990’s, Eco-Tourism has become mainstream in the 2000’s.  Eco-Tourism is an approach to the business of wilderness destination travel that seeks to promote conservation and responsible tourism practices, educating visitors about local resources and taking steps to minimize the potentially damaging impacts of tourism on ecology, culture and aesthetics. The guiding values and principles of eco-tourism derive from the understanding that environment, economy and community are inextricably connected.

As the rafting fraternity & camp owners it is these ideas and values that we try and propagate among ourselves – our camp staff and customers in order to ensure Uttarakhand’s future economic success :

1) Camp Owners : 90% of the rafting outfitters are local entrepreneurs.

2) Local Employment: The industry today employs more than 5000 locals in various capacities in their camps, offices etc. in a 36 kms stretch between Kaudiyala and Rishikesh.

3) Empowerment & Participation of locals / Capacity Building :

Adventure skills - More than 85% of  the rafting related businesses are owned by one time river guides who were trained within the industry. The shining benchmark of India. Other adventure skills like rock climbing, trekking, kayaking are also part of this training.

Hospitality skills – More than 50% of the people employed at these camps have been trained in Camp management, cooking, Guest relations, store keeping, accounting, logistics planning as well as Wilderness First-Aid etc. 

4) Local economy – Lateral Integration and Spin-offs :

Traders – vegetables, groceries, utensils

Transporters – coaches, taxis etc.

Tent manufacturers – Locals have also taken the initiative to make tents for the camps as well as experiment with life jackets.

Rafting & Adventure travel equipment manufacturers & vendors

Supplies from nearby villages - Some villages supply milk and local produce to the rafting camps.

Daily wagers - On busy weekends daily wagers are also hired locally.

Dhobis – Between Shivpuri and Kaudyala have made a flourishing business from camp laundry. 

5) Re-investment within the region –

Rafting outfitters have re-invested within the State. Camp Panther, Leopard Mountain Camp, Ganga Banks, High Banks, Himalayan Hideaway, Shiva on the Ganges, Atali, are all examples of this phenomenon. Investment of over 50 crores, which has further generated employment and development.

6) Repeat customer business –

Perhaps the most noteworthy point about this industry is that it is heavily based on repeat  customers which is proof of how successful the existing rafting/beach camping model is.

ENVIRONMENT

1)   The only adventure tourism model to have invited an Environment Impact Assessment – carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India. Their report was positive and based on this - certain Rules & Regulations regarding the camping activity were modified. Govt. Orders continue to incorporate these recommendations.

2)   The presence of our camps have contributed in the following ways  –

      i)            Protection of the Mahseer. ii) Poaching has been curtailed. iii) No felling of trees in our area. 

SOCIAL & CULTURAL CONTRIBUTION

1) Local Culture – The rafting beach camps endeavor to interpret the local culture and flora and fauna to the tourists at every opportunity.

Village visits – are organized as day hikes for the guests where they get the opportunity to interact and understand the local culture.

Yoga and meditation discourses are encouraged, by the rafting beach camps and instructors from Rishikesh are invited regularly.

Ayurveda too is becoming popular with the guests which is outsourced by the rafting beach camps with local spas in Rishikesh.

Regular sightseeing trips to Rishikesh and Haridwar are organized for evening aarti and visits to the ashrams.

Some camps invite local musicians.  

2) Contribution to Local Schools –

Community work – eg:- painting of schools, contributing stationery to the schools is organized annually by the rafting beach camps through school groups that visit from Delhi.

Scholarships to local schools are offered regularly.

3) First-Aid Center has been set up at Shivpuri village.

Visiting doctors are invited from Delhi at the expense of the Beach camps to give free service at the First Aid Center. A clinic runs at Shivpuri and one of our industry donated 52 laptops to neighboring schools last year.

4) Development of villages -

Shivpuri village – is a small township today but was a one - tea stall habitation in 1988.

Byasi village – has grown and is thriving because of the rafting traffic in the area. Kaudiyala is virtually a destination in itself.

THE CHANGE

Camping permits are supposed to be issued to those operators who have rafting permits only. Earlier, rafting permissions were given to those entrepreneurs who had personal skills of guiding, know - how and experience in outdoor recreation, and who possessed rafts. Later rafting permits were handed out to anyone who had the wherewithal to set up camp and buy the equipment and hire the guides, to a stage where ad-hoc licenses began being issued by area gram sabhas, Forest Departments and even the local District Magistrate. We recognize this as the first debilitating step of moving from Eco-Tourism towards Mass Tourism. Short term needs versus Long term gains. From 01 river camp in 1988, we now have 60 river rafting camps and 142 rafting outfits that engage over 6000 families in direct and indirect employment.

The Rafting industry started knocking on the doors of the regular tourism industry. This lead to camping becoming more luxury based and the focus shifted from the thrill of the rafting experience to the attraction of comfortable camping by the Ganga. Comforts have no end….be flush toilets, solar lights, silent generators, DJ evenings etc. A small part of the industry may have succumbed however, the core values have remained stoic across the industry. Regulation and enforcement that has been lacking needs to be put back in place.

We live in a very fragile environment and our resource base must be safe guarded and treated as an asset.

Making our simple camping model more complex by allowing so called “eco-friendly” camping luxuries will destroy this model. It will become difficult to draw the line between simple / comfortable / eco-friendly / luxury.     

REGULATORY POWERS OF THE FOREST DEPARTMENT                    All rafting beach campsites are under the jurisdiction of the Forest department. Each year all companies have to renew their yearly lease for their campsites from the Forest Department. All leases have very strict environmental guidelines attached to them which have to followed by the camps and any violation of any such rules can lead to termination of the lease deed as well as prosecution under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1927.  These lease conditions are aimed to take care of any kind of pollution of the Ganges River as well as the adjoining forest area and make the camp most eco-friendly.  

To enforce these conditions the forest authorities have been authorized to visit, inspect and take action in case of any violation. We only get our renewal of licenses when we get a clean chit from the Conservator Forest Bhagirathi Circle, in the form of a No-Objection-Certificate.  Any violation ensures that the offending company does not get a renewal.

Rafting Committee : We suggest that a rafting committee with statutory powers be made that would draw upon the experience of the pioneers and would have on its Board – Members from the forest, Tourism  and the IAPRO / UFO. There could be no better Committee to steer the Industry forward.

POLICY CHALLENGES & LACUNAE

1)   Final draft of Tourism policy at variance with industry inputs. 

2)   Most of  industry inputs do not seem to have been incorporated.

3)   Lack of clarity in renewed licenses, for rivers other than Ganga river. Current policy favors a Ganga-centric approach, and discourages other regions. 

4)   Duration of season being reduced on Ganga river by a month.  In June 2014, an arbitrary order had already truncated  the season by a fortnight. At the same time, current Forest permits issued carry the recommended duration Sep 1 till June 30.

5)   Hike in raft fees by 150% without any clarity on number of rivers that the license encompasses.

6)   New licenses given on Ganga while older companies denied additional raft licenses

8)   Several absurdities exist eg. limiting age for raft guides at 50.

9)   Most important suggestions by industry ignored for a decade

10) At variance with Forest permit, not single window as assured

11) No criteria for issue of new licenses

12) Encouraging product failure by facilitating ‘overcrowding’

13) No policy of grant of riverside licenses

14) No standards pr parameters for guides and outfitters

15) Zero entry barrier, checks & balances in the name of local      empowerment

16) Continuing licensing by both Tourism & Forest departments          despite clear directives.  Turf war threatens the basis of stability for investment in this space.

Further,

a.      New beach camp permits issued arbitrarily by DM, Gram Sabhas, Panchayat. This must be stopped immediately & same rules must apply

b.     No logic on adherence of single window policy and implementation. No rules apply to such licenses.

c.      Animal corridors eliminated by indiscriminate licensing

d.     Distance between camps not respected 

e.      Issue of licenses and proper tests for new guides ignored 

THE FINAL SOLUTION

1)   Policy to be worked in consultation with rafting community. And in realistic connect with available human resource and carrying capacity

2)   Immediate grant of minimum 10 year leases to existing license and beach camp holders. Tourism cannot grow without stability or tenure. 

3)   Zero tolerance of all safety and environmental transgressions by rafting companies

4)   Recognize our model of Tourism to be encouraged in other regions

5)   Lateral integration of rafting industry in the framework of a unified policy

6)    Long term policy should exclude any form of beach auctioning,   beach division, ad hoc fees, rules without prior discussion with an industry member on the Technical committee

7)   No change in beach allocation norms for existing players, nor  any profit sharing arrangements with the Forest department

8)   One window approach putting behind contradictory approaches  of Forest and Tourism Departments

9)   We need these issues closed at the earliest, before our season ends June 30, 2015. Active participation of our Rafting Committee with the UTDB to help formulate and implement this new policy

10)  For the last three years, all companies have suffered huge losses due to delay in rafting and camping permits. It has caused the state and us, embarrassment at the very least with committed bookings (both national and inbound), having to get cancelled.

11)  Improve access points for rafting start / end points

12) Promote new rivers and regions

13)  Incentives to operators to open Alaknanda, Kali and Tons rivers

We urge you to intervene and set right the manifold aspects that are harming the river running face of India.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Kiran Bhatt Todaria, President,                                                       Indian Association of Professional Rafting Outfitters

Mr. Devendra Rawat, President,                                                       Uttarakhand's Finest Outdoors

 



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