photo credit: http://www.realhappiness.in
The Ganga is pure liquid crystal, dazzling in its brilliance along a thirty kilometer stretch beyond Shivpuri in Uttrakhand, flanked on both banks by unblemished white sand beaches or towering, forested cliffs. This is the best known haven for white-water rafting in North India.
Thanks to a bunch of intrepid environmental pioneers who made these magnificent beaches their karam bhoomi in the 1980s, two generations of nature lovers have since been groomed, to love and respect the awesome riverine environment of the lower Himalayas.
“Light handed” regulation grew the business
The ground rules for commercial use of this stretch of beach were first laid down by the Government of Uttar Pradesh in 1993 and thereafter supplemented in 1999 using guidelines recommended by the Government of India.
The outcome of has been a unique form of nature tourism which bars any permanent construction; electricity generation from fossil fuels and the use of detergents, chemicals or flush latrines. All this to ensure that visitors remain one with pristine nature.
A charming tented community spreads across nearly 100 separate campsites. These operate between October (after the rains) to May but are gone by the time the rains lash North India and the river waters rise to engulf what was till recently a medley of nature lovers.
The big advantage of the “light handed” government regulations is that they compulsorily create an environment which automatically keeps out those who are not likely to respect the environment. Using dry pit latrines rather than have access to flush toilets is one such surefire safeguard. Not allowing generator sets for electricity is another. Ensuring that soapy baths are not allowed on the porous sand is another.
Most of the campsites are run by those who either trained with the original river rafting pioneers or those who have diversified from adventure tourism into riverine environmentalism. Most camps use either forest or other government and village land after getting annual permits. They therefore have a vested stake in following the rules and no incentive to invest covertly in costly construction..
A rare pristine nook in crowded India
photo credit: touringmyindia.com
River rafting across the rapids; kayaking and bungee jumping are the main attractions available for the young and energetic. But almost as emotively powerful an experience, for young and old alike, is to wade into the river and walk along the shallow water where pebbles gleam like diamonds in the clear sunlight, whilst tadpoles dart about and dragon flies drone harmoniously.
No need for bottled water here. Drinking straight from the many jharnas (springs) is de rigueur. Frankly even the river looks good enough to drink from, though this is inadvisable for those addicted to bottled/filtered/RO drinking water.
Just lie on the beach at night and stare up at the starry, starry night- grandeur unmuted, courtesy the absence of harsh, electric light, as the waters rush by soothingly and the forested peaks tower over you- alive with a symphony of insect sounds; the sighing of wind through foliage and the occasional rasp of a leopard on the prowl. Amir Khusro’s famous couplet about Kashmir “If there be heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this….. may as well have been written for the beach life at Shivpuri.
Small start-ups and jobs
The Shivpuri river rafting community is also an economic miracle of spontaneous but sustainable economic development and job creation. Back-of- the -envelope-estimates suggest an annual turnover of around Rs 100 crores across all campsites. Additional direct and indirect employment would be around 3,000 skilled jobs for 200 days in a year.
More than 100,000 nature lovers enjoy the facilities here every year. Many of these are youngsters, brought by schools or their family, to savor the sustainable life style of camping under tents with basic comforts but without the odious opulence of luxury resorts, which are a sure proxy for poor use of natural resources.
The Shivpuri experiment has grown organically. But as with all start-ups once the product matures and becomes viable it is eyed by big business and also the government. The former looking for a cheap buy-out, the latter for more revenues.
Legal notice from National Green Tribunal
Unsurprisingly, the campsites are presently contesting a petition filed by an NGO before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which alleges that environmental norms are being violated by the camps.
Camp sites are made available every year to the incumbents if there is no violation of the 1993/1999 guidelines. This is exactly what big business may want to do.
Big business and the environment
The bogey of environmental degradation can be raised to evict these 100 camps from the beaches and replace them with a few, exclusive luxury, tented camps instead.
The argument, as always, could be the unsustainable biological load that 100 small camps and 100,000 visitors per years are imposing on the water quality and wildlife in the surrounding forests. Luxury facilities, chemical toilets, flush latrines, air conditioning, fancy menus and upgraded suites can attract a better “class” of tourists who would pay three to four times more than what camp operators charge today. Most of today’s visitors would be priced out. But it can be argued that fewer tourists would be good for retaining the purity of the sacred Ganga. This is a familiar albeit fallacious argument that to preserve the environment we need to exclude people from it.
photo credit: http://www.cleartrip.com
Larger luxury camp sites would be able to commit to treating the sewage and waste that luxury camps produce. They would be easier to police since they would be few in number albeit with a larger ecological footprint.
Is government committed to support riverine tourism start-ups?
The government may also seemingly prefer fewer camps. They may also suggest that to maximize revenue generation and bring in transparency, campsites should be auctioned to the highest bidder rather than re-allotted to incumbents as at present.
Alternatively the government might have other plans. It may wish to covert these pristine river beaches into bathing ghats (stepped river banks) for pilgrims, in keeping with the growing popularity of religious tourism.
The end of living with nature
In either case the unique Shivpuri river rafting experience will be extinct. Over taken by organized business or by the devout, eager to expiate their earthly failings by seeking the blessings of Ganga maiya.
Also doomed could be the government’s 1993/1999 “best fit” governance style of “light handed” regulation – fixing a problem without killing what grew organically.
Competition will also take a body blow, as will small business, if exclusive luxury resorts replace the higgledy piggle spread of campsites.
This would put an end to a nearly three decade old incubating site for future nature lovers and environmentalists.
Religious tourism crowds out the environment
photo credit: http://www.dreamtime.com
A unique opportunity for learning to love and live with nature will disappear if public bathing ghats are the future. The devout tend to miss the trees for the wood- so focused are they on the task of completing their riverine rituals and getting home. The institutionalization of the pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi in Jammu; Amarnath in Kashmir or closer home in Haridwar and Rishikesh are good examples of nature taking a back seat versus devotional rituals.
Saving riverine tourism from commercialization
But most importantly this will be the end of yet another opportunity to keep India’s riverine environment alive. Silting of the major rivers in the plains has killed what could be a thriving white-water shipping industry. Race boats in Kerala during Onam are now oared by people from the North East since it is too much work for the locals. The famous inland cruises are now motor powered and as noisy as any highway. The barges that the landed elite of Bengal used to sail up the Ganga have long since been recycled into antique furniture for homes with a taste for the past. We have forgotten how to live with a river, a lake or a pond. The shutting down of Shivpuri will complete the amnesia.
The only hope of avoiding this depressing possibility is if the NGT endorses the existing model of supporting riverine tourism start-ups through “light handed” but effective regulation albeit with stricter enforcement; periodic checks of water quality downstream of the camps and financial penalties for violation of norms. The ball is now in the National Green Tribunal’s court.