Last year, the Indian National Green Tribunal enforced a ban on beach camping near the River Ganges from Kaudiyala to Rishikesh in the scenic Uttarakhand state. As camping sites remain shut amid the arrival of another tourist season, thousands of locals who are directly or indirectly dependent on tourism are without jobs. Eco-friendly tourists feel they are being unfairly punished for the wrongs committed by a few polluters.  

A contentious decision of India’s apex green court to ban camp sites by the River Ganges (Ganga) near the Himalayan town of Rishikesh has become a template in India’s intensifying battle to balance surging economic growth with environment protection.

The Himalayan foothills and the River Ganges near Rishikesh, one of India’s top tourism regions

Locals are losing jobs as popular camping sites along the Ganges river remain shut this season too following the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) ban order in 2015.

As the ban hurts a promising sector eyeing increased tourist inflows to India, the victims accuse vested rival interests of manipulating the media and green tribunals.

Someone’s loss is another’s gain but nobody wins when the life-sustaining Himalayan environment gets damaged. But here the key for India’s development is ensuring actual facts and thousands of lives and livelihoods are not damaged due to misfiring green crusaders.

“Instead of penalizing one percent of offenders, the NGT ban punishes 99 percent who are following regulations,” Kiran Bhatt, president of the Indian Association of Professional Rafting Outfitters, told Asia Times in a phone call from Dehradun, the Uttarkhand state capital near Rishikesh. “We are facing a lot of problems.”

Camping under the stars by the River Ganges is a unique experience

During the past ten years of my frequent visits and long stays in Rishikesh and Himalayas, I have seen how adventure tourism jobs have changed lives of young people there.

“If not for tourism, many youngsters here would be washing dishes in Delhi restaurants”, a leading adventure tour operator told me during my latest visit to Rishikesh on September 6.

Now as the peak tourist season begins with international arrivals during winter to Rishikesh, the NGT ban on riverside camping has affected thousands of locals who are directly or indirectly dependent on tourism.

NGT has been in the eye of environmental storms since starting work in 2010 from New Delhi’s Copernicus Marg.

The NGT will more often occupy centre stage in high-stake conflicts given that India’s economy – Asia’s third largest – is expected to continue growing at 7.9 percent per year. It means more demand on natural resources to feed increasing industrial appetites, from construction to electricity consumption.

A McKinsey report, for instance, estimates that India’s current economic growth needs doubling of power generation to 335 GW by 2017, with over US$600 billion investment.

Already more hydro-electric dams in Uttarakhand have caused climate change chaos such as the devastating cloud burst in 2013. Thousands died, entire villages were destroyed.

With increasing economic activity such as tourism, the Himalayan region needs more careful regulation to stop environment polluters and not a comprehensive ban on eco-friendly tourists.

The NGT calls itself “a specialized body equipped with the necessary expertise to handle environmental disputes involving multi-disciplinary issues”, but the Tribunal needs some self-examination to ensure following its founding aim to “be guided by principles of natural justice”.

For instance, the likes of Yousuf Zaheer, president of the Himalayan River Runners in Rishikesh, would struggle to see the “natural justice” in banning an entire business segment for misdeeds of the few.

Schoolchildren come to the Himalayas to learn lessons from nature

Those unfairly punished include schoolchildren across India and worldwide who come to the Himalayas for a healthy outdoor holiday, in one of the most beautiful regions in the world.

Last year, I saw happy schoolchildren from Ahmedabad at the Red Chilli Adventure camp by the Ganges, and in 2014, 110 children from Halvorsminde School in Hjorring town, Denmark.

Accompanying teachers told me the children were getting trained in self-dependence, and learning to live amid nature with bare necessities.

A few days spent by the river or in the great mountains can change one’s outlook to life, and teach how simple living brings special stress-free happiness.

The indiscriminate NGT order is like shutting down the entire airline industry because a few airlines flout safety norms.

Gour Kanjilal, executive director of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, described the NGT ban as “cutting off the head to deal with a migraine.”

“India’s green court punishes adventure tourists, ignores bigger polluters,” the Singapore-based ‘Eco-Business’ headlined its report on the NGT ban.

Miscarriage of justice seems evident as big riverside hotels and sprawling ashrams (many are hotels in disguise) in Rishikesh are allowed to continue with business as usual.

Unlike hotels and ashrams on the banks of Ganges, the temporary camps outside Rishikesh exist only for a few months a year, and disappear during monsoon months.

Camp operators allege that the NGT order helps hoteliers with river rafting clientele forced to rent hotel rooms. Powerful green courts obviously need to ensure they are not misused by vested interests, or their judgments are not arbitrary, arrogant generalization of environmental problems.

The NGT order was based on the case filed by one NGO, the Social Action for Forest and Environment (SAFE) that is not even based in Uttarakhand.

Vikrant Tongad, president of SAFE from Noida, Uttar Pradesh, told the media that “camping activities destroy forest and wildlife, and pollute the Ganga”.

Assuming there is only one River Ganga and both Tongad and I inhabit the same universe, I saw no such forest and wildlife destructive activity or river pollution when I stayed at a Ganges riverside camp last November. Riverside camping is a favorite outdoor holiday option worldwide.

Responsible camp operators in Rishikesh help protect wildlife, as the presence of tourists prevents tribal poachers from openly hunting wild animals in the forests.

Yet the deeper aspect remains in the inescapable law of cause and effect: events happen as fruit of our actions. And things get better trying to change oneself for the better, rather than expecting others and ‘the system’ to change.

So rather than blaming governmental injustice, adventure tourism professionals will find more help by keeping this pure part of Himalayas free from other forms of pollution – like alcohol consumption and other non-permitted revelry.

The Himalayas is my long-term home, and I have seen subtler forces of nature at work. The Himalayan state of Uttarakhand being called ‘land of the gods’ is not merely an official tagline; when people continue ignoring warnings not to disturb this unique, pure part of the world, forces of nature take remedial action in the balancing act of life.

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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