The Uttarakhand high court has banned paragliding, and white water rafting and other water sports until the administration puts in place a policy to regulate them in a move aimed at safeguarding both the environment and people engaging in these activities.
The court’s decision comes as a jolt to adventure tourism and water sports in the Himalayan state.
A division bench of justices Rajiv Sharma and Lok Pal Singh ordered the ban in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Rishikesh-based social activist Hari Om Kashyap.
The HC directed the state government to enact suitable legislation for regulating adventure and water sports throughout Uttarakhand. The order was issued by the HC on Monday, but a copy was made available only on Thursday.
“The State government is directed to prepare the transparent policy within a period of two weeks. Till the policy is framed, no white river rafting, paragliding and other water sports shall be permitted in the state of Uttarakhand,” the order said.
In the past decade, adventure sports companies have mushroomed in the state, a popular destination for tourists from around the country, offering everything from white water rafting to paragliding to ziplining with no regulatory oversight. White water rafting in Uttarakhand is valued at a yearly Rs. 75-80 crore. It employs 5,000 – 7,000 people including guides, cooks, instructors and drivers.
Kiran Todaria, president of the Indian Association of Professional Rafting Outfitters (IAPRO), says at least 300 rafting operators are active along a 36-km strretch of the Ganga. “It’s an industry that provides indirect jobs to no less than 10,000 families,” she said.
The petitioner said in his PIL that state authorities were giving illegal leases in favour of private agencies to organize water sports on the Ganga. According to the petitioner, temporary structures are being permitted to be set up on the banks of the river.
“We have also gone through the photographs. We can see people organizing picnics inside the river water. They can be seen drinking in the river water. The sanctity of the river Ganga is not maintained by the respondent-state by permitting the lease of river beds,” the order said.
The HC noted that raw sewage was being permitted to directly flow into the river. The state government has till date not enacted any law to regulate white river rafting, paragliding or water sports, it said.
“The state government cannot be oblivious to its duties to regulate and restrict the unauthorized activities. The white river rafting is a serious sport. Paragliding is equally dangerous if not regulated. The water sports in big lakes like Tehri Dam can prove fatal. These are required to be regulated,” the court observed.
SS Chauhan, deputy advocate general representing the state government in the case, said that a law is in the offing.
“The state government has not pointed out precisely what is the yardstick, guidelines and parameters to sanction the lease in favour of the private parties on the river beds including for boating/rafting, paragliding and other water sports,” the HC said, noting the risk of people dying when a raft capsizes in the river.
“This can only be permitted to be managed by the highly trained professionals. The river beds cannot be leased out for a song. There has to be transparent procedure for inviting the applications after fixing the minimum rates for using the water. The state government cannot permit the use of rivers without fixing reasonable charges. The tourism must be promoted but it is required to be regulated. The sports for pleasure cannot be permitted to end in disaster”, the order said.
The HC said it was “shocked to know that the state government is permitting camping sites on the river beds,” adding that this “ pollutes the environment and ecology of the river and the surrounding areas”.
The court said launching points of river rafting are choked with traffic.
“Huge rafts are placed on vehicles of small size. The vehicles, on which the rafts are carried out, are taken directly near the water itself. The state shall not permit the use of vehicles right up to the water of rivers,” the order said, adding that the rafts would have to be carried manually from some distance away.