Rafting: in troubled waters

White water rafting operators and environmental activists are in a legal battle over rafting's effect on the environment

By Sushmita Sengupta
Last Updated: Tuesday 22 December 2015
The number
of rafting
camps on the
Ganga between
Shivpuri and
Rishikesh has
increased 90
times in the
past decade (Photo: Rajit Sengupta)
The number
of rafting
camps on the
Ganga between
Shivpuri and
Rishikesh has
increased 90
times in the
past decade (Photo: Rajit Sengupta) The number of rafting camps on the Ganga between Shivpuri and Rishikesh has increased 90 times in the past decade (Photo: Rajit Sengupta)

Ahead of the rafting season in Uttarakhand, the debate over its impact on the environment is heating up again. At the core of this debate is the ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on white water rafting in the state. The controversy began this March when Uttar Pradesh-based non-profit Social Action for Forest and Environment (SAFE) filed a case with NGT, saying that the activity was harming the environment. Vikrant Tongad, president of SAFE, says camping activities destroy forest and wildlife, and pollute the Ganga. According to him, there are 800-1,000 camps that dump solid waste in the river and temper the slope of the riverbank. Trees are also felled to set up camps. Such activities are in contravention of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986 and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, he says. SAFE also complains about poor sanitation practices at the camps, which have pit toilets but the pits are not dredged properly and the faecal matter flows directly into the river.

The white water rafting industry has grown at a rapid rate in Uttarakhand. According to the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board (UTDB), the number of camping and rafting agencies in the state has seen a five-fold increase in the past decade—from 27 in 2004 to 140 at present. According to SAFE, the number of rafting camps on the Ganga between Shivpuri and Rishikesh has increased 90 times in the past decade. A study by the Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in 2011 says that tax collected by the government from white water rafting-related activities has risen from less than Rs 5 lakh in 2000-01 to more than Rs 35 lakh in 2010-11. Eco-tourism has also helped generate employment. Partha Sarthi Mahapatra, a researcher with the Forest Ecology and Environment Division, Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, estimates that the river rafting industry has increased employment opportunities in the state by 40 per cent. According to Vaibhav Kala of Aquaterra Adventures, a Delhi-based operator, around 5,000 people from the state are employed by the industry in riverside camps.

Mismanaged from start

Commercial rafting in the state started in the 1980s on the river Ganga, says Yousuf Zaheer, president of Himalayan River Runners, one of the first operators to enter the rafting business in Rishikesh. The industry was promoted by the government but they did not take any precautionary measures to protect the environment, says a government official requesting anonymity.

The registration process for operators is quite simple. They first have to get a licence from UTDB and then a no-objection certificate from the forest or local magistrates for camping. The state government started issuing licence in 1990 and the licences are renewed every year. The Uttarakhand government passed an order in 1993 to allow camps only at specific areas in the forest. But the number of camps after 2000 spiralled out of control due to mismanagement and government’s ad hoc licensing policy, say forest officers from the area.

In response to SAFE’s campaign, the Indian Association of Professional Raf-ting Outfitters (IAPRO), which has 70 rafting and camping operators in its fold, filed an online petition in June addressing NGT. IAPRO says that the main problem is the ad hoc NOC issued by gram sabhas, forest department and the local magistrate. It also says that UTDB did not issue any guidelines for setting up camps when they revised the licensing guideline for rafting last year.

Is banning the solution?

According to SAFE, nothing short of a complete ban would work because rafting activities are difficult to manage or monitor. Zaheer, on the other hand, says that instead of banning the activity the government should think of dealing with the problem. He says the government has not even laid out any selection criteria for choosing good operators. Monish Mullick, Chief Conservator of Forests (Administra-tion), Forest Department, Uttar Pradesh, also says that ban is not the solution. There should be checks and the number of the camps should be decided on the carrying capacity of the area, he says.

However, Rahul, Divisional Forest Officer, Muni ki Reti, Rishikesh, agrees with SAFE. He says the main reason behind the degradation of the river is wrongly designed pit latrines.

“In our guideline, the camps should have dry pit latrine but many are using the flushing type. There is no control over this,” he says. Rahul adds that the area is also dotted with ashrams, hotels and guest houses. Due to absence of any sewage treatment facility at Shivpuri, the sewage from these places is dumped directly into the river.

Zaheer says that there is another aspect to the controversy—the PIL in NGT is only a way to get the smaller operators out of the business because the state government wants to allow only three-four big players. He says that this politics of throwing the small operators out started around 2006. Since then the state is looking for public-private partnership with big players who can start large commercial projects, such as resorts or parks, in the area. If the government is worried about the environment, why is it ignoring the harms caused by the hotels and ashram, which are permanent structures, along the river, ask the operators.

Rahul says no new permission is being given for camping in forest areas at present. Even old permissions are not being renewed till NGT gives its verdict on the case.

Till that happens, the fate of rafting in Uttarakhand hangs in balance.


What went wrong
Rafting activities grew unchecked in Uttarakhand due to the state government's ad hoc licensing policy

1980s: White water rafting starts in Uttarakhand (then part of Uttar Pradesh)

1990 : The state government begins licensing rafting operators

1993: The state government passes an order to allow camps only at specific sites

2000s: Huge rise in number of camps (from 27 in 2004 to 140 at present) due to ad hoc licensing

2015: National Green Tribunal bans rafting in the state in response to a case filed by Social Action for Forest and Environment, an Uttar Pradesh-based non-profit

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  • I am Yousuf Zaheer, owner of one of the companies that started rafting camps in Uttarakhand.

    It is still astonishing to think that a sweeping judgment was passed to show that all the camps are in violation of environmental and forest laws and all need to be shut. We will lose another season because the government and central agencies are unlikely to get their act together in 3 + 3 weeks stipulated to get all the clearances in place- a real shame. Below are a few more observations I want to make:


    - The Tribunal has blindly accepted the finding of the few ‘articles’ and publications and those of the applicants without for itself verifying what the situation on the ground was. The Tribunal did not constitute any fact finding committee to go and observe the situation on the spot for itself and submit a report.

    - Even if some operators are indulging in violations, the stand of the rafting community has always been to punish all violations with strict application of the rules. The Tribunal has painted all parties with one brush assumed that all operators are indulging in violations, which assumption is arbitrary.


    - The camping industry was made to suffer an ‘interim ban’ (from the season September 2015 onwards), which still continues, the order of 31.3.2015 allegedly banning the camping activity reads “Learned Counsel appearing for Uttarakhand submits that they would not grant any permission for rafting camps on river bank till the next date of hearing. List the matter on 6th May, 2015.”

    - That on the next date of hearing i.e., 6.5.2015 no aspect of continuing the said order beyond the said date of hearing was discussed or argued, even the applicant did not press for continuance of the alleged ban beyond 6.5.2015.

    - The camping operators through their association IAPRO kept enquiring from the state authorities as to what had transpired on the said date, but no information was forthcoming. The scope of the order dated 31.3.2015 was also confusing since it was unclear whether it pertained to fresh applications, existing camping operations?.

    - In this context, the IAPRO filed an application seeking the order of 31.3.2015 be modified to allow the beach camps to continue. The idea was to urgently settle this issue before the next season i.e. September 2015 onwards began. The notice on the application to the state of Uttarakhand was sent on 26.5.2015. The State parties literally dragged their feet in filing any replies. Thereafter the matter suffered due to the lack of concern go file any reply on the following dates: 1.7.2015; 27.7.2015; 7.8.2015; 13.8.2015. Almost three months were spent pursuing various authorities in the state machinery to get them to file their replies.

    - The Tribunal did not pass any orders on the modification application filed by the IAPRO and instead listed the matter of final hearing orally informing the parties that they would finally dispose of the matter quickly in view of the urgency of the new season commencing from September 2015. After the final arguments were finished, the matter was reserved for judgment on 24.9.2015. The judgment itself came out much later on 10.12.2015, after nearly two and a half months, in which the interim ban on 31.3.2015 was enforced as according to the Tribunal’s view it was applicable for the next season i.e. September 2015 onwards, though the Order dated 31.3.2015 nowhere states so.


    - The Tribunal has ignored the two long standing G.O.s which elaborately lay down all the conditions of beach camping as being the source of the legislation governing the beach camping licensing in the state of Uttarakhand.

    - The Tribunal has said that the Uttarakhand Rafting and Kayaking Rules, 2014 framed under the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board Act, 2010 cannot be the legal source of the power to allow rafting/beach camping activity and has held that since ‘Forests’ is listed under the Concurrent list of the Constitution of India.

    - The Tribunal has asked the state of Uttarakhand to consider the issue of management of rafting camps de novo and come up with a ‘regulatory regime’.

    - Such a situation has come about because the pleas of the rafting community to the State of Uttarakhand to enact a comprehensive Act/legislation governing all aspects of eco-tourism, standardization, environmental concerns, licensing allocation etc. have fallen on deaf ears.

    - However it must be ensured that more/new regulation does not result in increased avenues for corruption and arbitrary and whimsical actions on the part of officials.


    - Some of the directions concerning the distance where camps can be set up i.e. “Wherever the road intervenes between 100 meters defined space, in that event, camping can be permitted across the road towards hillside”, are confusing and self defeating. For it would mean giving permissions inside the Reserve Forest (away from beaches). This defeats the purpose of the judgements.

    - The tribunal notes that the committee must also mention in its report the source of power required for the camps. Is this a tacit approval by the Tribunal for use of electricity, bright lights, gensets etc?


    - The Tribunal has directed the formation of a High Powered Committee consisting of various State and Central Ministry officers to (i) come up with a regulatory regime, (iii) get an agency to carry out a ‘carrying capacity study’; and (iv) submit the said plan/report to the Tribunal as well as a proposal to the Central Government under s.2 of the Forest Conservation Act so a comprehensive one time permission can be given for all the beach camps.

    - The camping industry had been requesting the state authorities to carry out a carrying capacity study and open new areas for camping rather than issuing more permits in the Kaudiyala-Rishikesh stretch alone has resulted in the present state of affairs.

    - The biggest fear now is that even though the Tribunal has not permanently banned the camping activities and as instead laid out a roadmap of 3+3 weeks, it is essential that the state authorities work quickly and in tandem with the stakeholders so that further time is not wasted and the camps can be back in operation as soon as possible backed by a robust and legally sound mechanism.

    Posted by: Yousuf Zaheer | 4 years ago | Reply